For a coach that has guided his football team to two straight state championships and 28 consecutive wins over the past two seasons, Galen Brantley Jr. does not sound as confident heading into Saturday’s medium-schools state title game as you would think.
That’s because Soldotna’s opponent, the North Pole Patriots, just clobbered a Kenai squad that nearly toppled SoHi the previous week, and are now looking to avenge a loss to SoHi from a year ago.
“They just manhandled somebody that nearly beat us,” Brantley Jr. said. “That doesn’t make us feel very good.”
Soldotna (8-0) and North Pole (6-3) meet on the turf 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Dimond’s Alumni Field in Anchorage to determine this year’s medium-schools champion. If it’s anything like last year’s playoff race, it is sure to be a doozy.
“We know we’re in for a battle, and we have to do everything right to have a chance,” the coach said.
The Stars last met with the Patriots in last year’s semifinals, which saw SoHi move on to the state final with a 63-33 win over North Pole.
This year, North Pole is only stronger and wiser, and the Patriots showed that they are serious about winning their first state championship since 2004, when they won the large-schools title. Even though they’ve since dropped a level into the medium-schools division, North Pole is preparing for Saturday with the mindset of an underdog.
“They’re up there doing the ‘David and Goliath thing,’ but our kids have seen enough that we feel like we’re David in this one,” Brantley Jr. said. “We’re gonna have to do something special to get the win.”
Something special? Soldotna has a chance to tie its school record of 29 straight wins — a standard set by the Stars of 2006 through 2008 — and win its seventh state championship, all in the last nine years.
But first, they have to deal with the onslaught of North Pole, starring sophomore quarterback Andrew “Dew” Rogers and running back DeAundre Campbell. Both players exhibit acceleration and speed that will certainly keep SoHi on its toes Saturday afternoon.
“I’ve been telling our kids, it’s like the scene from ‘Rocky’ when Mick throws the chicken in the courtyard,” Brantley Jr. said, referring to the 1979 film. “We feel kind of silly trying to chase (Rogers) around sometimes because he’s so stinking quick.
“And Campbell’s one of the fastest kids in the state. There were a lot of times in that Kenai game that they didn’t even block the outside linebackers because he just ran by them.”
In the regular season, Rogers had 548 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, while Campbell ran for 903 yards and nine scores.
Last week against Kenai, Rogers put up five touchdowns on 271 all-purpose yards, while Campbell notched 152 yards and a touchdown. In short, the SoHi defense will be getting a workout.
“They’re way faster than us,” admitted senior linebacker Drew Fowler.
Fowler had two big defensive plays last week against Juneau; a crucial safety in the first half and a pick-six in the third quarter.
“We just have to contain, our inside linebackers have to force the ball inside,” Fowler said. “We just gotta be disciplined.”
Discipline is something at which the Stars excel.
“We don’t really have a choice,” Ty Fenton quipped. “We have some great coaching.”
Fenton, a senior running back and linebacker, helped SoHi in last week’s semifinal win over Juneau with 97 yards on 11 carries, complementing the efforts of teammate Drew Gibbs, who rushed for 84 yards and three touchdowns. Fenton said the Soldotna coaching staff has repeatedly kept its players on guard, which is a trait that has pushed the Stars to victory in close games.
“We can’t get intimidated at all,” Fenton said about the aggressive play of North Pole. “If we just do our jobs and play to the best of our ability, we’ll be all right.”
Perhaps discipline will be the deciding factor in Saturday’s game. Last week against Kenai, North Pole was charged with 17 penalties for 155 yards. The Patriots will have to play a much more disciplined game if they wish to beat a juggernaut like SoHi.
“They certainly had some periods of time that they looked undisciplined, but they’re so fast that every time they got a penalty, they could get back on pace to keep the chains going,” Brantley Jr. said.
When it comes to being tested, North Pole decidedly holds that advantage.
In games against West Valley, Palmer, Juneau and Colony this year, the Patriots went 3-1 but with a point differential of only plus-5.
In the first five weeks of the season, the closest competition Soldotna saw was Palmer, in a game the Stars won 33-0. After that, the scores were closer, as Soldotna beat West Valley 67-30 and Kenai 21-14.
The game against West Valley provided Soldotna its first real competition of the year, as the Stars had to deal with a few lightning-quick receivers, such as Dv’nn Cooks and Josh Cummings. That test provided the best idea of what North Pole will be like.
“We did a good job against West Valley, I think our starters only gave up two touchdowns,” Fowler said. “It’s the same type of thing but they’re more athletic, they’re faster. I mean, they made it to the state championship game so they’re the real deal.”
Matching up common opponents doesn’t exactly make SoHi feel comfortable either. North Pole topped West Valley 41-35 in Week 1 of the season.
Although the Wolfpack provided the closest thing to what North Pole will bring Saturday, it is still difficult to compare notes with a team that features a different offensive scheme.
“Defensively, I think they’re more aggressive, but I hope that plays into our hands,” Brantley Jr. said. “Usually teams that try to send the house at us don’t do very well, they give up big plays.”
Brantley Jr. said North Pole runs many different variations of zone reads, which played a big role in slowing down Kenai’s persistent run game.
“They completely shut down Kenai’s running game, and we’re pretty similar offensively,” the coach said. “We’re gonna have to do a good job up front of getting after people.”
Standing on the precipice of a 29th consecutive win and third straight state championship, Fenton and Fowler both agreed that the motivation to win comes from the desire to stand among some of the state’s best teams, including the Soldotna squad from six years ago.
Brantley Jr. said he would like to see the current crop of seniors go out with a bang.
“Every group of young men is different and special in their own way,” Brantley Jr. said. “This group has put in a lot of time and effort along the way, and we’d like to see them go out with a win.
“But ‘deserves’ has nothing to do with it, they’re gonna have to earn it.”
Notes: Brantley Jr. also noted that defensive back Tim Duke — who was carried off the field in an ambulance last week after a jarring helmet impact with a Juneau player — returned to school but will not be getting game time this weekend, adding that Duke’s CT scan was negative. Duke will still be in Anchorage cheering on his teammates.