With history and state pride on the line, the Soldotna Stars mustered up a championship performance to hold off the South Anchorage Wolverines in a 21-17 victory Friday night to open the 2015 prep football season.
The win leaves SoHi alone at the top of Alaska football legend with a 30-game win streak, a new state record. Twice before, a team had gotten to 29 straight wins, but never 30, until Friday at Justin Maile Field.
“I feel like the bull’s-eye just got bigger,” quipped Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr., who bumped his head coaching career record at SoHi to 77-5 with the win. “Now everybody has something to shoot for against us.”
While the victory may have provided the rest of the state a target to shoot at, it was the perfect way to kick off the Stars campaign for a fourth-straight, medium-schools trophy.
In a matchup that pitted South, the reigning large-schools state champion, and Soldotna, the defending medium-schools champ, against each other on a rare occasion, it lived up to the hype by providing all the drama and fireworks that was anticipated in such a clash.
The Stars started fast en route to a 21-7 halftime lead, but slowly began to run out of gas in the second half due to cramping issues and the loss of their star running back, senior Drew Gibbs, who was sidelined before the end of the first quarter. Gibbs finished with 95 rushing yards on five carries, not including a 65-yard touchdown run called back on an inadvertent whistle.
Saturday afternoon, Brantley Jr. confirmed that Gibbs suffered an anterior cruciate ligament tear and will be sidelined the rest of the season.
“I’d trade (Friday’s win) in a second to have him back playing,” Brantley Jr. said by phone on Saturday.
Brantley Jr. added that if there is any good news, it’s that Gibbs received word from Division II Northern State University (South Dakota) that a previously offered scholarship still stands.
With Gibbs out of the picture Friday, SoHi was left to depend on the rest of its stable of backs, with seniors Mason Prior and Kristian Palaniuk picking up the bulk of the final three quarters of play. Prior finished with 101 ground yards on 22 carries and a touchdown, while Palaniuk ended with 81 yards rushing.
Ultimately, it was Prior who made the biggest play of the night, pushing through the line with less than two minutes remaining to gain 17 yards and, more importantly, a new set of downs that helped SoHi seal the victory.
“During that last play, I knew when I was getting the ball I was going to run so hard,” Prior said with tears in his eyes. “I wasn’t going to go down on those circumstances, and I wanted this 30th win so bad. We got it today.”
Following the final kneeldown with under 20 seconds left on the clock, the celebration quickly kicked in, with players and coaches streaming onto the field and the home crowd — which packed the bleachers to full capacity — roaring with approval.
“It’s amazing, to face one of the large schools right off the bat is tough,” Prior said. “I went crazy. My emotions let loose because I knew we had just won it.”
The SoHi defensive effort was led by junior Jace Urban, who came up with a pair of turnovers on an interception and fumble recovery in the first half.
SoHi quarterback Dylan Simons, a Soldotna native who has returned from a couple years living in Wasilla, guided the Stars under center with 2-for-7 passing for 21 yards, including a 7-yard scoring fling to senior tight end Trevor Walden with just over a minute left in the first quarter that put SoHi into the lead for good at 14-7.
“I always wanted to come back, and the first opportunity I had I came back,” Simons said. “Brantley is the best coach in the state and this is the best program, and I wanted to be a part of something special.”
Junior Ben Stearns led the Wolverines’ ground game with 145 rushing yards, with over half of that coming on a long 81-yard scoring sprint late in the third quarter.
South quarterback Jack Hanson was efficient through the air, going 5-for-6 for 76 yards with a pick, but was hurt early in the fourth quarter on a fumbled snap by South that resulted in the ball getting kicked around by players from both sides. Hanson was injured amid the frantic scrum, and ultimately was carted off the field on a backboard.
Brantley Jr. said losing Gibbs early changed the complexion of the game, but the supporting cast picked up where Gibbs left off.
“It was crazy, this was a total team win,” Brantley Jr. said. “We dug really far into our lineup to put kids in this game.”
SoHi opened the scoring with a 4-yard plunge into the end zone by Palaniuk that was set up by a 39-yard rumble by Gibbs.
South answered with a long, 17-play grind that went 67 yards and ate up 5:26 of the game clock, ending with a 3-yard score by Stearns. The point-after kick put the visitors up 7-6.
The Stars drove 58 yards on the ensuing possession but were stopped by South on downs just 5 yards from the end zone. However, the shock didn’t last long, as the Wolverines fumbled the very next snap to put SoHi right back on offense in the red zone. On the first play from the 7-yard line, Simons connected with Walden for the go-ahead score.
South gave up the ball straight away once again with a pick by Hanson that was brought down by Urban. Once again, however, SoHi’s attack was stalled with under 10 yards to go, as the Wolverines held the Stars at their own 7-yard line again.
After a short touchdown dive by Prior put SoHi up 21-7 with 5:15 to play in the first half, Soldotna would fail to see the end zone for the rest of the game.
SoHi had three drives of 56 yards or more in the first half, but were unable to go any farther than 26 yards on one drive in the second half, which included four straight punts for the Stars.
“The last few drives, they were zeroing in on us,” Brantley Jr. said about South. “It was like we were beating ourselves up, you know, when you really need to keep the train on time to reach the station.”
Following a turnover on downs and a punt by SoHi to open the second half, South quickly entered the comeback conversation on the first play of its second possession of the third quarter. Evan Benedict found an opening in the SoHi line and made the Stars pay with an 81-yard romp to the end zone, leaving South trailing 21-14 with 1:16 left in the third frame.
After the Hanson injury, the resulting timeout taken to tend to the South quarterback allowed the Stars to regroup and stretch ailing muscle cramps. With many SoHi players carrying duties on both sides of the ball, any down time was a blessing.
Following Hanson’s injury, South punted back to SoHi, which returned the favor after a three-and-out possession. It set up South with 49 yards, 7:56 to work with and an opportunity to tie the game.
After picking up 30 yards (all but 7 by Stearns), South settled for a 36-yard field goal by Jared Harjehausen that closed the gap to four points with 5:53 to go in the game.
Soldotna punted the ball away to give South a game-winning opportunity from the SoHi 44-yard line. Stearns took the ball on three straight plays, but a 15-yard penalty on a recovered fumble left the Wolverines backed up to their own 47. South punted on fourth down, hoping to catch SoHi backed up to its end zone.
A late offsides call on SoHi backed up the Stars to their own 21, but Prior ended any doubt of a South comeback with his scamper through the middle and left, which helped him pick up enough for a first down and the ability to drain the clock out.
“(South is) a really physical team,” Prior said. “They brought it, we brought it, but we just stuck through it with the 11 players we put on the field, and we played hard. We wanted to win.”
Stars 21, Wolverines 17
South 7 0 7 3 —17
Soldotna 14 7 0 0 —21
Sol — Palaniuk 4 run (run failed), 9:00
Sou — Stearns 3 run (Harjehausen kick), 3:34
Sol — Walden 7 pass from Simons (Prior run), 1:06
Sol — Prior 2 run (Jones kick), 5:15
Sou — Benedict 81 run (Harjehausen kick), 1:16
Sou — Harjehausen 36 FG, 5:53
First downs 7 13
Rushes-yards 48-235 55-319
Pass yards 76 21
Total yards 311 340
Comp-att-int 5-8-1 2-7-0
Return yards 50 41
Punts 3 5
Fumbles-lost 3-2 1-0
Penalties-yards 7-55 3-20
Rushing — Soldotna: Prior 22-101, Gibbs 5-95, Palaniuk 14-81, Urban 3-16, Finau 3-8, Simons 5-15, Crowder 1-1, Furlong 2-2. South: Benedict 13-145, Stearns 17-59, Jarrell 12-36, Hanson 4-(-10), Manuzzi 1-0, Ulofoshio 1-5.
Passing — Soldotna: Simons 2-7-1—21. South: Hanson 5-6-0—76, Stearns 0-2-0—0.