A heavyweight showdown is set to go down tonight at Soldotna’s Justin Maile Field when a pair of defending state champions clash on the football field.
If that scenario sounds familiar, it’s because it is.
It was only a year ago when the South Anchorage Wolverines showed up in Soldotna to challenge the four-time defending medium-schools champions that were on the cusp of breaking the state-record win streak.
South came up short in its bid to stop Soldotna in last year’s season opener, losing in a 21-17 thriller at Justin Maile Field, but the Stars may have a bigger test on their hands this time.
Tonight, it will be the West Anchorage Eagles that try their hand at conquering the juggernaut. West is the defending state large-schools champion and have won two of the past three.
“The cool thing about playing Soldotna is that top-notch teams tell the truth,” said West coach Tim Davis. “You find out who you are.”
Davis has become the guiding force of the successful Eagles contingent, and said the meeting of the two sides was an eventuality that he and SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. discussed.
The only condition? Brantley Jr. said the Eagles had to come to them.
“They’re certainly the class of the Cook Inlet (Conference) and large schools,” Brantley Jr. said. “We’re just excited about the opportunity to play them.”
The Eagles are the latest large-schools opponent to take aim at the Stars, which have amassed a state-record 39-game win streak that dates back to Week 1 of the 2012 season. The record is the fourth-longest such streak in the nation.
But, true to form, Brantley Jr. did not acknowledge the 40-game win as the ultimate goal for the Stars,
“I know people have made a big deal of the streak, but we’re not worried about it,” he said. “If we were worried about the streak, we wouldn’t ask to play West Anchorage.”
If anything, SoHi just wants to walk away Friday night without sustaining an injury, unlike last year. It took five first-quarter snaps for senior running back Drew Gibbs to suffer an ACL tear against South.
The start of the season also marks the beginning of a few coaching changes. At Kenai Central, the John Marquez era comes to an end and the Davis Lowery reign will begin. Marquez guided Kenai to two medium-schools state finales, including last year when the Kards lost to the Stars.
Lowery is a former college football coach that arrives in Kenai off the ferry from Kodiak, where he held the defensive coordinator position last year.
At Nikiski, former Colony coach Paul Nelson replaces Ted Riddall, who had held the Bulldogs head coaching position for eight years. Riddall’s history with Nikiski goes even further back to when the squad won consecutive small-schools state titles in 2000 and ‘01.
West at Soldotna, 6 p.m. Friday
The Stars have ticked off 10 consecutive NLC crowns, and with the 2016 season presenting an opportunity to win an 11th straight, its no secret who the kings are.
“It’s such a great coaching staff down there, Galen has those kids working as experts in their system,” Davis said. “It’ll be a blast to go up against a team that is a group of athletes.”
With the amount of trickery and misdirection play calls that SoHi runs in its offense, Davis said his West squad will have to be on its toes all evening.
Last year, the Eagles were led to the state crown on a pass heavy offense, with Ryan Duffy slinging the ball at quarterback. Duffy is gone this year to graduation, leaving juniors Hunter Hughes and Qyntyn Pilcher as the next one up. Davis said he still hasn’t made a decision on who will get the start against SoHi.
The guys to look out for in West’s backfield will be Turek Taylor and Justin Tovio, Davis said.
If there’s one guy that’s familiar with the Eagles’ system, it’s Stars senior lineman Aseli Finau, who played at West as a freshman and sophomore. Finau is still friends with many of West’s players, including coach Davis, Tovio and fellow lineman Rapi Sotoa.
“Both teams teach hard work and discipline, so it’s the same ideals,” Finau said. “Last year, coach (Brantley Jr.) talked about outworking people and working in the trenches, and I took that to heart.”
The 6-foot-2 Finau said the prevailing emotion he’ll have Friday night will be one of joy in seeing his old teammates again, but once the pigskin goes in the air for kickoff, it’s all business.
“They have a good team and we have a good team,” he said. “It’ll be a special game.”
For a school of about 770 students, Soldotna’s turnout of nearly 90 players on the roster is a clear sign that the football program is thriving. Of course, four straight state titles will pique interest.
Starting at quarterback this fall will be junior Brandon Crowder, who takes over the job from Dylan Simons. Crowder started three games for the Stars midway through the season last year in a fill-in role after Simons was injured.
Crowder also said he has committed more time to the weight room over the summer and attended a pair of camps, one at Colony High and one in Soldotna.
“You always got to enjoy being the starter,” Crowder said. “I hope the stands are packed (Friday) and we play hard.”
Crowder completed 52 percent of his passes with 284 yards in 2015 and threw six touchdowns without an interception. Brantley Jr. said Crowder stacks up against any of the SoHi quarterbacks of the past.
“He’s as talented a passer as we’ve ever had,” Brantley Jr. said. “I think he’s ready to go.”
Davis added that he isn’t looking past SoHi’s passing game.
“Crowder’s a stud, he does some things really well with his arm and legs,” Davis said. “That may be the underrated thing about SoHi, they can sling the rock really well.”
Crowder will not get the benefit of passing to Soldotna’s leading receiver from 2015, however, as tight end Trevor Walden graduated. Walden led the Stars last year with 234 receiving yards and seven scoring catches.
The good news is that Soldotna has brought up a number of talented wideouts from its JV squad, led by 6-4 senior Andy West. Crowder and West have a long history with each other on the lower levels of the SoHi program, and their relationship goes as far back as Pop Warner. Plus, West is reportedly one of the faster members of the team with a 4.80-second 40-yard dash.
“We got our connection down,” Crowder said.
“He gives us a dimension we haven’t had in a few years,” Brantley Jr. added. “The sky’s the limit for him.”
Levi Hensley and Luke Trammell will also be targeted by Crowder, and Trammell could also fill under center if Crowder is pulled late in game.
In front of Crowder, the SoHi offensive line has two senior returners in Bryce Martin and Kyle Marcuson, while junior Wendell Tuisaula, senior Alex Goodermote and Aseli Finau complete the rest of a line that lost several talented starters. Martin’s role with the team has taken on a larger importance this year after the graduations of linemen Sage Hill, Austin Crowder and Dalton Best.
Running the ball in SoHi’s famous system will be Brenner Furlong, Austin Schrader and Jace Urban.
“I’m pretty confident in shutting down West’s run game,” said Martin, who will double as a linebacker on defense. “Me and Wendell will be doing a lot of hitting this year.
“All we really want this year is the ring.”
The Stars return five starters on defense, many of them two-way players. Starting along with Finau will be Marcuson on the line, and the backfield will be Tuisaula, Jace Urban and Martin.
As the countdown clock hanging in the SoHi weight room counts down to zero, the anticipation of a heavyweight match will hope to decide the best team in the state, no matter what size division it plays in.
“Iron sharpens iron,” Davis said. “This is a good matchup.”
Kenai at South, 2 p.m. Saturday
The Kenai football team is sporting a new look this year, but the goal remains the same. Get back to the medium-schools championship game.
With Davis Lowery taking the reigns as head coach, the Kardinals will still retain much of the same look as last year, except for one thing. The pigskin will be getting more airtime.
“We’re going to throw the ball,” stated Lowery. “You’ll see multiple formations from us.”
Lowery hails from Kodiak, where he spent a single season with the Bears in 2015 as a defensive coordinator, but he got his start in the sport in sun-soaked Florida, first as a nose guard and linebacker at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, then as a high school and college coach. In all, Lowery has close to 20 years of coaching experience.
Lowery has put that experience to use in the early weeks of the season, as he has escalated the tempo in practices.
“Everything we do has a timer on it, everything has a clock,” he said. “We want them thinking fast and playing fast.”
The new style of work is designed to get the Kardinals back to the promised land, which includes a shiny ring. Kenai Central hasn’t won a state title since 2011, which remains the most recent year rival Soldotna did not win.
So far, the process seems to be working.
“We want to make the playoffs, and this team is teaching me as much as I am every day,” Lowery said. “Our coaches look at each other and say, ‘Wow, we’re not supposed to be this far along already.’”
The Kardinals get their 2016 campaign going the same way their rivals Soldotna did in 2015, with a matchup against the rejuvenated Wolverines.
After a 46-18 loss to Kenai last year as a Kodiak coach, Lowery is not unfamiliar with the Kardinals program, but the players themselves sport a different look. Eighteen of the 22 starting members from last year’s 5-2 team graduated.
“We don’t use the word ‘rebuilding,’ it’s ‘building’” Lowery said.
The Kards will be missing running backs Draiden McMinn and Andrew Welborn, kicker Marshall Vest, linemen Royal Brown, Toby Randall, Zach Koziczkowski, Connor Jones, David Beck and tight end Conner Johnson, among others.
Welborn and McMinn combined for over 1,000 rushing yards, or 55 percent of Kenai’s rush production. Welborn led the way with 682 rushing yards himself and averaged 10.5 yards per carry.
It’s partly due to those losses that Lowery is making a change in the offensive system.
“It’s forced a change in the system,” Lowery said. “If I had those guys back, it’s a different story.”
Leading the charge at quarterback will be Chase Gillies, who returns for his senior campaign.
“He’s a pretty mobile quarterback, I’ve been pretty impressed with his progress,” Lowery said.
Gillies will have several receiving options, including Zack Tuttle, whose 413 rushing yards ranked second among Kenai backs last year. Additionally, Rykker Riddall joins the mix from Nikiski and Nick Beeson returns as a running back and blocker.
The lone returner on the offensive line is senior Jonathon Delgado.
On defense, the Kards return Beeson and Delgado on the line and Seth Kruse and Tuttle in the backfield, which will also see the addition of Riddall.
Nikiski at Valdez, 11 a.m. Saturday
The Bulldogs enter the season looking to extend their streak of five consecutive state championship appearances at the small-schools level. In that five-year span, Nikiski won two rings in 2011 and 2013, beating Barrow and Monroe, respectively.
However, in each of the other three years — including the past two — Nikiski lost to the Eielson Ravens, which have become a bit of a thorn in their side.
“That’s the main goal (to beat Eielson),” said Nikiski coach Paul Nelson. “I asked the kids what they want to accomplish, and one of the first things they said was beat Eielson.”
The Bulldogs will get the first crack at the Ravens in a Saturday afternoon matchup Sept. 24, which will double as the Nikiski homecoming game.
Nelson opens a new era for the Bulldogs tomorrow against Valdez. Most of the coaching staff, including stalwarts Riddall and offensive coordinator Scott Anderson, are gone. The lone returning coach will be Tim Johnson.
Nelson hails from Colony, where he spent three years as the Knights’ defensive coordinator under head coaches Brian McIntosh and Rhett Magner. Nelson said he learned several important values from his time at Colony that he hopes to instill at Nikiski.
“It’s about having high expectations for the kids,” he said. “They can accomplish more than they think that they can, and it’s making them realize that they can do these things.”
If that idea comes to fruition, it will take a big effort by the returning crew to fill the vacated roles of the team’s 2015 leadership core. Nikiski graduated several big starters, including quarterback Cade Anderson, receivers Hunter Holloway and Matt Hollinger, running backs Nathan Carstens and Corin Cooper, tight end Dylan Broussard and lineman Luke Johnson, Jon McCormick and Ruben Sepeda.
Stepping up to the starting quarterback role will be junior Ian Johnson. Behind Johnson will be backs Matthew Minium and Patrick Perry, and flanking the backfield will be sophomore receiver Cody Handley, who Nelson said has got stout catching hands.
While the Wing-T offense will still remain intact, Nelson plans to transition to a 3-4 scheme on defense. Many players will be two-way starters, including Johnson filling his older brother Luke’s role at linebacker. Handley, Minium and Baker Hensley will complete the linebacking core, and Perry will be a safety.
Nelson said a sixth-straight trip to the state title game is possible with the current crew, but the first step comes this weekend in Valdez.
“Anything’s possible,” Nelson said. “I don’t wanna go out and say we’re going to make it to state, but that’s one of (the goals).
“That was the last goal we wrote down.”
Homer at Eielson, 1 p.m. Saturday
The Mariners’ first matchup of the year against the defending champs isn’t the one they necessarily wanted to see, but head coach Josh Fraley said it could be a prime opportunity.
Homer lost 61-18 to Eielson in the 2015 regular season, then made an early exit in the playoffs against the Ravens with a 62-0 drubbing.
“We learned a lot from that (playoff) game,” Fraley said. “It definitely wasn’t my first pick on the schedule, but if there’s a time to play them, it’s either at the beginning or the very end. That way, we can get them while we’re both green or while we’re polished.”
Eielson went on to successfully defend its small-schools state championship last October with a convincing 49-14 victory over Nikiski.
Entering his fourth year as the Homer head coach, and 13th year total, Fraley said he hopes to use last year’s playoff appearance as motivation to keep the momentum up. The Mariners finished 4-4 overall last year, which was just enough to put them into the small-schools playoffs, their first postseason appearance since 2012 when Homer competed at the medium-schools level.
“It was nice to be back, it gave ourselves an opportunity to learn,” he said. “Now, this year is the year that I projected when I took over to make a big push.”
After Eielson, the Mariners face a better schedule, although matchups against Juneau and Nikiski could spoil their party in Weeks 4 and 6, respectively. Homer wraps up the regular season with home games against newcomer Joe Redington and Voznesenka high schools.
Homer graduated eight seniors, five of which were starters. Among the key players Homer lost was receiver Greg Smith, running backs Josh Fisk and Alex Stephens, and tight end Michael Swoboda, who now plays receiver at Presentation College, an NAIA institution in Aberdeen, South Dakota.
The four players combined for 56 percent of Homer’s offense, including half their rushing with 814 yards. Smith and Swoboda accounted for 488 receiving yards, nearly half of the team’s air strikes, and combined with Fisk, the total was 668 yards, or 63 percent.
However, Fraley said he has a supply of incoming pass catchers that can get the job done, including Fisk’s younger brother Noah.
“We’ll be fine, we’re actually pretty deep at receiver,” Fraley said. “I have about eight guys that can catch.”
Returning at quarterback is one of the most versatile players of the peninsula, junior Teddy Croft. Croft led all peninsula quarterbacks with 927 passing yards and 13 touchdowns last year, with a completion percentage of 53. However, Fraley said Croft’s specialty is defense, where he enjoys playing as a safety.
“We made him play quarterback, which he absolutely despises,” Fraley said. “But he made the sacrifice and we let him play safety, which is his first love. He’s probably going to a (Division I or II) college for safety.”
Included in the returning core are receivers Dawson Felde, Timmy Woo, Justin Sumption, Chris Cudaback, Seth Adkins and Jack Heimbold. Felde led the way with 133 receiving yards last year.
Homer will be touting a more experienced offensive line with two seniors, a junior and two sophomores. Sophomore Jadin Mann returns as an all-conference left tackle, as well as right tackle Cole Sallee (who stands at 6-5 and 320 pounds), senior right guard Seth Clauson, Kyle Wells at center and junior Levi King at tackle.
If Homer is to make its scheduled playoff push, the current crop of players could the ones to do it. With weight room sessions starting at 6 a.m. — including the summer months — Fraley hopes to have his Mariners ready.
Ketchikan at Seward, 1 p.m. Saturday
Seward went 2-6 last year, with a pair of wins against Voznesenka the highlights of the season.
However, competing against the more established regimes like Nikiski and Homer, the Seahawks will be pressed to make the postseason.
However, coach Kelly Cinereski is confident that his team is on the upswing after a struggle in 2015.
“Our strength of team is unity,” Cinereski said. “This is probably the best we’ve seen it, and it seems to be an overall group of guys, one of the stronger groups we’ve had.”
Cinereski said the Seward football program is standing at about 24 heads, which will help to ease the burden.
When the Seahawks lost star quarterback Rhett Sieverts last year to injury, the rest of the season began to implode. After a few other key injuries, Seward had hardly enough in the tank to make a playoff push in the final week of the season.
“This group of seniors have stuck around, and they worked hard when the program was struggling at its lowest,” Cinereski said. “So the goals are to win some games and have some fun, and if the playoffs are there, we’ll take it one game at a time.”
Returning this season will be senior quarterbacks Sieverts and Nik Pahno, who Cinereski said will be competing for the starting spot. Sieverts will also likely be seeing time as a tight end.
Senior Mike Wilps will be a starting tight end, and will be joined by senior receiver Kyle Hubbard, who could double as a fullback. The Seward offensive line will consist mainly of guards Chris Heddick and Trenton Freiberg and center Sean Nelson.