Conference action to pick up in Week 2 of football

The opening weekend of high school football provided an exciting first act. The second week should provide the real story line.

Following a slate of nonconference (and some nondivision) matchups among Peninsula squads, Week 2 will feature the first weekend of conference games, which many teams place more emphasis on.

Among small-schools action, the battle between the Aurora and Peninsula conferences will kick off as the two newly separated leagues fight for small-schools supremacy.

Nikiski will make the long trip up to Barrow to face the Whalers on the famous bright blue “smurf turf” that borders the Arctic Ocean. The Seward Seahawks travel to play Houston, Homer will host defending small-school champions Eielson on Saturday afternoon, and Voznesenka hosts Monroe Catholic in a morning matchup at the same Homer field.

Soldotna is one of the few teams that will not be returning to conference action, as the Stars take on a large-schools opponent for the second week in a row Friday night against the Colony Knights.

After falling 47-6 to large-schools opponent Bartlett in Week 1, Kenai Central is off this weekend with a bye.

Soldotna
at Colony, 7 p.m. Friday

SoHi kicked off its 2015 campaign with a resounding 21-17 victory over South Anchorage, the defending large-school champions.

The good vibes lasted only through the night, however, as the Stars were hit with the news Saturday that senior running back Drew Gibbs will miss the rest of the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

“It’s been a tough week,” said Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. “It’s certainly been bittersweet.

“It was exciting to win, but to every man and every kid on the team, they absolutely feel for Drew.”

Over the last three years, Gibbs has been a key weapon in SoHi’s backfield, a workhorse that can quickly break through for extra yards on seemingly small plays.

Last Friday against the South defense, Gibbs recorded carries of 39, 27 and 24 yards before his injury, and also had a 65-yard touchdown scramble called back on an inadvertent whistle in the first quarter. In the final three quarters of play, the biggest rushing play by the Stars was the 17-yard romp by Mason Prior in the final two minutes that helped seal the win.

“There’s only one Drew Gibbs, I think he’s the best running back I’ve ever coached,” Brantley Jr. said. “It’s not an easy fix. He’s shown tremendous character throughout and he’s there to help.”

Gibbs will end his senior season officially with 95 rushing yards on five carries.

However, as heartbreaking as the prospect of losing your senior season to injury is, Brantley Jr. reminded that Gibbs still has a bright future in the sport at the collegiate level. Gibbs has been offered scholarships from three schools, which include Northern State University in Idaho and Colorado State University-Pueblo, both Division II programs.

For now, the Stars will have to move on with Gibbs giving coaching instructions on the sideline. Without Gibbs, coach Brantley Jr. said Prior and Kristian Palaniuk will be tasked with carrying the load, with support from Jace Urban, Kilai Finau and Brenner Furlong.

With games against Colony, Service and Lathrop in the near future, the SoHi backfield will be tested. Brantley Jr. said the bigger test will be put on the Stars offensive line, which saw several breakdowns against the Wolverines in Week 1.

“That front seven has to step it up and do a better job than on Friday night,” Brantley Jr. said.

The Knights are coming off a slim 14-13 loss against East Anchorage in Week 1, and will assuredly be hungering for a win.

“It’s gonna be tough,” Brantley Jr. said about Colony. “There are no easy games, and Colony is another big school.”

The last time the Knights and Stars met was nearly two years ago to the day in Aug. 2013, a wild game that saw SoHi climb out of a third-quarter deficit to secure a 47-24 win on its home turf.

But with Colony quarterback Steven Bilafer leading an aggressive offensive attack, the Stars will be hard-pressed once again to maintain their winning streak, which is now at a state-record 30 games and counting. Bilafer scored Colony’s only two touchdowns against East last week, both on his feet, so SoHi is near certain to have its hands full.

But as Brantley Jr. said, SoHi needs to have things cleaned up on their side of the ball before they worry about what Colony has.

“We’ve been focusing way more on our weaknesses than looking at what Colony does,” Brantley Jr. said. “Only Friday night can tell whether that was good enough.”

Eielson at Homer,
4 p.m. Saturday

The Mariners opened up their season with a surprising 22-14 loss to the Houston Hawks, a former independent that now plays in the small-schools Aurora Conference.

After leading 14-6 at halftime — thanks to a 66-yard scoring pass from Homer quarterback Teddy Croft to Greg Smith and a 17-yard run by star running back Josh Fisk — Homer simply ran out of gas against Houston and fell by the wayside.

“We were just out of shape,” said Homer coach Josh Fraley. “We suited up 14 guys, then lost one of our lineman right before the game after getting a call about paperwork issues.”

The untimely news forced Fraley to make some quick adjustments, moving tight end Michael Swoboda to the guard position and going from there.

With a lineup of players that were pulling double duty, the Mariners hurt themselves with turnovers and botched snaps from the center to the quarterback, allowing the Houston defense to notch numerous sacks.

“For what we were asking the kids to do, it was a tough situation,” Fraley said. “They were playing both ways, they were pretty much not coming off at all.

“But our defense played phenomenal, since everything Houston got was pretty much due to our offense turning the ball over.”

One of the positives that Fraley took from the mistake-prone game was Homer’s ability to regroup quickly. Fraley said that the long scoring pass by Croft was set up by one of the many botched exchanges, and the ball was actually dropped on the ground before Croft picked it back up and found Smith on the run.

Fraley said a lot of repetition and a lot of conditioning will go a long way in improving the Mariners offense.

The early season action will not get any easier for the Mariners, who now are tasked with handling the defending small-schools state champions.

The good news is that Eielson is without state record-holder Anthony Griffith, a dynamic running back that has since graduated. The bad news is that his younger brother, Antonio, and fellow teammate Kalib Dunlap are not far behind in speed and strength.

“It’s like Tony Griffith all over again,” Fraley said. “We need to make sure we make them one-dimensional. If we can contain that, we’ll be just fine.”

Homer will also have an additional six players back on playing this week after the culmination of summer fishing jobs.

“And hopefully next week, we’ll have six more,” Fraley quipped.

Nikiski at Barrow, Saturday

If there is anything to know about the Nikiski Bulldogs football team, it is that coach Ted Riddall will have his team ready to roll either way after a win or a loss.

Following a 25-15 loss to medium-schools opponent Kodiak last Saturday at home, the Bulldogs are right back on the charge. Riddall said it was nice to take on an opponent with Kodiak’s size, since Barrow also has some big players.

“I told them this was not a loss — we went toe to toe with them,” Riddall said post game on Saturday. “This is a perfect game to build on.”

Nikiski compiled more offensive yardage than Kodiak in the loss, a gain of 305 yards to 249 by the Bears. And, the fact remains that Nikiski had forged a lead on a go-ahead drive with 1:19 to go in the game, and if not for a few defensive slips on the rain-soaked field, the Bulldogs may have been marching into the season with a victory on their quest for a third state title in five years.

Instead, Nikiski will make the trip up to the blue field in Barrow to take on the Whalers, losers of a 26-20 contest to medium-school opponent Juneau last week.

The matchup will also add another chapter that started in the 2011 small-schools state finale, which the Bulldogs won.

Seward at Houston,
Saturday

Coming off a 20-8 season-opening loss to Monroe, the Seahawks are faced with fellow small-schools contender Houston on the road in Week 2.

Houston will take home-field advantage on the heels of a 22-14 comeback victory over Homer in Week 1.

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