With the Alaska School Activities Association State Soccer Championships set to begin today in Anchorage, the Kenai Central High School boys and girls soccer teams are ready to test their skills against anyone -- even each other.
Girls midfielder Jamie Montgomery took a few moments of practice time Tuesday to go head-to-head with her counterpart on the boys team, Greg Landua, in a contest to see just who had a longer throw-in.
Landua won by about two feet -- he might have had a slightly stronger tailwind when he took his throw -- and both players were able put their throws near the penalty spot in the middle of the field, nearly 40 yards away, a very dangerous location in any game.
Both Landua and Montgomery will be counted on for big contributions when the Kardinals begin tournament play today. The Kenai boys will open the tournament against Dimond at noon on the turf at Anchorage Football Stadium, while the girls will play East at 5 p.m. at Dimond High School.
ASAA State Soccer Championships
Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Anchorage Football Stadium and Dimond High School, Anchorage
Match 1 -- Service vs. Palmer at AFS, 10 a.m.
Match 2 -- Colony vs. Dimond at Dimond, 3 p.m.
Match 3 -- East vs. Kenai at Dimond, 5 p.m.
Match 4 -- Juneau-Douglas vs. Chugiak at AFS, 6 p.m.
Match 5 -- Match 1 loser vs. Match 2 loser at Dimond, 3 p.m.
Match 6 -- Match 3 loser vs. Match 4 loser at Dimond, 5 p.m.
Match 7 -- Match 1 winner vs. Match 2 winner at AFS, 4 p.m.
Match 8 -- Match 3 winner vs. Match 4 winner at AFS, 6 p.m.
Fourth place -- Match 5 winner vs. Match 6 winner at Dimond, 9 a.m.
Third place -- Match 7 loser vs. Match 8 loser at AFS, 11 a.m.
Championship -- Match 7 winner vs. Match 8 winner at AFS, 2 p.m.
Match 1 -- Dimond vs. Kenai at AFS, noon
Match 2 -- Colony vs. West at AFS, 2 p.m.
Match 3 -- East vs. Palmer at AFS, 4 p.m.
Match 4 -- Juneau vs. Service at Dimond, 7 p.m.
Match 5 -- Match 1 loser vs. Match 2 loser at AFS, 10 a.m.
Match 6 -- Match 3 loser vs. Match 4 loser at Dimond, 7 p.m.
Match 7 -- Match 1 winner vs. Match 2 winner at AFS, noon
Match 8 -- Match 3 winner vs. Match 4 winner at AFS, 2 p.m.
Fourth place -- Match 5 winner vs. Match 6 winner at Dimond, 11 a.m.
Third place -- Match 7 loser vs. Match 8 loser at AFS, 9 a.m.
Championship -- Match 7 winner vs. Match 8 winner at AFS, 4:30 p.m.
Both squads qualified for the inaugural tournament last year, but returning to the championships this season brings with it some higher expectations.
"Of course people are going to expect us to do something," said Kirsten Ehrhardt, a defender on the girls team. "Last year, it was nice to go and have fun, but this year, we can actually do something."
The Kenai girls will be relying on Ehrhardt, Janna Krein, Nicole Spence and Rachel Popp to control things in front of keeper Wendi Wiles, while Jessi Reilly, Karli Knudsen, Rachel Knowles, Natalie Mills and Amy Fischer will provide targets for passes from Montgomery. Holly McCune and Erin Smith have been the first players off the bench for the Kardinals.
While the Kardinals might have been a little nervous in their state tournament debut last season, that experience has helped with preparations for this year's competition.
"At least you know the level of play -- that doesn't always help you, but it's good that we have girls with their second trip to state soccer," said girls coach Dan Verkuilen. "Exposure to that level is important because it takes away some of the doubt."
Verkuilen had his squad focused on getting loose this week in preparation for Thursday's game.
"Since we already have our skills and conditioning, we've been having fun," Fischer said after completing an obstacle course Verkuilen set up. "We're getting touches on the ball, and we're getting more and more excited about state."
Kenai's strength this season has been its cohesion. The Kardinals don't have any single go-to player, but someone always seems to step up when needed.
"I feel like we're coming together as a team," Reilly said. "It takes a while to figure out your spots and who you're playing with."
"Communicating is a big deal right now," Montgomery said. "In the Palmer game, in the first half, we weren't communicating well. After the first half, we got together and said, 'Let's do it,' and that helped us out a lot."
Verkuilen said the key to success at the state tournament is to come out swinging.
"If you fall back, it's going to be tough, but if you can go out and do something early, you're going to be in the competition," Verkuilen said.
"We just want to show that we're a good soccer team and we can compete with the other teams from around the state," Knudsen said.
The Kenai boys proved they could compete in their first state tournament game last year, taking top-seeded Chugiak to overtime before losing.
Kenai draws the top team from Anchorage this season as well, and the Kardinals are hoping to improve on that performance against Dimond.
"We have a lot of guys that played last year, so we'd like to improve on that," said defender Wally Ward.
"Last year, when we were thinking about the teams we were going to see, it was scary," Landua said. "But it wasn't as bad as everyone was thinking, so this year, it's easier to go and just play soccer."
The Kenai boys have relied on steady play from Ward in the middle of the defense and wing defenders Marcus Webster and Cory Janson all season for both their defense and their ability to generate some offense.
Eric Nyce is healed and back in goal, Landua fills the stopper-defensive midfielder role and Richard Alexander, Bruno Calfa, Carlos Carreon, Brett Morris and JD Pault have been working well together in the midfield. Owen Brewer and Adrian Borchgrevink have been connecting on top, and the Kardinals have had quality minutes from Devon Anderson, Nick Barnes and Ben Haring.
Ward pointed to the team's chemistry as a key to their success.
"Our passing has been good, and our forwards are getting aggressive and taking some shots," Ward said. "We've jelled as a team and we can anticipate each other."
Other players point to teammates' good-natured attitudes as a reason they were able to get through three overtime games in two days at last weekend's region tournament.
"Our team is full of sweethearts," Carreon said.
Landua said living up to raised expectations after last season's success inspired the Kardinals to play better this season.
"Last year, we wanted to go (to state), but we didn't expect to go," Landua said. "This year, we expected to make it. It was kinda scary during the Wasilla game. (The expectations) helped everyone step up and play harder."
While the Kenai boys have a core group of players that played in the state tournament last year, the Kardinals also have several players that will be experiencing the tournament for the first time.
"I'm nervous," said Jose Araya. "We're having so much fun with these guys -- I'd like to thank our coaches for selecting us to varsity."
"It feels good. I'm excited about going to state," Barnes signed. "I think we can beat Dimond."
"I hope I can score in state," Calfa, who notched two goals against Wasilla last week to send the match to overtime, said. "We'll try to beat Dimond. We'll work very hard for that. Hopefully, we'll get there."
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