With the season under way, the Kenai Peninsula's high school hockey teams are optimistic for things to come.
"We have some lofty yet attainable goals," said Kenai Central coach Nate Kiel. "We want to repeat as region champs, and of course we also want to take a run at state."
The Kardinals have won the past two North Star Conference titles and have established themselves as the team to beat this season.
The Soldotna Stars missed out on the state tournament last season after trips to the big show in 2002 and 2003. Aaron Swanson, in his second year behind the Soldotna bench, has another young team but is hoping the Stars can build on last year's improvement.
"We're definitely going in the right direction. It's going to take us a little bit of time, but we're building toward the end of the year," Swanson said.
The Skyview Panthers looked to have turned a corner last season when they were a controversial goal shy of qualifying for the state tournament, but transfers of several top players have somewhat diminished this year's hopes. Coach Pete Iverson said the players he does have out have great attitudes and he's already seeing improvement.
The peninsula also has a pair of schools entered in the Greatland Conference this season, Nikiski and Homer.
The Mariners are somewhat hindered by a lack of ice in Homer the facility under construction won't be ready until after the season and it hasn't been cold enough for the lake to freeze but first-year coach John Butcher said things are looking up as the Mariners have a full 20-man roster for the first time.
In Nikiski, new coach Donald Torres takes over a young squad of Bulldogs.
"We're just waiting for it to get cold so we can get outside. I think we've got the best gym hockey team in the entire world," Butcher said.
The Mariners are led by a group of dedicated seniors Scott Owen, Nate Miller, Tabor Webb, Travis Brown and Alex Trieweiler.
"They've been doing this for 12 years. They've been playing hockey their entire lives and they've never had a home game," Butcher said of their dedication.
Butcher said he expects goalie Ben Miller to give his squad a chance to win each time out.
Kenai Central Kardinals
Led by seniors Dan Silver, C.J. Henley, Dustin Moore, Aaron Lampman-Reid, Trevor Baldwin, John McGlasson and Micah Lillard, the Kardinals boast one of the deeper lineups in the conference.
"We need to develop that blue-collar work ethic," said Kenai coach Nate Kiel. "... We can't be overconfident. We can't take any team lightly. We need to prepare for each team."
Kiel said the Kardinals have been able to complement their seniors with plenty of talented underclassmen, meaning Kenai can easily put together three solid forward lines to wear down an opponent or juggle lines from time to time if need be.
"That's a luxury we have not had before," Kiel said.
Donald Torres takes over as head coach for a young Nikiski team that lost eight seniors to graduation from last year's team.
Head coach Pete Iverson said his squad has been hanging tough as the Panthers try to overcome the loss of several players who transferred to other schools as well as some eligibility issues that left Skyview with a short bench to start the season.
"We're hanging on," Iverson said. "The players that we have definitely want to play hockey, and I haven't heard any complaints about lack of ice time."
Iverson said the Panthers already have shown improvement. Returning players include Scott Ralston, Josh Cho, Ryan Mercier, Paddy Iverson, Tim Sturm and Jacob Hadedorn. New to the team this season is Kyle Kirby, Gabe O'Lena and Cody Haberman.
"We've got a really good group of kids. They're just working their hearts out," Iverson said. "Hopefully, we'll surprise someone this season."
The Stars began to gain some momentum toward the end of last season, and second-year coach Aaron Swanson is hoping to build on that this year.
Senior leaders include Matt Vasilie and Jeff Kennedy. Kyle Kay, a newcomer to the team, has been playing well in goal.
Other returning players include Brian Herring and Sam Evanoff. Willie Boyles and Jake Bishop saw playing time last season, and freshmen Clayton Glick, Anton Olson and Eli Waldrip are contributing for a young Soldotna team.
"We're playing pretty well. It's a real young team again this year. A few seniors are going to be big contributors," Swanson said. "We're looking to build on what we started last year."
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