The biggest moments in sports are the ones that matter the most to fans, players and coaches. The last-second buzzer-beater, the goal-line stand, the walk-off home run.
A season is full of big plays and hard-earned wins, yet the moments that stick in the memory are the ones that decide a championship.
For the Homer Mariners, a Division III state football title was just yards from their grasp last October on Palmer’s Machentanz Field. All they needed was a big play to punch the ball into the end zone.
The big play never materialized, and having spent all their timeouts, the Mariners failed to score against the Barrow Whalers, who walked away with the big prize for the first time in their school history.
For Homer, it left the team and community wondering what could have been.
But for first-year head coach Walter Love, the end result was just a pair of numbers that didn’t paint the whole picture.
“I think about the track record in our three previous seasons, the injuries and declining wins,” he said. “It really was a Cinderella story.
“I know we lost the game, we had some mistakes, but at the end of the day … it was a beautiful day to play football.”
Love watched from the sidelines in 2016 as Homer missed the playoffs in an injury-riddled 2-6 season. Last year, he took the reigns and guided a healthy Mariners squad to the state title game in a playoff run that included a semifinal victory over three-time defending state champions Eielson.
“More than anything, I was grateful to be there that day,” Love said. “It was a great football game.”
The Mariners return this weekend to open the 2018 campaign in Kodiak with a Friday night showdown starting at 6 p.m.
Other season-opening matchups for peninsula schools include the Nikiski Bulldogs in Barrow with a 1 p.m. Saturday kickoff, and the Seward Seahawks hosting Monroe Catholic on Saturday at 2 p.m.
Division III football in Alaska features two groups, the Aurora and Peninsula conferences, both of which send two teams to the postseason. The division also received a few significant changes over the offseason.
This year, Ketchikan joins the mix after dropping down from Division II. The Kings now occupy a spot in the five-team Peninsula Conference, along with Homer, Nikiski, Seward and Houston, the latter of which moves from the Aurora to Peninsula Conference.
Love said the addition of Ketchikan is a win-win for the state.
“We’d much rather see Ketchikan come down and be competitive than lose them as a football team,” he said. “The bigger loss to Alaska is to lose them as a team,” he said. “And Houston is competitive. They have a great coach and great kids, so we’re all stoked.”
For Seward head coach Kelly Cinereski, the addition of a former Division II squad will make life tough for one of the smallest schools in Div. III with one of the smallest team rosters, but he said he appreciates the boost in competition.
“For us to even make the playoffs … we have to beat three of those teams,” Cinereski said. “It makes us everyone’s homecoming game.”
With Nikiski failing to make the Div. III championship game in each of the last two seasons after appearing five years in a row, Bulldogs head coach Paul Nelson said the team is ready for a title-game return, but Ketchikan and Houston in the conference gives no team a gimme playoff bid.
“It makes it tougher, actually,” Nelson said. “We’re definitely the harder conference now, Houston has been in the mix each year, and the addition of Ketchikan … they have good athletes and size, they’re a (bigger) school, so they have the potential to do some damage.
“It should be a tight conference this year.”
With just two postseason spots available to five teams, the race begins in earnest this weekend. The following is a closer look at each peninsula school:
Last year’s state runner-ups graduated nine seniors, eight of which were starters.
The loss of senior talent has made for a new-look Mariners squad, which Love said is still tough to beat on offense.
“I don’t think we’ll be playing the same kind of shutdown football on defense like last year because the level of experience is lower, but offensively, we still look pretty good,” he said. “We’re going to score a lot of touchdowns this year. There may be some games where he who scores last, wins.”
The Mariners made off with three of the four big season awards last fall, claiming Offensive Player of the Year (Teddy Croft), Lineman of the Year (Levi King) and Coach of the Year (Walter Love).
However, Croft and King graduated, leaving two big holes to fill.
Love said Croft and King were part of what he called the “big eight”, a core group of seniors on the 2017 team that led the onslaught to the championship game. With Croft quarterbacking, the big eight included receiver and backup quarterback Dawson Felde, receivers Joe Ravin and Justin Sumption and linebackers Sean Love, Jack Heimbold, Chris Cudaback and Levi King.
Between rushing and receiving, the eight players accounted for over 71 percent of offensive yardage on the 2017 Homer team.
“Those guys were dominant personalities as big as their game play,” Love explained. “Not only were they good at the game, but they were good friends, and more importantly they were teammates. They really took that camaraderie and grabbed onto it and made it part of who they were.
“When someone asks who they aspire to, those are kids I point to. They’re an example of what a football player is, including behavior and attitude.”
The Mariners get their 2018 campaign started tonight at 6 p.m. at Kodiak.
From there, Homer is home for a pair of contests against Division II opponent Kenai Central and Monroe Catholic, then will hit the road for games against Houston and Eielson.
Homer is back home for Weeks 6 and 7 against Ketchikan and Seward, then will finish the regular season at Nikiski, with a possible playoff spot on the line.
Looking at this year, Love said Homer’s roster of 34 players has 18 freshmen to just four seniors. Two of those seniors are center Jadin Mann and right tackle Finn Heimbold, both of whom were integral pieces to last year’s squad.
Taking over for Croft under center will be a Voznesenka transplant in junior Anthony Kalugin, who had quarterbacked the Voznesenka Cougars for the past two seasons. Voznesenka will not be fielding a team this year, instead focusing efforts on the school’s wrestling program.
Love said Kalugin comes from a different team with a different playbook, and therefore has had to learn a new system at Homer.
“When you play like Voz, you play like survival football,” Love said. “Every kid has to play every down, you can’t rest, you can’t make a lot of mistakes, so he’s used to tucking the ball and running.
“He’s kind of like an early Teddy Croft, we’re kind of having to work through that with Anthony.”
Among the returning cast on offense is junior Noah Fisk, a quick and agile running back that averaged almost 9 yards per carry in 2017.
Joining Fisk in the Homer backfield will be junior Ryan Hicks and sophomore Josh Bradshaw, two relative newcomers in the backfield. Hicks played a guard last year.
The Mariners receiving corps will include sophomores Cade Henchrir and Sylvester Gaona, both of whom are making varsity debuts. Gaona is also the team’s kicker, and made some varsity appearances kicking last year.
Love tabbed the offensive line to be Mann at center, Heimbold and junior Ayrton Clifford as tackles, and junior Zach Condon and Josh Manwiller at guards.
Hicks returns on the defensive line as well, joining with nose guard Austin Dash. Manwiller will take over for Love at middle linebacker, Gaona will be placed in a cornerback spot with senior Skyler Shadle.
Love said the rest of the defense is still to be decided.
Nikiski’s march to an eighth consecutive playoff appearance begins Saturday at 1 p.m. against the defending Division III state champion Barrow Whalers.
Nelson said the Bulldogs lost a few big pieces on the roster, but return some old faces that should inject more speed and power into the program.
“We only graduated five seniors, so a lot of the players remain the same,” Nelson said. “It’s the same schemes, but we have a little more speed and more size, so we’re looking forward to seeing how that plays out on the field.”
Nelson said the team’s goals shift to focus on each game like it’s a playoff game. Nelson said last year’s group made mistakes in key games that led to the second seed out of the Peninsula Conference, when the No. 1 seed could have been attainable.
“In the past, we’ve had a couple games that we’ve considered easy wins, or this is going to be a game for us we expect to win,” he said. “This year, every single game (we’ve) got to come out and battle, play tough and act like there’s a chance to lose every game on the schedule.”
Among the big names lost to graduation are running back and linebacker Ian Johnson and lineman Tyler Litke. Johnson led Nikiski in 2017 with over half of the team’s rushing yards with 774 and eight touchdowns, while Litke provided a tough blocker to handle for opposing teams.
Nelson said the returning group, though, includes many names with three and four years of starting experience, and Nelson himself is in his third year of coaching at Nikiski, so the players have now become entirely accustomed to his playbook.
“It’s a little easier each year when the kids are used to expectations,” he said. “They know what things are supposed to look like.”
With last year’s starting quarterback Michael Eiter expected to miss the first few games, Nelson said junior Noah Litke will begin the season as the team’s signal-caller. Nelson said Litke, a first-year starter at QB, may appear unassuming, but his ability to play under pressure will work for the team.
“He’s done a pretty good job stepping up, I have great confidence in him,” Nelson said. “If he does a good job, and he does the deal, he’ll stay in there.”
In the backfield, senior halfback Cody Handley will be joined by senior fullback Brock Sarks and Justin Harris later in the season, as the latter two are also expected to miss the early weeks of the season. Handley finished with the second-most rushing yards last year with 510, while Harris had 103 as a utility back.
“In our scrimmage (last week), (Handley) kind of flipped his attitude,” Nelson said. “He’s going to be the man this year.”
The Nikiski offensive line will feature junior guards Caleb Weeks and Hamilton Cox, sophomore tackles Koleman McCaughey and Quentin Oskolkoff and senior Dustin Mullins, who is a three-year starter.
On the D-line, Handley and Mullins are expected to be effective defensive ends, while Weeks, Cox and Oskolkoff will be tackles.
The Nikiski secondary includes middle linebacker Brock Sarks and junior cornerback Sam Berry and Litke as a safety. All other positions will be determined by game one, Nelson said.
After facing Barrow on Saturday, the Bulldogs will continue their season with three straight home games against Valdez, Redington and Ketchikan, then will take to the road for three straight against Seward, Monroe and Houston.
The Bulldogs will cap the regular season with a home clash against Homer.
After a breakout 2016 season that saw Seward go 5-3 and clinch its first outright conference crown in school history, the Seahawks slumped to a 2-6 campaign last year and missed the postseason.
Cinereski said he hopes to bring back some of the magic in 2018, starting Saturday at 2 p.m. against Monroe Catholic at home.
“We’re expecting to do better than last year,” he said. “We had several games we should’ve won, but had sickness, or didn’t have the kids, but that’s what happens with only 15 to 20 kids out for the team. It changes everything.”
Of the 22 players currently on the roster, Cinereski said four are seniors, which suggests a promising future without too much graduation loss following the year.
Among the dynamic returning starters are senior running back Beau Freiberg, senior tailback Chris Kingsland (who is moving from the quarterback spot) and tight end and ballcarrier Gabe Schrock.
Replacing Kingsland at QB is sophomore Gunnar Davis, who was the backup last year. Cinereski projected confidence in the first-year player.
“He has a much better arm, he can throw the ball,” he said.
Joining the backfield will be junior Shane Saulivan.
The Seward offense will be led by a front line featuring sophomore center Jordan Swell, junior guard Dax Robertson, freshman guard Steven Harshman and freshman tackles James Milburn and Kakoa Albino. Chad Quinn will take up an outside end spot, along with tight end Tommy Cronin.
The Seahawks defense returns Schrock, Frieberg, Harshman and Saulivan as the linebacking core, with Robertson, Swell, Quinn and Davis in front on the defensive line.
Thomas Okaa and Cronin will man the cornerback spots, while Kingsland returns as a safety.
After its opening game against Monroe, Seward plays a road game against Redington, a home game against Eielson and a road game against Valdez.
The second half of the regular season starts with a pair of home clashes against Nikiski and Houston, and finishes with a pair of road games against Homer and Ketchikan.