Just think -- three years ago there wasn't even a varsity soccer program at Kenai Central High School.
Now the Kardinals, with three seasons under their belts, are sending two teams to the inaugural ASAA State Soccer Championships today, Friday and Saturday at Skyview High School.
"What a beautiful opportunity to put Kenai on the map as far as soccer goes," said Kardinals girls coach Dan Verkuilen Wednesday during practice.
"At the beginning of the season, we got together with the seniors. I asked them to go around and share their goals. Every goal they set, they've reached this season, from making state to beating Homer. Now they get a chance to see just how high they can go."
The Kenai girls square off with Service, the winner of Anchorage's regional tournament, today at noon, while the Kenai boys face Chugiak, the top boys squad from Anchorage, today at 4 p.m.
"The tournament finally lets everyone know that soccer has come of age in Alaska," Skyview athletic director and tournament director John Andrews said.
Andrews said that preparations for the tournament, which began just after the school learned it would host the event back in December, have been going well. He credited Skyview's booster club with getting everything in place in time for the Region III tournament last weekend.
"Last week was a dry run for what we're going to do," Andrews said. "We got a lot of positive feedback from coaches and officials."
Skyview has two regulation fields available. Spectators will be treated to two games being played simultaneously throughout the double-elimination tournament.
"This is a great opportunity to see the best high school soccer in the state," Andrews said.
The Kenai teams are taking that same approach as they complete their preparations for today's games.
"We're planning on learning a lot from it," said Kenai boys captain Joel Reemtsma. "It's the ultimate test of where you're at and where you hope to be.
"We've come a long way from playing kick and run. We've learned to pass, to keep the game under control and to play the way we want to play."
"We were all just trying to improve and have fun," said Cesar Lopez, referring to Kenai's very first varsity season. "It's gotten us this far, so we must have been doing something right."
"No one's been in a tournament like this before, so it's pretty exciting," said Kenai junior Greg Landua.
"I kind of always hoped we'd play in a state tournament," said Kenai girls captain SaraBeth Krein, "but coming from a small school on the peninsula, it always seemed like a faraway dream."
In fact, prior to ASAA adopting a state tournament format this year, the only competition resembling a state championship was an invitational tournament in Anchorage.
"Region III has been a primary mover in getting (a state tournament) accomplished," Andrews said.
Andrews said that with 10 schools playing soccer in Region III, and with the improvement of each of those programs, a state tournament became feasible.
And with the continued development of soccer on the peninsula, the idea of one of the Kenai teams winning at least one game doesn't sound so outlandish.
"I think we have a really good chance of competing with Service," Krein said. "Whether or not we beat them isn't the issue -- it's how well we compete.
"It's a big challenge. It means we have to step up our game right from the start -- but that's what we need right now, to step up our game and see how far we can go."
"In the past, Service has been so dominant," said Kenai senior Stephanie Arbelovsky. "It'll be fun to go in there and see how well we can do."
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