The Kenai Central football team found out this week that it clinched its first playoff berth since 2015, but the way that playoff spot happened provides an unwelcome reminder of how the coronavirus pandemic can still mess up a team’s season.
The Kardinals are 1-2 in the Mid Alaska Conference and 1-3 overall. The conference gets three playoff berths. Redington and Houston, both 2-0 in the league, have sealed two of the conference’s berths.
The big question heading into this week was Barrow, the Division III runner-up in 2018 and 2019 and the Division III state champ in 2017.
The Whalers had been unable to play since Week 3 due to COVID issues. With Barrow High School closed until Oct. 4, the football team will not play any more games this season.
That means the third spot in the playoffs comes down to Kenai and Homer (0-2, 1-4). The Kardinals defeated the Mariners 27-22 in Week 6 to secure that spot.
Kenai coach Dustin Akana told his team Tuesday.
“They’re super excited, but they were all obviously questioning it, like, ‘Wait, we are?’” Akana said.
The news landed differently in Homer, where the Mariners were preparing for two homes games to finish the regular season — a Week 7 battle against Redington for senior night and a Week 8 game against Barrow for homecoming.
After never having a full team this season due to injuries, COVID close contacts and grades, Homer coach Justin Zank finally had his team at full strength.
“We were looking to rally them with a shot at the playoffs,” Zank said. “We had them going earlier this week. We’re at full strength now with the guys focused in on this week.”
Zank said the news from Barrow is disappointing and all to familiar. Last season, Homer had qualified for the playoffs when the program went into quarantine. Before the quarantine was over, the football playoffs had been canceled due to the pandemic.
Galen Brantley Jr., Soldotna’s coach, said that while this season has been tough due to constantly missing players due to COVID close contacts, the plight of Homer and Barrow show how fortunate his team is to play every week.
“A year ago, we felt probably exactly what Homer is feeling, when our Eagle River game was canceled in the playoffs, then a week later they canceled the title game,” Brantley Jr. said. “It was really heartbreaking for the kids and the community.
“My heart goes out to Justin and Homer. It’s a really tough situation when you don’t get a chance to earn it.”
Wasilla at Soldotna, 5 p.m. Friday
Coming off a 27-14 victory over previously unbeaten Eagle River in Week 6, the Stars can clinch the Northern Lights Conference title for the 15th straight year and a home game in the first round of the Division II playoffs.
Soldotna is 3-0 in the league and 4-1 overall, while Wasilla is 1-1 in the league — with that loss coming to Eagle River — and 4-2 overall. A SoHi loss to Wasilla would open up the possibility of the Stars, Wolves and Warriors all having a 3-1 league record.
“One thing about Wasilla is they do have athletes — they are a basketball power and a wrestling powerhouse,” Brantley Jr. said. “They have a brand-new coach with things headed in the right direction.
“They’re not an easy out for anybody. They still have control over their own destiny.”
As usual, the Stars will not be at full strength due to injuries and close contacts.
“One of the things that’s important to us is to not have a letdown,” Brantley Jr. said. “We played a very physical game last week against an undefeated team.
“We have to make sure we come out hard again.”
On offense, Brantley Jr. said the Stars will focus on their own execution. On defense, SoHi will face a team capable of big plays. Brantley Jr. said the defense of coordinator Eric Pomerleau was vital in the victory over Eagle River and must step up again.
“Our offense maybe attracts more attention than it deserves,” Brantley Jr. said. “We pride ourselves as a program on playing great defense and Eric’s been a big part of our success since he’s been here.”
Even in a team win against Eagle River in which Brantley Jr. said everybody was needed, the coach said the play of Brayden Taylor — with an interception for score, blocked punt and key third-down throw — stood out.
Redington at Homer, 5:30 p.m. Friday
At full strength, the Mariners will look to cap their season by handing Redington (2-0, 5-0) its first loss.
Led by quarterback Wayde Bowman and running back Jaden Spaulding, the Huskies have been a nightmare for defenses this season.
“Their quarterback has a pretty good arm,” Zank said. “He makes quick decisions and when he’s flushed from the pocket, he can pick up first downs with his feet, but he always keeps his eyes downfield so he’s a threat to throw the ball.”
Zank will count on an offense led by junior quarterback Carter Tennison to keep the ball away from Redington. Tennison had 197 yards rushing and 104 yards passing in the loss to Kenai.
“For it being the seniors’ last game, I hope that we can perform well,” Zank said. “I hope that we can play well in front of our home fans.”
Eagle River at Kenai, 2 p.m. Saturday
The Kardinals will take the momentum of their first victory of the season and playoff berth up against an Eagle River team smarting from its first loss of the season.
“The win showed the boys that winning is a fun thing,” Akana said. “Obviously, going in and playing Eagle River this week, we know it’s a tough game. Like always, we’ll go back and focus on fighting hard.”
Akana said he is missing younger players to COVID close contacts, and older players due to injury.
“Our main priority is playing well this game, and just leaving the game healthy to prepare for the playoffs,” Akana said.
Valdez at Nikiski, 2 p.m. Saturday
With only one berth to the Division III playoffs available out of the Denali Conference, the Bulldogs face a tough road to the postseason. Nikiski is 1-1 in conference heading into the Denali showdown with Valdez, while Monroe leads the league at 2-0 and already has a victory over Nikiski.
Nikiski coach Paul Nelson, whose team is 1-4 overall, still sees plenty to play for against the Buccaneers (1-1, 2-2).
“There’s a chance we could still make the playoffs,” Nelson said. “If nothing else, we just want to take care of business the last two weeks of the season to finish the season strong.
“We’ve worked hard the last few months and we don’t want to give up everything we’ve worked for. We’ll keep pushing and see what happens.”
Redington has had the option of playing nine-man football at home. Nikiski elected to play 11-man this week, but the last three weeks of football have been nine-man for the Buccaneers. Nelson said that has made it hard to scout Valdez on film.
“Whether it’s due to the nine-man game or not, they’ve put up a lot of points the last three weeks,” Nelson said.
The Nikiski coach is happy with the way his defense played against Redington. He’s also hoping Nikiski’s ground-oriented attack can keep the ball away from the Buccaneers.
Seniors Simon Grenier, Wyatt Stormer and Alen Nelson will be honored on senior night.
“I thank them for their time and commitment,” Nelson said. “It’s always a little emotional to see the seniors moving on.”