The trees are bare, the air is cold, and once again, the Soldotna Stars are state football champions.
A week after surviving a tense semifinal over North Pole, the Soldotna football team capped a 10-0 season with a fifth consecutive state title and ninth overall in program history, dominating the Palmer Moose 49-13 in the medium-schools championship game at a windy Machetanz Field at Palmer High School.
The win was also the 49th in a row, extending the Alaska state record, and the fourth straight perfect campaign for SoHi. And this just in. It appears that The Streak will not be going down anytime soon.
SoHi took a chance on freshman Jersey Truesdell to start the game at quarterback, two weeks after regular-season starter Brandon Crowder broke his foot, and Truesdell got the job done, throwing a touchdown pass on 3-for-6 efficiency and, most importantly, allowing not a single turnover.
“When I got the start, I was super nervous, but all the guys around me are leaders and great teammates,” Truesdell said after the game. “It was good knowing they trusted me as their leader.”
Even for Truesdell, the moment was nothing new. The 15-year-old was born during a SoHi playoff game against Seward in 2001, then celebrated on the field at age 5 with his father, Sarge Truesdell, when the Stars won their first state title in 2006. Sarge was the head coach that season.
Jersey said he remembers that day, but Saturday’s accomplishment surpassed that moment.
“These guys helped take a lot of the pressure and nerves off,” Truesdell said, nodding at his teammates. “They beat East and West this year, and for me to come in and we put 49 (points) on them, that’s special.”
For SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr., pulling off the five-peat was just the crowning achievement in another successful season for the superlative Stars.
“It just seems surreal,” said Brantley Jr., who bumped his career coaching record at SoHi to 97-5. “We didn’t set out to win five straight or 49 in a row.”
Similar to their 42-21 win over Palmer in the regular season, the Stars got the job done with their usual “pound the rock” attitude, amassing 352 rushing yards. On defense, SoHi held the Moose to 262 yards of offense.
Leading the charge was junior Brenner Furlong, who racked up five rushing touchdowns on 270 yards.
“I’m speechless,” Furlong said about winning another state crown. “It’s amazing how good our team can be and to come together as one.
“Our (offensive) line, they make every single one of our holes for us, and for me to run untouched, they’re the best line in the state.”
To the outside observer, starting a freshman at quarterback with everything on the line would appear to be a risky proposition, but to the Stars, it was an easy choice. Truesdell started on a SoHi JV team that went 7-1 this year and only missed a perfect season with a fumble late in the game against East while going for the tying score.
Saturday, Truesdell had plenty of opportunity to figuratively drop the ball. Not only was he making his first varsity start in the biggest of moments, but he was facing a wicked wind that was blowing across the field from the northeast, making for a brutally cold afternoon.
“I think it says two things, and one was we have several athletes around him,” Brantley Jr. said. “But also, he’s a pretty special athlete to step in in a state title game and do just what we wanted.
“This is just the beginning for Jersey.”
The wind was also the big reason why Brantley Jr. chose to kick off in both halves. Each half, SoHi was able to pin Palmer on their own 20-yard line with touchbacks, saving a potential runback after the gusts blew the ball well outside the end zone.
“You’d think to kick off twice would be insanity,” he said. “But it paid off.”
Furlong scored on SoHi’s first possession of the day, a 27-yard dash, then helped bring the Stars to the red zone on the next drive, which was capped with a 7-yard pass by Truesdell over the top to senior Andy West.
The biggest sequence of the game came in the dying minutes of the first half. Encouraged by Brantley’s words to avoid any momentum swing for Palmer, the Stars forced the Moose to punt, which led to Furlong breaking free for a massive 80-yard rumble to the end zone, putting SoHi up 21-0.
On the first play from scrimmage, Palmer quarterback Clayton Southwick coughed up the ball on a keeper when Stars senior Alex Goodermote stripped him of the ball in Moose territory. Four plays later, Jace Urban scored for SoHi to establish a 28-0 lead.
It only got worse for Palmer on the next drive, when Southwick targeted a receiver up the middle but instead found Furlong for an interception with 1:29 to go before halftime. On the very next SoHi play, Furlong caught a halfback option pass in the flat and scrambled 44 yards into Palmer’s half of the field, then scored on a 25-yard run just before the half.
It all resulted in three Soldotna touchdowns in a 4:10 span, boosting the lead from 14-0 to 35-0 at halftime.
“We came out trying to work our butts off, and doing every single thing to improve,” Furlong said. “And we knew how big of a game this was.”
SoHi forced Palmer to a three-and-out punt on the opening possession of the second half, then got the ball back on downs after a lengthy Palmer drive into SoHi territory.
Junior running back Larry Cutsforth scored Palmer’s only points in the fourth quarter once the game was out of reach. The large lead also allowed Brantley Jr. to sub in each one of his seniors for time on the field, a class of 2017 that finished out undefeated careers.
In a season that saw Soldotna win several big games over larger competition, Brantley Jr. said the 2016 Stars were a group for the record books.
“They proved they can play with anybody,” he said. “And that they can handle adversity.”
STARS 49, MOOSE 13
Soldotna 14 21 14 0 —49
Palmer 0 0 0 13 —13
Sol — Furlong 27 run (Jones kick), 8:13
Sol — West 7 pass from Truesdell (Jones kick), :55
Sol — Furlong 80 run (Jones kick), 4:39
Sol — Urban 9 run (Jones kick), 3:06
Sol — Furlong 25 run (Jones kick), :29
Sol — Furlong 15 run (Jones kick), 6:50
Sol — Furlong 52 run (Jones kick), 2:20
Pal — Cutsforth 37 run (Cutsforth kick), 10:20
Pal — Cutsforth 49 run (no kick), :17
First downs 10 9
Rush yds 38-352 37-244
Pass yds 76 18
Comp-att-int 3-6-0 2-13-1
Return yds 0 0
Punts 1 4
Fumbles-rec 0-0 2-0
Penalties 1-5 4-27
Rushing — Soldotna: Furlong 18-270, Urban 10-49, Schrader 5-18, Faletoi 3-11, Woodward 2-4. Palmer: Cutsforth 16-158, Glynn 2-6, DeBach 4-13, Southwick 7-30, Oviok 7-32, Farris 1-5.
Passing — Soldotna: Truesdell 3-6-0—76. Palmer: Southwick 2-13-1—18.
Receiving — Soldotna: West 2-32, Furlong 1-44. Palmer: Johnson 2-18.