For a senior class that has three Alaska Division II state championships under their belts, one loss in 37 games and years of success dating back to before high school, tonight’s playoff opener will be a new experience for the Soldotna Stars.
That’s because the Stars will host a playoff football game for the first time since Oct. 12, 2013, when they crushed the Houston Hawks 69-13 en route to winning their second straight state title.
That state championship streak has since been extended to seven in a row, and SoHi has returned to Justin Maile Field in Soldotna to bring a playoff atmosphere back to their fans.
“We’re excited to be able to host a game,” said SoHi head coach Galen Brantley Jr. “We’ve earned that, and it’s been a change that’s a long time coming for our playoff system. We get to sleep in our own beds and play a football game at home in front of our own crowd.”
With a five-year run of playoff venue scheduling by the Alaska Schools Activities Association leaving the Division II football playoffs in locations in Anchorage and Palmer, no Division II teams have been able to host their own postseason games in six years.
It also just so happens that the last playoff game SoHi hosted was the final contest on the school’s natural grass field. After the 2013 season, SoHi installed an artificial turf field.
SoHi ran away with its 14th consecutive Northern Lights Conference regular-season title with a 3-0 mark, and went 7-0 overall this year, missing a week when the Swan Lake Fire canceled SoHi’s scheduled contest with West Valley.
The Stars will still get to play West Valley this year, as the No. 1 NLC winners face the West Valley Wolfpack, No. 2 out of the Railbelt Conference.
At the Division III level, the Nikiski Bulldogs announced their return to the playoffs, after a two-year hiatus, with the No. 2 seed from the Peninsula Conference. Nikiski (3-1 conference, 3-4 overall) peaked at the right time of year to win three out of four, punching its way into the playoffs, and securing a date on the road in Barrow.
Nikiski will face the Whalers Saturday at 1 p.m.
West Valley at Soldotna, 5 p.m. Friday
While Soldotna enters the 2019 playoffs with a head of steam — the Stars are outscoring opponents by an average of 49.8 points — West Valley returns to the playoffs on a positive note after beginning the season under a cloud of controversy.
West Valley head coach Roy Hessner resigned in August after a practice incident in the school’s pool nearly resulted in the drownings of several players. Three students were hospitalized after the incident.
Then came an 0-3 start to the season, making the playoffs seem like a distant goal for the Wolfpack, but a 45-22 win over Kenai Central on Sept. 14 sparked a three-game win streak, including wins over Railbelt opponents Palmer and North Pole.
Only a 27-24 loss to crosstown Fairbanks rival Lathrop in last week’s regular season finale was enough to keep West Valley from taking the top seed and a home playoff game.
Brantley Jr. is expecting a tough fight.
“When you look at what West Valley’s been through, you have to tip your hat to them,” he said. “It started off with what could’ve been a catastrophic tragedy, then they got rolled (63-0) by Service and they could’ve fallen apart.
“But they didn’t do that, and they were one game from winning their league. I think that says a lot of the resiliency of their kids, and the quality of coaches.”
Norm Davis took over as interim coach this year after the preseason pool incident, and has had a stout backfield with which to work. West Valley is led by senior running back Justin Cummings, a 5-foot-9, 155-pound terror that can change directions on a dime.
Cummings showcased his shifty abilities in a Sept. 14 win over Kenai, when the back piled up 160 rushing yards on the Kardinals.
“He’s a dangerous, dangerous running back,” Brantley Jr. said. “He’s super fast, elusive, very talented.”
Brantley Jr. also isn’t looking past West Valley’s passing game, which is led by quarterback Shaun Conwell, a 6-0 junior who has the size and power to run into defenses.
Conwell has several targets to throw to, including 6-3 senior Tyriq Nance and 6-0 senior Avery Weston.
“They have some very dynamic athletes,” Brantley Jr. said. “If you make a mistake and don’t run properly or blow a coverage, they’ll hurt you.”
Luckily, SoHi brings an offense that can more than keep up. Backed by a stacked senior class, SoHi QB Jersey Truesdell leads the way with 12 touchdown passes to zero picks this year, and has completed 80 percent of his passes.
Last year, SoHi crushed the Wolfpack in the regular season 62-18 while recording 433 rushing yards, led by the feet of Truesdell, who rattled off 136 yards of his own.
That run game is set up by an offensive line that allows SoHi’s backfield to flourish. Senior Wyatt Medcoff has 10 TD runs to his name this year and averages an eye-popping 17.6 yards per carry. Senior teammate Aaron Faletoi leads the team with TD runs and 53 carries, while Hudson Metcalf presents a third challenge, averaging 17.7 yards per carry.
In that 2018 game, West Valley was able to get over 250 yards of offense on SoHi, so Brantley Jr. isn’t looking past their opponents.
“Right now we’re just trying to win a football game,” he said. “We only have to look back a few years ago (in a 25-18 win over North Pole) to see how quickly a game can get away from you. You can end up in a dogfight real quick.”
Nikiski at Barrow, 1 p.m. Saturday
With what the Bulldogs had to go through this year, they may be feeling lucky to be in the playoffs at all this year.
Nikiski won three of its last four games to make the field, and all three wins on the season came against Peninsula Conference foes, and Bulldogs head coach Paul Nelson is hoping the momentum is carried into the postseason.
“We’re kind of treating this as just another step down the road,” he said. “We’ve been steadily improving as the season’s gone on, and we’re kind of peaking at the right time. Let’s just keep doing what we’re doing.”
It was a scrappy 9-8 win over conference opponent Ketchikan on Sept. 13 on the road. In that game, the Bulldogs scored late in the fourth quarter to take the lead, then stopped the Kings on their 1-yard line to hang on for the big win.
The other big victory for Nikiski came Sept. 28 in Homer. After losing 50-18 earlier in the year in a rescheduled, nonconference game, Nikiski turned the tables on the Mariners with a 26-22 win, also on the road. Nikiski had to score twice in the fourth quarter to wrestle that game from Homer, which turned out to be the difference maker between Nikiski making the playoffs and Homer losing out.
“Part of it was it took awhile to find the exact right guys on spots in our offense,” Nelson said. “I think once they started clicking together, we were able to open the playbook a little more and make stuff look different.”
Nikiski and Barrow met in the regular season in a Sept. 7 game in Nikiski. That contest went scoreless deep into the fourth quarter, when the Whalers finally busted through to score twice and escape with a 14-0 win.
Nelson said he had four different players on the offensive line, making for a rough day that led to the shutout, but added that those same guys on the front line have since jelled together and the team has become much more fine-tuned.
It’s helped the senior duo of Sam Berry and Michael Mysing pick up speed as the season neared its end. Berry found the end zone four times against Homer and Mysing pulled the same feat against Seward. Berry has six touchdowns in 2019 and averages 7.2 yards per carry, while Mysing has four touchdowns — all last week against Seward — while averaging 5.2 yards a pop.
Senior wide receiver Michael Eiter has helped a passing game orchestrated by senior QB Noah Litke. The Litke-to-Eiter connection has resulted in 10.4 yards per pass this year.
“It’s just his ability to play a ball in the air,” Nelson said about Eiter’s play. “On a jump ball, he has a better chance than the defense to come down with it.”
Eiter has also been a force on defense, racking up several key interceptions this year, but has been complemented by junior linebacker Caileb Payne, who this week was named as a first-team all-conference inside linebacker. Nelson said in six games of recorded statistics, Payne has 77 tackles.
“He’s your typical linebacker,” Nelson said. “He’s everywhere for us. He could’ve been defensive player of the year.”
As head coach at Nikiski, Nelson has an 0-2 playoff record in four years, with losses of 70-18 to Eielson in a 2016 semifinal and 21-6 to Barrow in the 2017 semifinals to his name.
Nelson said the team would like to break a playoff losing streak that dates back to the 2015 semifinals. The Bulldogs will need to overcome the cold, windy weather and the bright blue “smurf turf” in Barrow to do that.
“It’s always tough to go up there and play against Barrow,” Nelson said. “We’ve been telling them all week, just think like it’s December here. It should be in the 30s, they’re calling for snow, and just the environment up there is tough. It’s isolated.
“(But) Nikiski’s ready to get back to that championship game.”