When the Skyview High School boys and the Homer High School girls soccer teams take the pitch today at the state soccer championships, both will be looking for more than a "just happy to be here" experience.
The Panthers, who are making their first trip to the state championships and open against Dimond, hope to become the first boys team from the peninsula to notch a win in state tournament history.
The Mariners qualified for the tournament two seasons ago, but this time, the Region III champions are intent on proving they belong among the state's elite teams.
"I think the kids two years ago were just happy to go to state," said Homer coach Mickey Todd. "This year, the kids are more excited about going up and actually competing."
The Mariners face Colony in the first round. While the Knights are in the same region, Homer did not play Colony this season, though Todd said they got a good look at them during last week's region tournament.
Homer prevailed in the region tournament, winning the championship game against Grace Christian in overtime. The Panthers played in three 1-0 matches, winning two of them, during the two-day tournament, and both squads are looking forward to the relatively relaxed pace of the state championships.
"It's going to be nice just playing one game a day," said Skyview coach Dave Carpenter.
"After playing five games in seven days prior to the region tournament, then playing 240 minutes of soccer in less than 24 hours, playing one game a day is going to be easy now," Todd said. "Our kids, I think, are a really well-conditioned team. They know what it's like to play marathon soccer, but we're actually going into the tournament with no injuries. That's a plus. We can substitute people with fresh legs."
Teams were seeded by committee this year, and Todd said he was thrilled with Homer's No. 3 seed. Todd said he had anticipated being a fourth or fifth seed, but playing as one of the top three puts the Mariners in a very competitive bracket.
"We expect to play real hard and show the Anchorage teams there are some small teams that can compete," Todd said. "We go in with the desire to win the whole thing."
The Panthers picked up the No. 5 seed for the tournament following their runner-up finish in the region tournament. Carpenter said he was able to do a little bit of research on the Lynx and has been able to identify a couple of top players, but Skyview and Dimond will be largely unfamiliar opponents.
"It's basically an unknown, which is probably an advantage for us," Carpenter said. "I'm sure they're thinking, 'Skyview who?'"
Carpenter said a realistic goal for his squad will be to win one game in the tournament. Soldotna and Kenai have each represented the peninsula in the tournament in the past, but neither was able to secure a win.
In order to do that, though, Carpenter said his attacking players need to toughen up after a physical Grace squad kept the Panthers off the board in the region final.
"We have a beautiful passing game, and at times I think they feel they need to be rewarded with a clean shot when they need to keep their feet," Carpenter said.
Toward that end, Carpenter said practice Tuesday got a little physical and a little tense, but the Panthers are still excited to be playing in the state championships.
"Yeah, they are" excited, Carpenter said of his players. "They're a little bit nervous, but happy to be going."
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