Last year was easy.
Central peninsula teams had travel maybe 20 miles to get to Soldotna High School, the site of the Northern Lights Conference soccer tournament.
The way things played out, too, made it look even more beneficial, with the Soldotna girls and Kenai Central boys capturing their first-ever titles in the nine-year history of the tournament.
Things are looking a bit more dicey for the 2009 edition in the Valley.
Not only do teams have to trek nearly 200 miles north to Palmer, which along with Colony High School is hosting the event, but untimely graduations may play a vital role as well.
"There's a lot of things on the plates for those seniors," said SoHi girls coach Mike Tovoli, whose two seniors graduated last night and will take the field at 3 p.m. today. "It's an exciting time in their life but they've got to get ready to play some quality soccer as well."
Their male counterparts, also the top seed from the south, have more seniors, nine in all, but don't play until the final game of the day.
"We're definitely happy with the 5 o'clock slot the day after graduation," Stars coach Jeff Siemers said.
Kenai Central, whose girls team features 11 seniors and whose boys boast four, was a bit more fortunate, having hosted its graduation on Tuesday night.
The worst situation by far, however, goes to the Nikiski boys, whose six seniors will drive home following their game today should the Bulldogs win. Their game was even moved up two hours to 1 p.m. to accommodate the seniors as much as possible.
At first, Nikiski coach Jim Coburn thought it might affect his team as they try and topple Colony, the top seed from the north which barely edged the Bulldogs 3-2 in last year's opening round.
Then he thought better.
"Of course they have to get back for graduation, that's an important part of life, but I really feel like they're going to show up to play. They've done that all year," he said. "Those guys have put in a lot of time and a lot of work to get better and I think once the whistle blows, they'll be ready to play."
Tovoli, who doesn't have to worry as much as other coaches as he has just the two seniors, echoed Coburn's sentiment.
"It makes it difficult but we're going to put our best foot forward and battle as hard as we can," he said, "and when the whistle blows at the end of 80 minutes, hopefully we'll be out on top."
The following is a closer look at today's first-round matchups:
Soldotna boys (1S) vs. Palmer (4N)
The Stars earned the top seed for the second straight season by virtue of a tiebreaker, after equaling Kenai Central's 4-0-1 conference mark -- the two teams played to a scoreless tie during the regular season -- but going 2-0-1 against the Northern Division.
With a 0-0 tie against the Kardinals already under their belts, the Stars (8-2-3) were aware how vital a strong trip to the Valley was nearly two weeks ago.
"We knew going up there that that was going to be a determination for the regional tournament," Siemers said. "So it was definitely on our radar."
Soldotna, which suffered a heartbreaking 2-1 overtime loss to the rival Kardinals in the championship of last year's conference dance, has its eyes on the top prize now, having already topped the Moose, 4-0, and also beat them 4-1 in last year's first round.
"We have a good group of seniors that haven't done that yet," Siemers said. "I think winning the regional championship would be a good line for their resume."
Advancing to state for the third straight year after taking fourth the past two seasons is second to none, though.
"With having fourth place the last two years they're wanting to do just as good if not better this year."
Leading the way is junior Blaine Carver, a forward whose 23 goals and six assists this season recently earned him the title of 2009 Alaska Gatorade Boys Soccer Player of the Year.
"It's going to take all 11 to win these tournaments and to do well because everyone is playing so they don't go home that first day. So having the whole team involved is important," Siemers said. "I feel that Blaine's proven that if he gets too much pressure he's able to distribute and allow other players to score goals. That's what makes him a good player. Not only is he scoring goals, but the team's winning."
Wasilla boys (2N) vs. Homer (3S)
The third-seeded Mariners scored a first-round upset over Grace Christian last season and are looking to build off of that this year.
"They remember it," Homer coach Warren Waldorf said of returners from last year's squad. "That was a big game for the Homer players, sort of a memorable match. They'll carry that forward with them for years I guess."
Homer (2-2-1 NLC) earned the third seed after a tiebreaker with Nikiski, which tied the Mariners 1-1 on Friday.
Waldorf wishes his team could get another shot at top-seeded Colony, which downed the Mariners 8-1 earlier this season. Instead, they've earned a date with the second-seeded Warriors, who also had their way with the Mariners, 5-1.
"I want to know if the kids have improved, if they can put together a better game against Colony," he said. "The kids would rather play against Wasilla. I don't understand it. Maybe they think they can play better against Wasilla?"
Waldorf is also concerned with the trip to the Valley, where they won't arrive for their 1 p.m. game until about an hour before kickoff.
"It's going to be easier for Wasilla, that's for sure. They get to sleep in. They get a good breakfast. They don't have to eat at Freddy's (Fred Meyer)," he said. "So, they'll be ready to go, but we will, too."
Kenai Central boys (2S) vs. Grace Christian (3N)
The Kardinals are out to defend their NLC tournament crown from a year ago when they scored an upset over rival Soldotna in the title game.
It won't be easy, though.
Should Kenai advance past the Grizzlies, who played to a 1-1 tie with the Kards this season, it will take on the winner of the Colony-Nikiski game. The Kardinals topped the Bulldogs, 3-1, but lost 5-1 to the Knights.
Colony boys (1N) vs. Nikiski (4S)
After giving the previously undefeated Knights a run for their money in the opening round last season, the Bulldogs suffered a convincing 6-0 loss to them at The Dome in Anchorage in their first game this season.
Coburn knows both teams have since changed.
"I know on our side, we've gotten to be a lot better team than we were at the beginning of the season," he said."I haven't seen Colony since the beginning of the year. They're always a skilled team, they're always well-coached, it's always a challenge to play them."
Despite falling 3-1 to Kenai and 4-1 to Soldotna this season, the Bulldogs (5-6-2) take confidence away from those games, knowing they can hang with anybody.
"They know the areas we're weak in and the areas we need to get better at and if we're able to do that, I think we can compete with anyone," Coburn said. "You're going to have to play your best game at regions to win, regardless of who you play.
"It's not like regions in other sports, you have to qualify," he added. "They know that if they don't get through that first game, then it's all over with."
Soldotna girls (1N) vs. Grace Christian (4N)
The top-seeded Stars haven't met the fourth-seeded Grizzlies this season. Tovoli has no problem with that.
"It gives us the extra incentive to go out there and play hard and not have any expectations about the game," he said. "... knowing that you got to give it your all and not take anything for granted."
SoHi (8-4-2) ran the table last season, going 12-0, including three straight wins in the conference tourney on its way to the program's first-ever state tournament, where the Stars went 0-2.
Tovoli this season scheduled formidable teams such as Dimond, Service and Juneau in hopes of hardening his team. Now he'll find out if it worked.
"It made the girls realize where they stood with some of the best in Alaska," he said. "If they wanted to get to the level of performance that they were at then we needed to change some things we did in practice and we worked on those things and I think we're staring to peak at the right time.
"We may not have an undefeated record, we have some blemishes, but I think those blemishes may possibly help us prevail this weekend."
Colony girls (2N) vs. Homer (3S)
The third-seeded Mariners fell 5-1 to the second-seeded Knights this season.
Homer lost in the opening round of the tourney last season after qualifying for state in 2007, 2005 and 2004.
Kenai Central girls (2S) vs. Palmer (3N)
Coming up shy of earning one of the three state berths on the line the past two seasons, the Kardinals and their 11 seniors are hungry to get back to Anchorage for the first time since 2006, when those seniors were freshmen and last won the conference tourney.
"They definitely want to go. They know that it's there for them," said Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen. "They know that they can beat any team in the region but they know that on any given day they can lose to any team in the region."
Kenai (5-0-3) has already beaten Palmer, 3-1.
"It's a good first matchup," Verkuilen said. "Definitely favorable but it's one of those things that if you do go in too confident, it can bite you."
The Kardinals also were on the wrong end of a tiebreaker with Soldotna, after both squad's went 4-0-1 against the south this year. The Stars scored with under a minute remaining to forge a 1-1 tie against Kenai, thus earning themselves the top seed in the end.
"As far as we're concerned, Palmer's the most important game of the year," Verkuilen said. "If the seniors decide it's their tournament and they want to be a part of it, they can have successful outcome."
Wasilla girls (1N) vs. Nikiski (4S)
The Bulldogs lost 8-0 to the Warriors earlier this season, but coach Mandy Adair doesn't necessarily think that means it will happen again.
"I think we definitely learned a lot in that game and have a good sense of what we can expect to see this time around," she said. "It's definitely still going to be a challenge, but we hope to come out and have a good showing and compete."
Whatever the outcome, qualifying for the tournament was a step in the right direction for Nikiski, which went 2-7-2 overall and 1-2-2 in the conference this season with just one senior.
"It was definitely one of our goals for the season. I think we kind of went above what we expected," Adair said. "We're pleased with that, but we definitely want to make a name for the program at Nikiski and make something happen here at regions and establish what we can be in the future.
"They really worked hard this year and went above expectations to achieve their goals," she added. "I couldn't be more pleased with how the season has turned out."
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