Saturday afternoon at Justin Maile Field in Soldotna, a long-held tradition will receive a new chapter.
The 36-year-old rivalry between Kenai Central and Soldotna football teams will be rehashed when the Kardinals and Stars clash for the 43rd time.
Of course, the game also has big postseason implications. If SoHi wins, the Stars move into the medium-schools playoffs as the champion from the Northern Lights Conference champion and the top seed, with the Palmer Moose going in as the No. 2 seed.
If Kenai beats SoHi, a three-way tie atop the conference standings would result between the two teams and Palmer. Head-to-head matchups would decide nothing, so a second tiebreaker, likely defensive points allowed, would be used.
However, the Kards haven’t defeated the Stars since the 2011 state semifinals.
For SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr., the game tradition has stayed close to him since he was a player. The 1993 SoHi graduate played three seasons in the Stars program.
“We love the rivalry, the atmosphere, it’s a game we look forward to every year,” Brantley Jr. said. “The kids are focused, and this is a big game for us.”
The previous 42 meetings between Kenai and SoHi have read like any cherished rivalry, whether it be Yankees and Red Sox, Bears and Packers, Lakers and Celtics, Leafs and Habs, Bama and Auburn, or Duke and UNC.
Since 1980, Soldotna leads the overall count 26-16, including the last five games, but Kenai leads the playoff series 4-2.
For first-year Kenai coach Davis Lowery, the experience will be a new one for him from the Kenai sideline, but after speaking with Brantley Jr. early in the season about the long history between the two sides, Lowery said it’s one he hopes to cultivate in the future.
“We felt like the big picture was to set a precedent to what rivalries should be,” he said. “The big picture goals are, rivalries should be competitive and fun.”
Kenai (3-4) at Soldotna (7-0), 2 p.m. Saturday
The Kenai-SoHi football rivalry is a long one that dates back to 1980, when the Soldotna football program began. The history started with a nonconference meeting that ended in a 32-0 win for the Kardinals.
If the Red Birds can repeat that feat, there is a chance of a postseason spot.
“We’re hyperfocused on when to make adjustments and it’s a do-your-job week, we’ve got to try to maintain our focus,” Lowery said. “We’re in a corner, and our kids have responded pretty well when we’re in a corner.”
The difference between the first and second seeds in the conference will be a matchup between either Thunder Mountain and North Pole, the two playoff teams from the Southeast Conference. Home-field advantage is not an option as all playoff games will be held at Palmer High School.
“We want to control our own destiny and secure that No. 1 seed in the playoffs,” Brantley Jr. stated. “That’s been one of our main goals from the beginning of the season.”
Kenai could have wrapped up a playoff spot last week in Palmer, but a 21-7 loss to the Moose negated that advantage, so the Kards must win this week.
In that loss, Kenai only managed 159 yards with a new-look offense. Instead of senior Chase Gillies taking snaps under center, Lowery installed senior Avery Heiber at the quarterback position, which freed up Gillies to unleash his athleticism on the Palmer secondary, along with receiver Zack Tuttle and fullback Rykker Riddall. Heiber finished the night with a touchdown pass to Tuttle, the only points by Kenai.
Lowery said the change was made in an attempt to put the strongest and fastest players in the field and give Kenai its best shot at beating Palmer.
“Our (goal) was to be unpredictable,” Lowery said. “We were trying to get our best athletes into space, and we were facing a very good line on both sides of the ball.”
Unfortunately, Kenai had trouble containing Palmer’s running attack, as the Moose were able to control the clock and score when it counted. Overall, Palmer had 274 rushing yards, with three different backs carrying the ball over 66 yards each.
The Stars are coming off a 47-0 blowout over Eagle River, which extended SoHi’s state-record win streak to 46 in a row and their season to 7-0. A win Saturday would also give SoHi an undefeated regular season for a fourth consecutive year.
As the favorite against the Kards, Brantley Jr. has been in this position many times, and knows how to tackle the challenge.
“Kenai is in a situation where they can play up the David and Goliath storyline,” he said. “They can play loose and not have anything to lose, it’s a game on paper they’re not supposed to win.
“It can make their entire season, they could turn it around in one game.”
Having to manage a banged-up team over the course of a tough schedule has left Brantley Jr. with the decision to play whoever is ready. Lineman Kyle Marcuson and tight end Andy West are both expected to play Saturday, but the coach said lineman Aseli Finau is still questionable.
Against Kenai’s speed, any size advantage could be useful.
“Gillies, Tuttle and Riddall can take the ball to the house at any time,” Brantley Jr. said. “We know that all three are extremely talented, but at the same time, we can’t focus on stopping one or two players.”
Lowery added that he hopes to have junior Nick Beeson back, who had been held out the past two games due to precautionary measures after concussion-related symptoms.
Lowery said he doesn’t believe SoHi is not hiding anything, and an all-out battle on the gridiron is to be expected.
“That’s a machine that’s tough to fight against, if you’re not consistent,” he said.
Nikiski (4-3) at Seward (4-3), 2 p.m. Saturday
The Northern Lights Conference isn’t the only division that will see a playoff race come down to the last weekend.
With identical 3-0 records in the Peninsula Conference, the Bulldogs and Seahawks will duke it out for that honor, and each team has one goal tonight — win.
The winner will be crowned conference champion and will subsequently gain the top seed in the small-schools playoffs. Like the medium-schools playoffs, the conference champ gets a date with the No. 2 seed from the Aurora Conference in the semifinal round.
“We’re just emphasizing how big this game is,” said Nikiski coach Paul Nelson. “It’s huge not only to go down and beat Seward, but also with what it leaves you with.”
Nikiski captured the inaugural Peninsula Conference crown last year, after a four-year string of finishing second in the former Greatland Conference, including two years that were decided by tiebreakers.
This year, an 0-2 start in nonconference play left Nikiski looking unlike previous years, when the Bulldogs typically bowled through other small-schools competition, but Nikiski righted the ship considerably with four straight wins over Monroe Catholic, Voznesenka, Redington and Homer.
But, a brutal 58-14 loss to burgeoning rival Eielson last weekend on their home field left a bitter taste in Nikiski’s mouth.
“We were on a four-game win streak, the kids were on a high, then Eielson stopped us,” Nelson said. “We realized there is work to do if we want to win a championship.”
With the conference title on the line this weekend, Nelson said he is wary of playing in Seward.
“Anytime you’re on the road, it’s tougher,” he said. “I know it’s kind of mucky down there, it can be wet, so we definitely need to have fresh cleats on the guys.”
The Bulldogs scrimmaged against Seward in a preseason meeting at Kenai Central, and Nelson learned that Seward runs a similar offense to SoHi, meaning he will be looking out for multiple ball carriers.
Hopefully, he said, Nikiski can sneak out of there with a win and avoid having to take the long bus ride up to Fairbanks for a playoff date with Eielson.
“For us, having to travel that far one more time, it can be a drain on the kids,” he said. “It’s harder to play after a trip like that.”
Voznesenka (1-5) at Homer (1-6), 4 p.m. Friday
A pair of Homer-based teams that stand at 1-2 each in conference play will finish out their respective seasons that fell short of their dreams.
Both Homer and Voznesenka are out of playoff contention, so tonight’s clash is simply an opportunity for either team to put a cherry on top of a tough season.
For the Mariners, 2016 was the lost season, as quarterback Teddy Croft, receiver Dawson Felde and running back Noah Fisk each missed considerable time due to injuries. Fisk was the only player to make it back on the field for the end of the season, exploding last week for 295 yards and five touchdown runs in a 58-12 win over Redington.
For the Cougars, the season was another one of improvement for the school that just founded its football program a few years ago, but also one of missed chances. A midseason loss to Nikiski was one in particular that left coach Justin Zank feeling like an opportunity slipped through their fingers.
However, Voznesenka did avoid a winless season by emerging victorious in a 12-8 game over Redington in Week 6. The win was just the fourth in the program’s history.