Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion Soldotna's Levi Hensley and Andy West celebrate West's touchdown against West Anchorage on Aug. 12 at Justin Maile Field in Soldotna.

Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion Soldotna's Levi Hensley and Andy West celebrate West's touchdown against West Anchorage on Aug. 12 at Justin Maile Field in Soldotna.

Halfway point of season: Football coaches send out grades

Four weeks into an eight-week regular season schedule means one thing for prep football teams. Midterm report cards are due.

Some teams have met expectations, while others may have fallen short.

Soldotna head coach Galen Brantley Jr. said he would give his undefeated Stars a solid B, adding that there are many little things that go mostly unnoticed amidst a superlative stretch of games.

“If you’re going just based off wins and losses, we’ve done everything we can,” he said. “But have we played our best? No, I don’t think so.”

With a 4-0 start to the season, SoHi has cleared all the early hurdles, including three wins over large-school teams. The most recent, a thrilling 22-21 win over No. 1 East Anchorage, helped to cement SoHi’s status as top team in the state, regardless of division.

“We knew going in we were at such a mismatch in size and speed,” Brantley Jr. said. “On paper, we should not have won that football game.”

After an 0-2 start to their season, the Kenai Kardinals have righted the ship with two straight wins. Kenai coach Davis Lowery said after the Kards were able to establish a much more even offensive output in a Week 4 win over Eagle River, he would give his squad a B.

“Given it’s a brand-new system, with little time to prep, I’d say we’re about 85 percent on schedule,” Lowery said. “I’d give our heart and fight an A, but our progression is a B.”

Like Kenai, the Nikiski Bulldogs have rebounded from an 0-2 start to reach the halfway mark at .500, and Nikiski coach Paul Nelson gives his Bulldogs a B-minus.

“We’ve made some improvements and getting better but there are still a lot of changes to make,” Nelson said. “We have a young team that’s growing, and the kids want it and are working hard in practice.”

Farther south, the Homer Mariners are off to a winless start, and the bad news only continues to pile on. Junior quarterback Teddy Croft, a versatile athlete that has accounted for 72 percent of Homer’s total offense thus far, is out for the season after breaking his leg early in the third quarter against Juneau last weekend.

Still, for a team that is giving up an average of 49 points per game, Homer head coach Josh Fraley assigned a D.

“It doesn’t look good,” Fraley said. “We’ve played some tough opponents, but we’ve let a couple go away.

“At worst, we should be 2-2.”

With the bulk of the nonconference schedule behind them, Northern Lights and Peninsula conference teams are ready to turn up the wick.

Palmer (1-3) at Soldotna (4-0), 6 p.m. Friday

One week after coming the closest they’ve ever been to losing The Streak, the Soldotna Stars are returning back to where it all started.

SoHi’s last loss came to Palmer on Aug. 11, 2012, on its home turf at Justin Maile Field. Four years later, the Moose return for another annual Northern Lights Conference clash with Soldotna, which will be celebrating homecoming as well.

The game is SoHi’s first NLC matchup of the year, something that coach Brantley Jr. is happy to see, especially after starting three of the first four weeks playing up a level against large-school opponents.

“We’re ready to get to some games where something is on the line,” he said. “There are still some decent teams in our conference.”

SoHi’s battle with bigger teams — East sports a fearsome defensive line with several 300-pound linemen — have left the Stars licking their wounds with several players that Brantley Jr. listed as questionable to go tonight.

Sore muscles and aches aside, Brantley Jr. said Soldotna is ready to tackle the rest of the season.

“It was certainly an experience without question, but the challenge now is not to have a letdown,” he said.

In the most recent Alaska Sports Broadcasting Network poll, Soldotna was given the top ranking while Kodiak came in at No. 5. Brantley Jr. expressed surprise, considering that Palmer just defeated Kodiak 35-18 in Week 4.

“Between Kodiak, Kenai and Palmer, there are three super competitive teams, and (Palmer) kind of reloads each year,” he said. “They’re really well-coached and have improved. I mean, they went and beat a good Kodiak team.”

Last year, SoHi defeated Palmer 42-7 at the Moose’s home field.

One thing that Brantley Jr. is not happy to see is the turnover rate that Soldotna has suffered this year. The Stars fumbled the ball twice in the third quarter against East last week, and both turnovers led to touchdowns by the Thunderbirds.

“There were just way too many blocking mistakes, and the turnovers are absolutely inexcusable,” he said.

Palmer’s big threat the past few years had been running back Chase Ferris, a bruising runner that now plays Division II football, but now the responsibility is up to Austin Farris. Brantley Jr. said it is up to the Stars line to contain him.

Seward (1-3) at Homer (0-4), 2 p.m. Saturday

As the second half kicked off on a tied ballgame against Juneau last week, the Homer Mariners were looking to break the deadlock. Croft had already connected with receiver Joe Ravin on a 60-yard touchdown strike in the first quarter.

However, the game came crashing down for Homer when Croft took off scrambling on a read-option play. A horse-collar tackle by a Juneau player turned Croft’s body right when he was planting his leg to make a cut, and it was enough to break his leg on the landing. It opened the door for Juneau to take a 26-8 win.

The disconcerting news hits Homer at just the wrong time of year. After an 0-4 start against all nonconference opponents, the Mariners are set to embark on their Peninsula Conference schedule, which will decide who goes to the postseason and who doesn’t.

“We gotta do the next-man-up thing,” said Fraley when asked what the next step is.

Fraley said senior Jaime Rios will be replacing Croft for the remainder of the season. Rios, a linebacker on defense, already has game time under his belt this year under center, taking over temporarily when Croft exited Week 1 with concussion symptoms against Eielson.

The Mariners will have to go the distance without Croft or wideout Dawson Felde, who has amassed 71 receiving yards as Croft’s second option this season. Fraley announced Felde out for the year with a concussion. Felde had previous concussion symptoms already this year.

Homer still has a healthy Joe Ravin, who leads all peninsula pass-catchers with 330 receiving yards, averaging 25 yards per catch.

“He’s just a great route runner, just a burner,” Fraley said of Ravin. “And he doesn’t drop the ball.”

Freshman Noah Fisk, a talented receiver, is also likely to return after suffering hamstring issues several weeks ago, and Homer also will be getting junior Levi King back from summer fishing. King played center last year and Fraley said he has the ability to be a strong runner and blocker.

Seward, on the other hand, picked up its first victory of the year with a 36-34 conference win over Redington.

Last year, Homer dominated in a 40-6 victory over Seward, but without Croft or Felde, Fraley said the Mariners defense will have to take a big step up.

“It’s put up or shut up time,” Fraley said.

Kodiak (3-1) at Kenai (2-2), 2 p.m. Saturday

The Kardinals enter the second half of their regular season on the upswing after getting back to .500 on the season with two straight wins, including a victory over Eagle River to put them 1-0 in the NLC.

For first-year head Kenai coach Davis Lowery, Week 5 stands as extra special. Lowery will be facing his former team, the Kodiak Bears, which he spent one season with as defensive coordinator.

“It’s going to be great, it’ll be great to see everybody,” Lowery said. “It’s a very unique situation, and I think it’s something that I’m embracing the positive part of it.”

Lowery said he still holds a valuable friendship with Kodiak coach Bill McGuire, but added once the ball goes into the air, it’s all business.

“Bill and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said. “It’s going to be competitive and we’re going to coach the best way we know how.”

Saturday’s game holds big playoff implications. Kodiak opened the season with big wins over Houston, Homer and Juneau, but lost its first NLC game to Palmer last weekend. A Kodiak win would tie the two squads in the conference standings. Kenai was also recently boosted to fourth in the weekly ASBN football rankings poll.

With previous ties to the Bears, Lowery is familiar with Kodiak’s biggest threats, and said the key matchup that Kenai will be busy with is trying to stop Bears running back Jay Miranda. Miranda brings size and speed to the offense, Lowery said, and will also be teamed with quarterback Andreas Carros.

“Jay is a special player, and there are several kids that are talented,” he said. “We expect them to be fired up after they lost last week.”

Lowery said Kodiak’s defensive secondary will also be tough to pass on, but with Kardinals quarterback Chase Gillies and company continuing to improve each week, success is very much attainable. Gillies has completed almost half of his passes this year and is averaging 133 air yards per game.

Nikiski (2-2) at Joe Redington (0-4), 7 p.m. Friday

A 33-0 shutout over Voznesenka last week gave a much-needed shot of confidence to the Nikiski defense, and Bulldogs coach Paul Nelson said the game, which was closer than the final score indicated, could be a key contest over the season for Nikiski.

“It almost helps more that it wasn’t just a blowout,” Nelson said. “When (Voz) got close to our red zone, the defense toughened up and helped us.”

Nelson said he is wary of an emerging Redington football team, one that is winless on the year but came close to beating Seward last week in a 36-34 loss.

“I’m expecting a pretty good fight,” he said. “We watched their film and they’re getting better every game.”

Nelson said he is keeping an eye on two of Redington’s lineman, in particular, a pair of 300-pound athletes that can easily plug up a team’s running game.

However, with the constantly improving passing attack that Nikiski has, Nelson said he has confidence in overcoming a stout defense. Bulldogs quarterback Ian Johnson threw for three touchdowns and 227 yards last week, after notching just 10 yards in the first three weeks of the season. In his debut season as Nikiski’s signal-caller, Nelson said Johnson is continuing to show improvement.

“I saw a couple times his primary (receiver) was covered, and he went to his second read on the other side of field, which is a huge transition for any QB to do,” Nelson said.

Senior running back Patrick Perry also came up clutch for Nikiski last week, scoring three touchdowns on offense and getting three turnovers on defense — two picks and a fumble recovery. With that kind of athleticism, Nelson said Perry is expected to show up big again.

Valdez (3-1) vs. Voznesenka (0-3), 11 a.m. Saturday

The winless Voznesenka Cougars finished the first half of their regular season with a competitive game against Nikiski. Although the 33-0 final score looks lopsided, Voz managed to move the ball efficiently against the Bulldogs, but several red-zone turnovers and penalties hurt the Cougars’ chances.

Valdez suffered its first loss of the season with a 41-12 dud to Eielson last weekend.

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