The four teams representing the Cook Inlet Conference in this week's Class 4A state hockey tournament aren't strangers to the event's championship game.
Defending champion Dimond, the third seed from the CIC, played in three of the last four title games. Top-seeded South won it all in 2011, fourth-seeded West won a title in 2010 and second-seeded Service finished runner-up each of the last two seasons.
Action begins Thursday at the Menard Sports Center in Wasilla and a second straight title for the Lynx won't come easy. They lost eight seniors from last season's squad and will also be without junior Lane Bauer, who was named player of the game in last season's championship. Bauer, out since Christmas with a knee injury, is third on the team in scoring with 49 points in 15 games.
Dimond senior defenseman Mason Anderson will also be absent this week, after undergoing surgery on his back about a month ago. Several Dimond players are also battling the flu, Dimond coach Dennis Sorenson said.
Dimond only lost twice since returning from Christmas break, falling 3-1 to South in the final game of the regular season and 3-0 to Service in the semifinals of last week's CIC tournament.
"There were some bruised egos after being shut out by Service," Sorenson said. "Give credit to them, they played really well. Their goalie played really well."
Sorenson hopes everyone is feeling well by the time the puck drops for the tournament's opening game against West Valley, a team Dimond has beaten twice this season.
"It's a noon game and we usually don't play during the day," he said. "It means they gotta be up around seven. We're catching an 8:30 bus out there."
Service is going to take a bus from Anchorage each day, instead of staying in a hotel like the Cougars did the last two seasons. Ending their season with losses in the title games was frustrating enough to make third-year coach Joel Carter want to try something new.
"Every time we got on a bus this year, we've been undefeated," Carter said.
Service, which takes on Soldotna at 2:30 p.m., lost 12 seniors from last season's team and has had to sort of reinvent itself. While last season's team was full of talented scorers, this season's team has put a premium on defensive play, Carter said.
The Cougars received a wake-up call in last week's CIC tournament when they fell behind 2-0 against Eagle River and were in danger of not qualifying for state. The Cougars fought back for a 4-2 win and a shot of confidence that propelled them to a semifinal win over Dimond.
"We played a very aggressive style of defense," Carter said. "I think we are peaking at the right time."
West still has plenty of room for improvement, said third-year coach Nathan Shasby, but is riding a wave of positive emotions into Thursday's opening game with Wasilla, the top seed from the North Star Conference. West played Wasilla earlier this season and won in overtime.
After following its 2010 championship with just two wins in 2011 and six wins last season, the Eagles earned their spot in the state tournament with a double-overtime victory over East in the first round of the CIC championships.
"The kids were ecstatic," Shasby said. "A lot to be said (for) all the kids involved, especially the seniors. It was pretty bleak two years ago."
Reach Jeremy Peters at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.
By JEREMY PETERS