If the regular season is any indication, a tense Division II state hockey tournament awaits Thursday through Saturday at the Curtis D. Menard Memorial Sports Center in Wasilla.
“Everybody’s buzzing going in,” Kenai Central head coach Scott Shelden said. “Everybody’s excited because really anybody could win it.”
Homer coach Mike Barth said the parity means there are no good or bad sides of the bracket at the eight-team tournament.
“It doesn’t matter to me who we play,” Barth said. “Soldotna, Houston, Kenai — we’ve won against them all and lost against them all. We’re expecting a good game regardless of who the opponent is. That’s the way the season is shaking out.”
The tournament features teams from the four-team Aurora Conference and seven-team Railbelt Conference.
The Aurora gets two automatic berths, while the Railbelt gets four. Two at-large bids fill out the field. Both of those berths came from the Railbelt.
The Railbelt’s Houston, the tournament’s top seed, open with a 4 p.m. game against Aurora’s Monroe Catholic today. The Hawks were undefeated in the league until Jan. 21, when Homer knocked them off 4-3 in overtime. Kenai defeated Houston 6-4 the next night, and after Juneau handed the Hawks a 3-2 overtime loss Saturday, the state tournament was looking more wide open than ever.
The Hawks won the Railbelt with a 9-3 record, while the Kardinals were second at 8-3-1, plus a 12-8-1 overall mark. That gets No. 2 seed Kenai a 1:30 p.m. game today with Aurora’s North Pole, the No. 7 seed.
Homer defeated the Patriots 5-0 in mid-November, but Kardinals coach Scott Shelden knows his squad is in for a tough game. Shelden’s teams lost to the Patriots in each of the coach’s first two seasons at the helm.
“I know they have a great coach that’s been there awhile,” Shelden said. “We played them the last two years at state. I’m looking forward to that game.
“I’m just looking forward to the state tournament. I’m so pumped.”
Shelden has said all season that every person in the locker room has bought into the team concept.
“We’ve got great character and commitment to the team,” he said. “We’ve hung steady in games that have been tight and games that we’ve been behind.”
The Kardinals are in the bracket with No. 3 Palmer and No. 6 Juneau Douglas.
Shelden said senior goalie Carson Koppes and senior forward and leader Jacob Begich will have to perform well, but with so many tough games stacked in three days, everybody will be needed.
“Anybody that goes far, whatever team it is, will have to have everybody contribute and raise their game a little bit.”
A measure of just how strong the Railbelt comes from the fate of Homer, which won the Division II state title in 2020 and 2021 after taking second in 2019. The Mariners finished fifth in the league and needed the at-large berth to get to state.
No. 4 seed Soldotna (11-8-2, 6-4-2) faces No. 5 Homer (7-10-1, 6-5-1) at 11 a.m. Homer lost to Soldotna 2-1 on Jan. 8 before topping the Stars 4-2 on Friday.
“We’ve got to get pucks past their goaltender,” first-year Soldotna coach Anthony Zurfluh said. “The last game, we outshot them two to one and they ended up beating us.”
That goaltender would be senior Keegan Strong, who led the Mariners to state titles the past two years.
“More pressure for him is a good thing,” Barth said of Strong. “I think he likes to be in that position where stakes are high.”
The coach added that Strong is not unique in that regard.
“This group, in particular, has a history in performing well under stress,” Barth said. “That’s going to be something we can rely on, knowing we’ve been there and done it before.”
Zurfluh said he likes his team’s depth for a three-day tournament. He also likes behind on the large ice at the Menard, similar to the large ice at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
“Our leadership has to take over, and right now we have to score goals,” Zurfluh said. “That’s our weakness.”
The coach said scoring starts with forwards Gehret Medcoff, Josh O’Lena and Silas Larsen. He said defensemen Aiden Burcham and Dylan Dahlgren will continue to be leaders of defense, while senior Ayden See is expected to see most of the action in net.
“This is my first year as coach and this has been an unbelievable group of kids,” Zurfluh said. “They are so fun to be around.”
Barth said that obviously Strong stands out, but beyond that the stats show Homer will need the whole team to play well.
“I think it’s a point of pride to go back to back three times,” he said. “At the same time, we have to focus one game at a time.”
Division II state hockey tournament at the Curtis D. Menard Memorial Sports Center, Wasilla.
Game 1 — Houston vs. Monroe, 4 p.m.
Game 2 — Homer vs. Soldotna, 11 a.m.
Game 3 — Palmer vs. Juneau, 7 p.m.
Game 4 — North Pole vs. Kenai, 1:30 p.m.
Game 5 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 11 a.m.
Game 6 — Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 1:30 p.m.
Game 7 — Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 4 p.m.
Game 8 — Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 7 p.m.
Fourth-sixth place game — Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, noon
Third-fifth place game — Game 7 loser vs. Game 8 loser, 3 p.m.
Championship — Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 6 p.m.