If early scores are any indication, there will be plenty of close high school hockey games on the central Kenai Peninsula this season.
Kenai Central played to a 1-1 tie against Homer last week before falling 1-0 to undefeated Soldotna, which defeated Homer 3-0 in an early season contest.
"I'm pretty excited that there could be some close games this season," Kenai coach Pete Iverson said. "The closer the games are, the better it is for the people who come to watch us."
The Kardinals qualified for the Class 4A state tournament for the first time since 2007 a year ago, advancing thanks to a second-place finish at the North Star Conference tournament.
SoHi saw its season end at regionals at the hands of eventual regional champion Wasilla.
Homer struggled to a 1-9 regular-season record, but a cooperative agreement put into effect this season by the Alaska Schools Activities Association will allow players from smaller schools to play for the team. As a result, the Mariners have their largest roster in years and figure to be competitive.
For Homer, there is reason to be optimistic heading into the season.
A cooperative agreement passed last spring by ASAA will allow players from outside schools to join Homer's team, which in recent years has struggled to win games due in part to low turnout rates.
The Mariners picked up three players who previously were prohibited from playing Homer hockey, including twin brothers Dennis Sanarov and Alex Sanarov.
Add them to a roster which includes senior captain Asa Stage and fellow senior Robert Lewis, and the Mariners could be a contender in the North Star Conference.
"We're building a program here," coach Buck Laukitis said. "It's still in the building stage, but maybe all the hard work will pay off this year. Who knows?"
Stage and Lewis are the lone seniors on the roster, which includes 15 players.
Laukitis admitted Homer doesn't have the most talent in the area, but that doesn't mean it can't contend with its central peninsula counterparts.
The coach said the team needs another productive season from sophomore forward Carson Dugger, who was an all-conference player in 2009-10.
Additionally, Homer must get help from its underclassmen.
"We're only going to be as good as the amount that these guys progress," Laukitis said. "We're coaching whoever comes through the door."
Rounding out the roster are newcomer Mark Reutov, Patrick Cashman, Ethan Kizzla, Connor McCarron, Vladimir Kalugin, Kal Simmons, Hannah Baird, Erik Rosencrans, Tommy Bowe and Jake Eckert.
Laukitis, however, is particularly excited to have the Sanarov twins on the team. Alex Sanarov will start at goalkeeper, while Dennis will play defense.
The coach called Dennis Sanarov "one of the best players on the ice," adding his brother is versatile enough to play any position.
Kenai Central Kardinals
Kenai won't sneak up on anybody this year.
At least not like it did in 2009-10, when the team advanced to state after finishing .500 in the regular season.
"We continued to improve throughout the season and were able to surprise some people," Iverson said.
Kenai (2-3-0) earned its first victory of the year Friday with a 3-2 win over Bartlett and followed it up with a 4-1 win over West Anchorage on Saturday.
Although Iverson said the Kards lost between five and seven seniors to graduation, the team returns a solid nucleus of players.
Among them are seniors Morgan Cunningham, Dylan Hendricks, Avery Palchikoff and Steven Harding, and juniors Zack Mese and Zack Zulkanycz. Jacob Iverson, James Bowen and Tyler Cannon, all seniors, will make significant contributions as well, Pete Iverson said.
Keegan Remsen returns as goalkeeper and has maintained a save percentage of .916 through four games, making 88 saves on 96 shots.
The team also welcomes a talented group of freshman.
"I'm looking to all these guys to support each other as teammates and build each other up," Pete Iverson said. "They proved last year that by supporting each other, they could go farther than expected."
Iverson said last year's success gives the team confidence entering the 2010-11 season. The players, he said, understand how much work it takes to reach state.
Their objective is to repeat the performance of 2009-10.
"They have a goal now," Iverson said, adding that another strong finish at the conference tournament is within reason. "They can see that the hard work we are doing now can pay off in the end."
With the season less than two weeks under way, SoHi coach Aaron Swanson has already made one thing clear.
"Expectations are higher this year," he said.
The Stars (4-0-1) return 10 seniors from a team that fell short of the state tournament last season after winning the conference championship in 2008-09.
Sean Endsley, a senior, has two goals and four assists through five games and is the team captain. Co-captains and fellow seniors Matt Fellman and Nick Pokryfki have combined for seven points from the forward and defense positions, respectively.
The team's seven additional seniors -- William Granger, Hunter Hollenberg, Dawson Pearson, Matt Silver, Josh Stinnett, Johnson Tyler and Zack Waters -- will be asked to make significant contributions as well, Swanson said.
Swanson believes there are advantages to having an experienced team, but he also understands it's important to get underclassmen involved.
"We're happy to have the seniors," the coach said, "but we also know the future lies on the younger kids too."
Swanson said the squad also features two goalkeepers who are capable of starting, Granger and Pearson. The duo has split time in the net through five games, with Pearson registering 36 saves and Granger 65.
Both will see significant playing time as the season moves forward, competing for starts.
"We feel lucky," Swanson said of having a pair of reliable keepers. "They are supportive of each other, but they both want to be the guy."
SoHi travels to face West Anchorage at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 19.
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