The current five-year run of dominance the Soldotna High football team has strung together is no accident.
It has taken hours of preparation, film study, practice work and discipline to get where the team is now. For each of the players that have progressed through the Stars varsity program, the determination and perseverance can be summed up in three words.
“Pound the Rock.”
The team has adopted the motto that was made popular by the social “muck-raking” activist Jacob Riis in the late 19th century, who was quoted as saying, “When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stone cutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”
While the SoHi football program has fueled itself on that simple doctrine, there is hardly a soul on the team that characterizes that creed better than team manager Matthew Martinelli.
Given the difficulties and challenges that life has thrown at him, no one would blame Martinelli for falling victim to his chronic condition, cerebral palsy, a neurological malady that affects body movement and muscle coordination.
Yet Martinelli has adopted the same slogan as the football team to not only find a spot in the program, but to thrive on the sidelines.
“You just keep pushing, no matter how many times you fall,” Martinelli said.
The 17-year-old team manager is entering his sophomore year at Soldotna High School, where he has made the transition from Soldotna Prep to the big school, along with the other outgoing freshmen.
Martinelli’s cerebral palsy has left him a partial quadriplegic, sitting in his wheelchair as he keeps track of scrimmages and practices from one of the two end zones at Justin Maile Field. Martinelli also makes use of forearm crutches in order to get around quicker on the sidelines.
Martinelli said he has chronic left knee pain, but his attitude and willingness to do whatever it takes to help the team keeps his positivity flowing.
Saturday during a preseason scrimmage with Chugiak, Martinelli sat in the end zone tending to the film equipment while the players sweated out in the near-70 degree temperatures. He said he expects the transition to the high school from the prep school, reserved just for ninth-graders, will be relatively seamless, something he attributes to great friends and teammates on the football squad.
“I’m ready for it,” he said. “It’s a new school basically, but I feel like it’ll be an exciting year.”
A lot of Martinelli’s enthusiasm comes from watching his friends succeed at something he is physically incapable of doing, and the excitement of anticipating the Stars’ 50th consecutive win Friday is boiling up inside of him.
The Stars will travel to Anchorage to face the West Eagles, last year’s large-schools runner-up, in a season-opening rematch. SoHi beat West 49-30 in last year’s opener for its 40th straight win, and now look to the golden 50-win mark.
SoHi’s schedule also includes tough matchups with Dimond, South and Crater Lake, a Class 5A Oregon team.
Martinelli said the hard schedule is something for which the SoHi football team and head coach Galen Brantley Jr. hungers, and that makes him proud to be a part of an illustrious program.
“Yeah, Brantley doesn’t like it easy,” he said with a smile.
Martinelli said he has been on the sidelines for nearly all of the previous 49 wins that the SoHi varsity team has racked up since August 2012, when a seventh-grade Martinelli was just finding his way to the team. Brantley Jr. said Martinelli showed up at Pop Warner practices looking to be put to work and things clicked from there.
“Matthew just wanted to be down there and helping,” Brantley Jr. said before adding with a chuckle, “and I only ran over him once the first year.”
Brantley Jr. recounted that when the action on the field spills over to the sidelines, one of the top priorities is keeping Martinelli safe from harm.
However, that can be a tall task when there is only a moment’s notice to react.
“He was on crutches, and I was like a tree falling over,” Brantley Jr. recalled. “I felt so bad.”
Martinelli came to work with the football team as a seventh-grader. In his younger days, he would help Brantley Jr. with the Pop Warner program, and so the transition to the SoHi Stars team was seamless.
“It’s ultimate inclusion,” explained Martinelli’s mother, Koreena Ortiz. “It’s either the football team, hockey, basketball, whatever. … He’s helping to assistant coach and helping in peer coaching.”
Ortiz adopted Martinelli as a child in 2006, the same year she also took in Jeremy, a 27-year-old who requires assisted living care. Ortiz said she attends to both her adopted son’s needs through the help of the Office of Children’s Services.
“He doesn’t allow himself to miss a practice,” Ortiz said.
Martinelli eventually got a job working with the high school team, but it’s not just the business of the program he enjoys. Martinelli is simply a passionate football fan.
A lot of that passion for the game also stems from his extended family. Martinelli is close with the Walden family of Soldotna, including two nephews, Trevor and Trent. Trevor was a tight end and linebacker for the Stars before graduating in 2016, and Trent is an incoming sophomore on the team.
Martinelli said the Walden family have been big supporters of his sideline presence, and his nephews have looked out for him since he can remember.
“They really taught me good moral values,” Martinelli explained.
Ortiz said the football staff will occasionally let Martinelli decide plays on the sidelines, and Brantley Jr. trusts his play-calling abilities in practice and scrimmages.
Martinelli’s face lit up when asked about how the players on the team react to his play calling.
“I’m there to encourage them, make sure they’re working hard,” he said. “I get on them, make sure they’re doing the best they can.”
Brantley Jr. said Martinelli’s practice of the “Big Team, Little Me” philosophy is apparent in the way he approaches the team goal every day he gets wheeled out by his teammates.
“It’s very tough in a workout to feel sorry for yourself, when you’re looking over knowing the kinds of things Matthew has to endure,” Brantley Jr. said.
And in the offseason, the team does not just leave Martinelli to his own ways. They include him in gym work and weight-room sessions. With Brantley Jr.’s guidance, Martinelli has beefed up his own strength, and has maxed out his bench press at a remarkable 155 pounds. Martinelli said he consistently benches 135 pounds this school year.
“Football family is family,” Ortiz said. “(Brantley Jr.) gets it, he totally understands it.”
Martinelli said after he graduates, he hopes to coach alongside Brantley Jr., the coach that has taught him so much about the sport of football and beyond.
“He’s built a lot of character in me,” Martinelli said. “He made me more of a man. He treats us like family, and he calls us a band of brothers.
“He always tells us to play for the guy standing next to you.”
With Martinelli providing a source of inspiration for the team, Brantley Jr. said not a single player looks down at their manager with negative thoughts.
Besides, he said, no one personifies the team’s “Pound the Rock” motto better than Martinelli.
“He personifies perseverance,” Brantley Jr. said. “And I don’t know anyone that’s had more surgeries than he’s had and he’s never complained.
“It doesn’t matter what happens, he keeps swinging.”