It has been almost 10 months since the chain-link fence separating Justin Maile Field and the adjacent Soldotna neighborhoods has been changed to read “59” using small plastic cups.
If things go right for the Soldotna Stars football team, that fence should be receiving an update tonight.
The road to a seventh straight state title starts with an attempt at a 60th consecutive win for the Stars, who open their football season tonight at home against the West Anchorage Eagles at 6:30 p.m.
It’s the fourth year in a row the Stars begin their season facing a Division I Anchorage powerhouse, and all four times have been against schools that played in the previous year’s Div. I championship game. SoHi beat South in 2015, and has defeated West each of the past two years, one at home and one away.
This year begins anew with the same matchup.
“(West is) either winning or at the doorstep each year,” said SoHi head coach Galen Brantley Jr., who enters his 11th year as Stars head coach.
“Our staff has a tremendous respect for what they do,” Brantley Jr. said. “They’re extremely talented, they have probably one of the best D-lines that I’ve seen coaching in Alaska.”
That’s high praise for a coach with a 107-5 career record as head boss of the Stars.
The superlative numbers for SoHi read like a dream — six straight state titles, five straight undefeated seasons and a string of postseason awards that recognize the top players in the division, including each of the past three Defensive Player of the Year honors and the last two Offensive Player awards.
SoHi may have to step up its game, however, if it wishes to keep winning. The secondary division in Alaska gained two new members over the offseason with the addition of former Div. I schools Lathrop and West Valley, which moved down a step.
The two Fairbanks schools drop into Div. II this year, as does the entire Railbelt Conference. The Railbelt now features Lathrop, West Valley, North Pole and Palmer, which makes the move after years in the Northern Lights Conference.
Opposite the Railbelt Conference, the NLC becomes a four-team conference with SoHi, Kenai Central, Kodiak and Eagle River. The Railbelt and the Northern Lights conferences will both qualify two teams to the state playoffs.
SoHi will play West Valley and Lathrop in weeks 3 and 4 of the season, and Brantley Jr. said when it comes down to the playoffs, nothing is certain.
“I think our level took a step up,” he said. “I think you throw a couple more schools with 1,000 kids in there, remove the Southeast (Conference) struggles, and the path to a championship just got harder.”
Brantley Jr. likened the Wolfpack and Malamutes to the Anchorage powerhouse teams.
“Both are extremely athletic, those schools have Cook Inlet (Conference) type athletes,” he said. “They’re dynamic and both run the spread (offense).”
Palmer joins the Railbelt, making for two conferences that send two teams each.
But before the Stars can think about the two Fairbanks schools, Brantley Jr. said they need to focus on Friday night, when the Eagles fly in to confront the Stars for a third straight year.
Also returning in the NLC chase are the Kenai Kardinals, which will get a fourth new head coach in four years as Dustin Akana steps up to replace Ted Riddall, who now will be calling plays as an assistant. Riddall spent one year as head coach at Kenai, leading the Kards to a 3-5 overall mark in 2017.
Akana played an assistant role in the past two seasons with Kenai, and in stepping up in his third year to take over the reigns from Riddall, said he would like to bring the Kards back to the playoffs.
“This year we’re trying to change the culture of the program,” Akana said. “We’d like to have a little more consistency. I’m not planning to go anywhere, so we’d like to get it back to where it was when we were winning championships.”
Kenai won six state titles in the former small-schools division from 2002 to 2011 with coach Jim Beeson leading the charge.
Akana said he has gained advice and confidence from Beeson, picking up tips when he could, and said his current staff at KCHS and his former coaches from his own playing days at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah, and Utah State, have provided everything else.
“I’ve talked to a lot of my coaches and mentors, and have gotten advice on how to lead a team from Riddall,” Akana said.
Akana echoed the opinion of Brantley Jr. on the addition of West Valley and Lathrop, saying the two Fairbanks juggernauts will build depth in an already stacked conference.
“It means we’ve got to work even harder,” he said. “SoHi and North Pole played us tough last year, and now we’ve got to step up our game. That’s where our core beliefs come in.”
The following is an in-depth look at the 2018 season on the peninsula:
The SoHi juggernaut hasn’t lost a game since August 2012, and will try for a state record-extending 60th consecutive victory Friday night at home against the West Eagles.
Brantley Jr. said the program will have a battle on its hands against one of the top teams in the state, which will play a Stars team short on depth.
“For us, we just want to figure out a way to get things done Friday night,” he said. “It seems cliche, but we’ve been prepared since the schedule came out, and now we’re just a couple days away.”
After opening week, SoHi will host North Pole before heading north to play Lathrop and returning home to host West Valley, with all four weeks being Friday night matchups.
In the second half of the season, SoHi will play on the road against NLC foes Eagle River and Kodiak, before returning home to finish the regular season against Service and Kenai Central.
While many familiar faces are returning to the program, the top line will feature a decidedly different look. The Stars graduated several notable players, including two-year starting quarterback Brandon Crowder, first-team guard Wendell Tuisaula and two-time Offensive Player of the Year and 2016 Alaska Gatorade Player of the Year Brenner Furlong.
“Those players are kids you don’t replace,” Brantley Jr. said. “We’ll fill those by committee.”
Crowder’s spot as signal-caller will be taken over by junior Jersey Truesdell, a first-year starter who is anything but unaccustomed to big-game moments. As a freshman, Truesdell was called up to start the 2016 Division II championship game against Palmer after Crowder went down to injury, and led the Stars to a dominant 49-13 win, throwing a touchdown pass along the way.
Last year, Truesdell got sporadic snaps on varsity while Crowder led the Stars to another state title.
This year, the team is all his.
“He’s played a lot of football,” said Brantley Jr. “He doesn’t play like a first-year starter.”
While the speed and power of Furlong will be tough to replace, a bevy of names will look to carry the ball this year, headlined by returning junior Aaron Faletoi, who burst onto the scene last year with 711 rush yards, second-most on SoHi behind Furlong’s 1,214.
Junior Hudson Metcalf returns as a halfback this year after spending time as tight end in 2017, while junior Wyatt Medcoff will step up to varsity as a fullback, along with junior Cam Johnson.
Brantley Jr. added that only five seniors are on the team, four of which are returners — cornerback Cy Updike, offensive and defensive tackle Levi Benner, center Cody Nye and guard Brennan Werner.
The SoHi offensive line will feature All-State tight end Galen Brantley III, Benner at tackle, Werner at guard, Nye at center, Trenton Walden at guard, Lucas Kline at tackle and Zach Hanson at tight end. Walden, Kline and Medcoff are newbies.
Brantley Jr. said a sizable chunk of the offense will also play defense. The defensive line includes Benner and Faletoi, while Johnson, Brantley III and Hanson will make up a tough linebacking core. Truesdell, Updike and Medcoff will roam the defensive secondary.
The defense will also include lineman Melvin Lloyd and linebacker Tyler Morrison.
KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS
The new-look Kardinals are headed in a new direction utilizing an old, familiar system with a new head coach. They will put it all to the test Saturday at 1 p.m. against Lathrop in Fairbanks.
Dustin Akana said the team has adopted a “Rise as One” mantra, which he hopes will be attained by strengthening the core of the team with strong team play and chemistry.
“We’re not an individuals team,” Akana said. “We want to strengthen the core and everything around us, and everything else will fall into place.”
Kenai last played in a state championship game in 2015, when the Kards fell 33-18 to SoHi in the final. Consecutive 3-5 seasons have left the Kards out of the playoffs.
After their season opener against Lathrop, the Kards stay on the road against Div. III opponent Homer, before heading home for two weeks against Palmer and a big Week 4 clash against North Pole.
Another road game in Fairbanks comes in Week 5 against West Valley before Kenai plays host to Eagle River and Kodiak.
The regular season will traditionally end against SoHi.
The 2018 Kenai lineup will be headed by second-year starting quarterback Connor Felchle, whose debut experience at QB last year helped serve him well, Akana said. Felchle completed 42 percent of his passes in 2017 with four touchdowns and 10 picks.
Akana said Felchle’s 2017 campaign paved the way for a promising 2018.
“It gave him that much more experience,” Akana said. “He had to relearn a whole new offense with the Wing-T, and there were some growing pains, but this year puts him forward a lot.”
Although Felchle lost his No. 1 target in receiver Zack Tuttle — who led all peninsula schools with over 500 receiving yards in 2017 — behind Felchle stands a stable of backs that he can rely on. The backfield includes junior Titus Riddall, senior Tyrone McEnerney, junior Zach Burnett and junior Justin Anderson.
Riddall posted the second-most rush yards in 2017 for Kenai with 235, only behind older brother Rykker’s 439. McEnerney was fourth on the team yardage list, averaging five carries a game.
On the offensive line, Kenai’s two tackles will be seniors Jarett Wilson and Jacob Grant, while the two guards are senior Bailey Maxson and junior Ben Grossl, and the line is anchored by junior center Hunter Beck. Wilson is a third-year starter.
Wilson also serves as a defensive end, and will be joined on defense by Grant at tackle, Maxson at tackle and senior Andrew Carver at defensive end.
The Kardinal linebacking crew consists of senior Billy Morrow, Anderson, Grossl and Tucker Vann on the outside.
The cornerback slots will be filled by Riddall and Burnett, and the safety positions will be manned by Felchle and Braedon Pitsch.