In a division that sees its fair share of blowouts, the smallest division of high school football in the 49th state could be primed to deliver the biggest matchups this weekend.
The Division III (formerly small-schools) postseason gets under way with a pair of Saturday semifinals, the first a 1 p.m. clash in Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow) featuring the host Whalers and the Nikiski Bulldogs, and the second a 2 p.m. meeting in Homer featuring the hometown Mariners and the Eielson Ravens.
As the top-seeded team from the Peninsula Conference, Homer brings its 7-1 season record against the three-time defending state champions in what is expected to be a monstrous clash.
“I think what you have this weekend is a championship game,” said Homer head coach Walter Love. “We didn’t get to play them this year, and we’ve taken some hard losses to Eielson in the last couple years, so we’re pumped for this game.”
The way Love sees it, the Mariners deserve home field advantage. Homer rolled into the playoffs with seven straight wins, including an astonishing streak of four straight defensive shutouts, all over conference opponents.
Eielson, meanwhile, enters the postseason having held its opposition to a touchdown or less in six of its eight games.
In his second year in Homer and first as head coach of the football program, Love said the weekend holds a lot of optimism.
“As a coach, as a father and as a teacher, I couldn’t be happier,” he said. “Folks have bought in. It’s been a great time to be a Mariner.”
On the other side of the state, the 5-2 Utqiagvik Whalers enter Saturday’s semi against Nikiski as the only Division III team to conquer Eielson this season. The Whalers toppled the Ravens 19-6 in a Week 6 clash, although Eielson was missing a few big playmakers due to injury.
Nikiski, which finished the regular season 4-4 overall, faces an uphill battle with a young, inexperienced team, but the Bulldogs have been able to key in on experience from former Nikiski player Colton Anderson, who head coach Paul Nelson brought in this year as the offensive coordinator. Nelson said Anderson has instilled valuable lessons in the Bulldogs on playoff pressure and road games in Barrow.
“We’ve just talked about the elements and what they’re going to be,” Nelson said. “It’s probably going to be windy, cold, it’ll probably be snowing, but you can’t control that. You can control focus, discipline and mental intensity. Both teams have to play in that weather.
“Colton has been there four times, so for him to be there will help.”
Nelson said Nikiski will be taking the bus to Anchorage, then hopping a plane to the shores of the Arctic Ocean.
Love said after making the trip up to Barrow earlier in the regular season, he is glad his Mariners locked up the top seed to avoid a road trip that includes four or five hours on a bus and a two-hour plane ride.
“I do not envy Nikiski one bit,” Love said with a chuckle. “That’s a tough place to play football in good weather.”
Eielson at Homer, 2 p.m. Saturday
In his first year with the Mariners football program, Love has guided Homer to its best season in school history, a 7-1 campaign, and its first conference championship.
It’s also the first time Homer will host a playoff game.
“It’s a season of firsts,” he said. “It’s just awesome to see everyone come together.”
Now, the Mariners look to take the next step and win a playoff game, which will deliver their first state title game appearance in five years. Homer lost to Soldotna 62-20 in the 2012 Division II championship, and has since been reclassified as a Division III team.
“(Eielson’s) play is really polished and really disciplined, and my kids are like, ‘We’re there too!’” Love said. “If we get the (semifinal) win, the head of steam we’re going to have is going to be like nothing seen here before.”
The Ravens wrapped up their regular season at 6-2, with losses to Division I West Valley (17-15 in the season opener) and Barrow (19-6 in week 6).
The last time these two teams played was the 2016 season opener, which Eielson won 67-31.
But these Mariners are a different unit this year. With so many weapons to use, Love has a mass variety of options when one facet of the game fizzles out. Plus, the Mariners are a more physical team this year, with extensive preseason conditioning that has molded an engine that doesn’t quit through four quarters of action.
“I just ground them and ground them and ground them in (preseason) camp,” Love explained. “Every week they responded, and I just kept upping the ante, and they surpassed it.
“There’s a price to be paid, and now they can recognize there’s a payment.”
Eielson is a traditional ground-and-pound team with a variety of fast backfield runners that can break off chunks of yardage in one play.
The juicy matchup lies in Eielson’s stacked backfield going against what may be an even more stacked Homer defensive linebacking crew, led by a fearsome trio of Sean Love, Levi King and Kyle Wells. King was recently voted Peninsula Conference Lineman of the Year.
If the Ravens can’t get any yards up the middle, then Love said his defensive secondary will be the ones to take on the burden. That’s where Homer cornerbacks Justin Sumption and Cody Johnson come into play, as well as safeties Joe Ravin and Teddy Croft.
“As a rule, we’ve been focused all year on the run game,” Love said. “You can tell the proof is in the pudding.”
Remarkably, the last points Homer has allowed was Sept. 1 against nonconference foe Ketchikan, and the team has since recorded five shutouts in a row.
On the offensive side, Homer has utilized a dual quarterback system with Teddy Croft and Dawson Felde under center, and Love said the team will likely be starting Croft while using Felde on occasion. Croft leads the team with 12 touchdown passes and no picks with 638 passing yards, while Felde has a higher completion percentage with eight scoring passes and 547 passing yards.
From there, Homer’s offensive talent only keeps going. Mariners wideout Ravin has shredded opposing defenses with 463 yards and eight touchdown catches, while ball carriers Noah Fisk and Croft have opened the running game with 590 and 767 yards, respectively, and eight rushing TDs each.
“If you think we’re going to beat you with Teddy Croft, you’re not paying attention,” said Love.”Our playbook is open. It’s all coming out.”
Nikiski at Barrow, 1 p.m. Saturday
After finishing .500 on the season and locking up their playoff spot in the final week, the Bulldogs appear to enter the playoffs as underdogs to the Utqiagvik Whalers.
Nelson, however, is ready to bring Nikiski back to the state title game, where it made a habit of showing up with a five-year string of appearances from 2011 to 2015.
“It could go either way,” he said. “There are great matchups on both sides and no team is heavily favored. I’d love to say we’ll be there, the only team left, but we’ve just got to focus on Barrow before we take the next step.”
Helping the Bulldogs this year has been former Bulldogs starter Colton Anderson, who Nelson brought in as offensive coordinator prior to the season. As a student of the game that played in former coach Ted Riddall’s Wing-T system, Anderson joined with Nelson to improve an offense that was stymied in a 7-6 loss to Monroe Catholic in Week 2.
After that loss, the Bulldogs averaged over 34 points in the next three weeks in wins over Ketchikan, Voznesenka and Redington.
Nelson said that was one of the biggest improvements the Bulldogs have made this year.
“It was just finally getting our offense to jell,” he said. “It’s been a complicated couple of years with me coming in with a new coaching staff with the Wing-T, and I’m not an offensive guy. We used some shotgun stuff early and it wasn’t working well, but when Colton took over the offense, we were finally seeing the results of his knowledge.”
Utqiagvik went 5-2 on the year and notched big victories over Eielson and Houston, last year’s two state semifinal winners, in consecutive weeks.
Nikiski at 4-3, last met the Whalers in a 2015 state semifinal, which the Bulldogs won 41-18.
Nikiski also defeated Barrow 52-21 for the 2011 small-schools state championship, Nikiski’s first state crown since 2001.
Nelson’s biggest concern is the size of the Utqiagvik line, which has a habit of bullying opposing defenses with sheer force. To prepare for that, Nelson said he preached “technique and fundamentals” to his players, working on blocking drills and ways to get around a bigger opponent.
“The guys on their line look like 250 pounds, just big physical guys,” Nelson said. “We’ve letting them know, they don’t have to take them on man to man.
“If you do your job, you’ll be just fine.”
Nikiski’s offensive trio of seniors Ian Johnson and Cody Handley and junior Justin Harris could give the Whalers defense a chore Saturday. The three ball carriers have accounted for 95 percent of Nikiski’s rushing game.
“We just want to set the tempo and control the clock,” Nelson said. “We love the 13-play, 6 1/2-minute drives. We don’t have to hit big plays all the time.”