Soldotna’s Brenner Furlong turns upfield after eluding Kenai’s Jarett Wilson on a kickoff return Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, at Ed Hollier Field in Kenai. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna’s Brenner Furlong turns upfield after eluding Kenai’s Jarett Wilson on a kickoff return Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, at Ed Hollier Field in Kenai. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Last year’s semi lurks in SoHi’s memory

The monster 57-game win streak that the Soldotna football team currently owns saw one of its biggest scares last October in a state semifinal battle with North Pole.

The uncharacteristic sloppy Stars were facing a 15-0 deficit deep into the first half, and still trailed after three quarters before staging a late comeback to survive and advance into the championship game. It was an ordeal that left SoHi head coach Galen Brantley Jr. on pins and needles throughout much of the day and with a week’s worth of errors to iron out before the title game a week later.

“I can’t remember a more unemotional and more uninvested football game from our kids,” Brantley Jr. recalled.

One year later and hot off a fifth straight undefeated regular season, Brantley Jr. said his team is now ready to go back and play the game they should’ve played last year.

“They want to prove they’re a better team than last year,” he said.

If the 2017 state semifinals look familiar, it’s because they are.

The Division II playoffs feature the exact same matchups as last year’s semifinal round, pitting the No. 1 Northern Lights Conference seed Soldotna against the No. 2 Southeast Conference seed North Pole, and the No. 1 Southeast team Thunder Mountain against No. 2 Northern Lights team Palmer. The Stars beat the Patriots 25-21 and the Moose prevailed 28-26 over the Falcons in last year’s semifinal matchups.

Soldotna’s playoff schedule is set to kickoff 4 p.m. Saturday.

Injuries played a big role for SoHi in the mistake-strewn semi last year. Chief among the players that missed the game to injury was quarterback Brandon Crowder, who had accounted for almost 23 percent of the team’s offense in the 2016 regular season.

In place of Crowder was Jace Urban, who had limited experience under center and ended up fumbling the ball five times, three for turnovers. The SoHi staff made the decision a week later to start freshman Jersey Truesdell in the championship game against Palmer.

Brantley Jr. said Crowder’s absence made for a tough day against a high-powered North Pole contingent.

“I don’t think we overlooked North Pole,” he said. “We were just beat up by the time we got to them. Injuries were pretty significant, and we’re expecting the same kind of effort from their kids. They’re hungry and wanted to beat us.”

The Patriots also had head coach Dennis Diviney on their side. Diviney spent one year on the SoHi sidelines before moving to take on the head coach position in North Pole.

The Patriots ended 6-2 overall this season, and had a playoff spot all but clinched after a 22-16 week 6 victory over Juneau.

After wrapping up another 8-0 regular season with a 43-14 win over longtime rival Kenai Central last Saturday, Brantley Jr. said he believes in the Stars, who are looking to advance to a sixth straight Division II championship game.

After a season-opening win over Palmer, North Pole doesn’t appear to have lost any of its tenacity. In the opening week, North Pole staged a 19-point comeback to nip Palmer 20-19, but Brantley Jr. said with a fully healthy squad this time around, optimism is high in the SoHi camp.

“I love this time of year,” he said. “If you can’t get excited for games like these, you have no business being on the field.”

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