Area squads ready for state football semis

All that remains between four football teams and the chance to play for a state championship is 48 minutes. Put in the time and the chance for glory will present itself.

The Alaska high school football playoffs are here.

Four Peninsula teams are heading into the 2015 postseason with championship aspirations. The Soldotna Stars (8-0) begin their quest for a fourth straight medium-schools title a week after wrapping up their 10th straight Northern Lights Conference crown. Their hunt begins Saturday with a semifinals bout against the No. 2 seed from the Southeast Conference, the Thunder Mountain Falcons (3-4).

Kenai Central (5-2), the No. 2 seed from the NLC, begins its postseason with a familiar matchup against the North Pole Patriots (4-4), the top seed out of the Southeast Conference. The Kardinals and Patriots have faced each other twice in the past year, including last year’s state semifinals.

In the first year of the dual conference small-schools division, the Nikiski Bulldogs (6-2) claimed the inaugural Peninsula Conference title with a clean sweep of Peninsula rival schools this year, and will face the No. 2 seed from the Aurora Conference, the Barrow Whalers (5-3), in the small-school semifinals.

On the other side of the small-schools bracket, the Homer Mariners (4-4) will take on the Aurora Conference champion Eielson Ravens (6-1) in a semifinal battle in Fairbanks.

Barrow at Nikiski, 4 p.m. Saturday

Nikiski punched its fifth straight postseason ticket with a 44-0 win over Seward last weekend, and will be looking for its fifth small-schools championship in school history.

The Bulldogs also have a little history on their side. Nikiski has gotten to the state championship finale each of the last four years, winning two of them in 2011 and 2013. If the odd-year pattern continues, this will be another banner season for Nikiski coach Ted Riddall and his “rabid ’Dawgs.”

“We go by that Nike motto, ‘It’s you versus yesterday,’” Riddall said. “It’s you versus your last game, and can you get better?

“If you get to the state championship, it’s anybody’s game then.”

Riddall said with two wins to end the regular season — including a clutch 28-21 win over medium-schools opponent Thunder Mountain in Week 7 — he feels like Nikiski is entering the postseason with a surge of momentum.

The only thing seemingly standing in the way of a fifth straight title game appearance is the NFL Network.

The national cable channel has been documenting the daily lives of the Barrow football players and coaches in an eight-episode series called, “Football Town: Barrow, Alaska,” that portrays small-town teams.

With the extra hype surrounding the Whalers, coach Riddall said he’s added extra emphasis on what the final goal is — a state title.

“It’s a new game now, with four teams left,” Riddall said. “You’re one poor performance from putting your gear away for the year.”

So how does a coach get high school kids to ignore the hype that comes along with a national television crew?

“Up there, there’s already a lot of things to see. I mean, they have their field in the middle of a stretch of land, it’s kind of an eerie place to be,” Riddall said. “We just do the best we can, no way to have it all blocked out.”

Riddall said he has watched a few of the episodes, including one that features Nikiski when the Bulldogs traveled up north in Week 2 of the season to play Barrow, and left that week with a 42-12 victory.

Riddall said he noticed then that the Whalers had begun to shift away from their traditionally strong passing game and rely more heavily on their ground game.

“To be honest, they’ve done something they should’ve done 15 years ago,” Riddall said. “They’re more a power running, smash-mouth type of team.”

Barrow finished off its 2015 season with a 14-0 shut out over medium-schools opponent Kodiak, a team that narrowly defeated Nikiski 25-15 in the Bulldogs season opener.

“They’re big, they’re fast and they’re athletic,” coach Riddall said. “They’ve got some momentum on their side, they have the NFL Network people behind them. We need to come out, start fast and execute.”

The good news is that Nikiski is hosting Saturday’s semifinal playoff game against Barrow, which means the Bulldogs will not be making the long trip north to the blue, frozen tundra.

“I don’t think I’d want to be in Barrow right now,” Riddall said.

Kenai vs. North Pole, 1 p.m. Saturday at Dimond Alumni Field

Locked into the medium-school playoffs for a third consecutive year, the Kards are heading into battle with the attitude of a brand-new ballgame.

Kenai routed North Pole 45-8 in Week 7 at a snowy James Watson Field in North Pole. However, Kenai coach John Marquez knows that seeing a team for a second time can be dangerous.

“It’s tough with the young kids, all week long we’ve been saying this is a different ballgame,” Marquez said. “The main thing is to let them know this is a brand-new game, and North Pole will have something to prove. They’ll have something to be gunning for us.”

North Pole had beaten Kenai in the three previous meetings between the two schools — including a 47-14 state semifinal win last year — so the Week 7 victory felt extra satisfying for Marquez and the Kards.

“We still remember what they did to us last year,” Marquez said.

When Kenai took the field last Saturday against crosstown rival Soldotna, it already had clinched a postseason berth, but playoff seeding was still on the line. Kenai ultimately lost 23-0 in a game that was still within a touchdown early in the third quarter.

Marquez said the Kards coming up short on four fourth downs spelled doom for the home team.

“When you’re going against the No. 1 defense in the state, and you’re moving the ball sparingly, you need to convert on those fourth downs,” Marquez said. “Monday’s practice we were all still like, we had it. We had to get it out of their heads and move on.”

Still, Kenai can take solace in the fact that it put up the stiffest challenge the Stars have had since the opening week against large-schools opponent South. The Kards held the Stars to 212 rushing yards total, well below SoHi’s average of 341 coming into the game.

On offense, Kenai gained 147 yards on the ground, but completed just one pass for 15 yards. After seven regular-season games this year, Kenai has recorded just 70 yards through the air.

With Chase Gillies manning the Kards from the quarterback position, is it time for Kenai to open up the passing game?

“The question for us is, when’s the right time to open it up and do those things?” asked Marquez.

Soldotna vs. Thunder
Mountain, 4 p.m. Saturday at Dimond Alumni Field

A state record 37 straight wins, 10 straight Northern Lights Conference titles, four straight wins over their longtime rival Kenai. The accolades continue to pile up for the SoHi Stars.

SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr., who pushed his head coaching record to 84-5 with the victory over Kenai, has a chance to give SoHi an eighth state championship in the last 10 years, but first, a semifinal date with Thunder Mountain awaits. And Brantley Jr. isn’t one to look past any team.

“I think they struggled early on, but have improved continually throughout the season,” Brantley Jr. said about the Falcons. “But we’ve been playing our best ball in recent weeks.

“We expect another physical contest.”

Soldotna blasted Thunder Mountain 62-0 in a regular season meeting last year, but several coaches agree that the Falcons are an improved squad.

Leading that charge is hefty running back Q’on Bear-Clark, who piled up 316 rushing yards against Homer in a 34-30 win in Week 5, and had 172 yards in a 28-21 loss to Nikiski in Week 7. Overall in 2015, Bear-Clark has amassed 1,932 rushing yards, just 43 shy of the Thunder Mountain school record.

Brantley Jr. said much of the focus will be on stopping Bear-Clark, a runner that reminds him of Palmer’s ace back Chase Ferris.

“He’s one of those guys that is talented and if he finds a cutback lane, he’ll drag you into the end zone,” Brantley Jr. warned. “He’s certainly a challenge to us.”

SoHi has had no trouble moving the ball on its end. Mason Prior and Kristian Palaniuk have combined for 1,545 rushing yards this year, and both Dylan Simons and Brandon Crowder finished the year with an additional combined 663 yards through the air.

Brantley Jr. added that SoHi will be playing without offensive and defensive tackle Kyle Marcuson, who is sitting out one week to heal a knee injury suffered against Kenai last weekend. In Marcuson’s place on offense will be senior Russell Yurcina, and on defense will be Aseli Finau.

Homer at Eielson, 1 p.m. Saturday

The Mariners are back in the state football playoffs for the first time since 2012. That year, Homer went 6-2 and battled its way to the medium-schools championship game, where the Mariners lost to Soldotna 62-20.

In their first season in the realigned small-schools division, Homer returned to the postseason with a 4-4 record.

“It’s really big for us,” Homer coach Josh Fraley said. “It was a pretty disappointing start to season (going 0-3), we didn’t expect that at all, but being able to bounce back like we did was good. We’re such a different team than we were.”

Fraley pointed out that since Homer’s last postseason trip, the Mariners have continued to rebuild with season records of 2-6 in 2013, 3-5 in 2014 and now 4-4 this season, which began with three straight losses.

“We’ve been getting better, and we’re back with an opportunity to play postseason football,” he said. “Anything can happen.”

If the Mariners wish to return to state title contention, they will have to go through a powerhouse squad from Eielson.

Eielson beat up Homer 61-18 in Week 2 of the season, although several starting players were missing from the Mariners, including defensive linemen Trevor Fenex and Vincent Waddell, who have combined for 8.5 sacks in the last four games of the season.

The Ravens had 386 rush yards on the Mariners in Week 2, including 164 by Kalib Dunlap and 89 by Caleb Velez. Fraley said he believes with added structure on defense, his squad will find a better handle on containing the potent Eielson offense.

“Those guys are great players, but they’re great players because of their offensive line,” Fraley said. “They have two great guards, and Dunlap doesn’t have the yards he has if not for those guys.”

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