The Homer hockey team lost eight seniors to graduation between last season and now, but you wouldn’t have known that by looking at the scoreboards from their first weekend of play this season and the End of the Road Shootout last weekend in Homer, which the team won.
Hot off an opening weekend against three Fairbanks area teams in which the Mariners rolled over the competition, the team skated to victory in the Homer-hosted End of the Road Shootout held last Thursday-Saturday at the Kevin Bell Arena. The Mariners beat Delta Junction 17-1, Hutchison 14-0 and Monroe Catholic 17-0 on the road the weekend of Nov. 7-9. At the tournament this past weekend, they beat Houston 6-1, Soldotna 4-3 in overtime and East Anchorage 10-1.
Making their first appearance in state championship tournament last year, the Mariners fell short of victory by losing to Palmer in overtime in the Division II final. Head coach Steve Nevak didn’t mince words after one of the tournament games this past weekend. This season’s goal? Win it all.
“We came within a shot last year,” he said. “In overtime we lost it. And this year, you know, that’s our goal.”
Nevak said the Fairbanks area games were good preparation for the Shootout, which is an important tournament for the Mariners.
“Those schools were really struggling with short benches,” he said. “We have a deep bench, and we have a lot of skill, so it was great team bonding.”
Nevak credited some strong incoming freshmen and other young players for contributing talent to the team.
“That’s all to our local hockey association here, doing great things,” he said. “Losing eight seniors last year, that’s hard to make up. But the four freshmen coming in — I mean, they’re all over the score sheet tonight (Thursday) so that’s good.”
Houston coach Lane Styers said after the team’s 6-1 loss to Homer on Thursday that his team, too, has lost some seniors.
“We have some freshmen, some sophomores — first time every playing varsity hockey,” he said. “So it’s a pretty big adjustment.”
“First period was rough, right?” he said of the game. “We went down 4-0 in the first,” he said. “Take away the first period it’s like a 2-1 game, so I think we got into our game a little bit. We’re excited to play them (Homer) down the road and have a little more experience.”
Styers also predicted good things for the Mariners this season.
“I think Homer’s a good team,” he said. “I think they’re going to be a state contender.”
Scoring for Homer in the Thursday game were Gilliland, Toby Nevak, Phinny Weston and Matfey Reutov. Scoring for Houston was Spencer Hogan. Homer goalie Vlase Polushkin made eight saves out of Houston’s nine shots on goal, while Houston goalie Josh Smoldon made 25 saves out of 31 shots on goal.
Day two of the End of the Road Shootout saw Homer go head to head with Soldotna, another Railbelt Conference team in addition to Houston. The Mariners pulled off the 4-3 win with an overtime goal from senior Tyler Gilliland.
“That was a nail biter,” Nevak said. “It was frustrating. We weren’t playing the way we, you know, could. But you know it worked out in the end.”
Soldotna scored first with a goal from Brier Brooks with 8 minutes, 56 seconds left in the first period, with an assist from Dylan Walton and Galen Brantley III. Homer’s Isaiah Nevak answered with a goal less than two minutes later with an assist from Ethan Pitzman.
Alex Montegue scored for Soldotna with 8:02 left in the second period, with an assist from Brantley. Gilliland then scored with about 2 minutes left with an assist from Pitzman. Assisted by Kazden Stineff, Pitzman then scored four minutes into the third period, followed by an answering goal from Brantley, assisted by Walton, with 3:47 left in the period. Gilliland’s game winning goal came with just 1:58 left in overtime play.
Homer goalie Keegan Strong stopped 14 Soldotna shots, while SoHi goalie Josh Tree made 27 saves.
The Mariners then skated over East Anchorage on Saturday 10-0 to clinch the tournament title. Both teams came out looking sluggish in the final game of the tournament, only taking six shots each at each other’s nets during the first period. No one was able to put points on the scoreboard.
But the Mariners came alive in the second period, netting three goals in the span of less than two minutes before adding another with 4:16 left in the period and a fifth goal with just about two minutes left. They rounded out the game with another five goals in the third period to successfully shut out the Thunderbirds.
“Obviously we wish we would have done better the whole tournament, but we’re a young team and we’re developing in a lot of areas,” said East Anchorage coach Brent Haugen.
Haugen said his bench is “very short” due to a number of factors, “so we just did the best we could.”
For Homer, Pitzman, Weston and Toby Nevak scored twice each. Isaiah Nevak, Gilliland, Alden Ross and Austin Shafford also had a goal each.
“They were overconfident, as you could tell by the first period,” Nevak said of the final game. “… I think they came in thinking that they were the better team, which they are, but you can’t go into games like that. So that was my message between (the) first and second period. You know, the game still has to be played.”
Nevak said the tournament was a good learning experience for the team and helped set the players up for upcoming conference games this season, the first of which is against Soldotna on Friday, Nov. 22.
“They have a great program,” Nevak said of the Stars. “Anytime you have a Brantly and a Medcoff … they’re a good program.”