In 2020, Kenai Peninsula football teams were limited to playing peninsula competition during the regular season, then the plug was pulled shortly after the start of the playoffs due to the new coronavirus pandemic.
This season, area coaches said programs are more optimistic because full conference slates, including all the off-peninsula travel involved, and state playoffs are all on the schedule.
That doesn’t mean the coronavirus won’t play a factor in the season, however.
Wednesday, Kenai Central canceled a varsity game today with Barrow and a junior varsity game Saturday with Soldotna due to a positive COVID-19 case in the Kardinals program. Then Thursday, West Valley pulled out of JV and varsity games today at Soldotna due to a positive test in the West Valley program.
Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr., who took over the program in 2007, said this season will have its challenges, but he’ll take it over last season. Last season, if an area of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District went into high risk level transmission, all games in that area were canceled.
Currently, the central, southern and eastern areas of KPBSD are all at the high risk level. While Kenai and Soldotna had their games canceled due to those positive tests, Seward, Nikiski and Homer are all still playing games on opening weekend.
“Teams will have to manage positive cases and close contacts as the season goes on,” Brantley Jr. said. “You’ll have to have depth. The backups all have to be ready to go.”
Seward was able to open its season Thursday with a 38-8 Denali Conference loss to Monroe Catholic in Fairbanks. The Seahawks got a 30-yard quarterback keeper from Tommy Cronin in the third quarter. Kupono Albino ran in the two-point conversion to make the score 30-8.
Seahawks first-year head coach Tyler Mallory said his team came out flat in the first half and got down 30-0, but tied the Rams 8-all in the second half.
“I think it was positive,” Mallory said. “Most of the kids haven’t played football and the kids who have played three games last year. We’ve got a young team with a lot of kids learning.”
Nikiski plays at Eielson tonight at 6 p.m. in Denali play, while Homer plays at Eagle River on Saturday at 3 p.m. in nonconference action.
Nikiski coach Paul Nelson, now in his sixth year as head coach, also said there is a different feel to this season.
“The kids are more relaxed,” he said. “Our numbers are up as high as they’ve been since I’ve been here.”
This season will also mark a major shakeup in conference alignment, with the major player being the Kardinals.
Kenai, a program with six state titles to its credit, will move from Division II to Division III, joining the Mid Alaska conference with Barrow, Homer, Houston, Kenai and Redington. The Kardinals have not made the playoffs since 2015.
“We’re really excited to drop to Division III,” said Kardinals coach Dustin Akana, in his fourth year as head coach. “We’ll be going against teams that have our same numbers and we’re excited to play new teams in a conference where we’ll be able to compete.”
Akana said some have been surprised a program with the tradition of Kenai is now Division III, but the coach said that’s what the school size dictates.
“We’re looking forward to building confidence in our program with players, the school and the community by playing against teams that are similar to our size,” Akana said.
Another jolt to tradition comes from the fact that there is no Kenai-Soldotna game on the schedule this year. The Stars, winners of 12 state titles, and the Kardinals traditionally played on the last weekend of the regular season in one of the most cherished rivalries in the state of Alaska.
SoHi leads the rivalry 32-16. Kenai hasn’t defeated Soldotna since 2011 and hasn’t gotten within a touchdown of the Stars since 2014.
“It hasn’t been a competitive game in some time,” said Brantley Jr., who is 17-2 against the Kardinals. “Those purists who love the rivalry look at that and think it’s something bad, but it’s really not.
“It’s best for all parties involved and down the road when Kenai rebuilds its program, we’d love to play them again.”
Soldotna will still play in the Northern Lights Conference, but a pair of schools smaller than SoHi — Kenai and Kodiak — are out of the league in favor of a pair of schools larger than SoHi — Chugiak and Wasilla.
Brantley Jr. said he looks forward to chasing a 15th straight NLC title in the improved league.
“We’re excited about the depth this creates,” the coach said. “It will allow us to compete for four quarters of football rather than practice and go play one quarter, then have to sit the starters because the score is out of control.”
The coach said the strength of his team on offense will be the front seven, while the backfield is still a little untested. The same holds true on defense, where Brantley Jr. said the line is the strength and the secondary is a little untested.
Senior Dylan Dahlgren, a defensive end and tight end, has been getting big varsity minutes since he was a sophomore. Also filling major roles for the stars are seniors Kaiden Spies, a guard and defensive tackle; Harley Johnson, a center on offense; Noah Harper, an outside linebacker and tight end; and Brock Wilson, a halfback.
At Kenai, Akana said senior James Sparks, a running back and defensive back, will serve as an athletic team leader. Senior Sam Wilson and Daniel Myers, a transfer from Oregon, also will be pivotal players.
“We’ve got a big class of solid junior players,” Akana said. “The whole team in general is just tightknit. We have a great coaching staff, along with all the players.”
Nelson said the Bulldogs are looking forward to rekindling their rivalry with Eielson tonight. The teams had many great battles through the years, including the Ravens topping the Bulldogs in state title games in 2012, 2014 and 2015.
After the abbreviated 2020 season, Nelson doesn’t know what to expect from the Ravens and will play to his team’s strength.
“Our strength in the running game,” Nelson said. “That’s a surprise for Nikiski, right? We have a really good line this year.”
Center Charlie Chamberlain and Alen Nelson, a tackle who moved in from out of state, lead the line. Brady Bostic will play quarterback and build on a few years of varsity experience.
For Seward, Mallory said senior captain James Milburn is a big, strong kid who will anchor the offensive and defensive line. Senior Fayzon Lawrence will be another key contributor at guard and middle linebacker, while Kekoa Albino is a fullback and also had a big game against Monroe at defensive end.
Mallory said the team could be up to 22 or 23 players by midseason, very good numbers for the program.
“This is my fifth year coaching with Seward,” Mallory said. “I have a relationship with the players and they are looking for something to do. Juniors and seniors who have never played before have come out to play.”