Week 1 of the prep football season has become an annual discourse of the same question — can anyone knock off Soldotna from the Division II championship mountain?
That question will be revisited once again in 2019 as teams prepare to open their seasons with title hardware in mind. At the Div. II level, no one else has been able to wrest the Alaska School Activities Association trophy from the Stars’ grasp for seven years.
During those seven years, Soldotna has posted some dazzling numbers — a state-record 59-game win streak, 13 straight Northern Lights Conference titles and 24 overall, 11 state football crowns. Plus, the Stars have regularly beat up on Div. I powerhouses.
The bad news for opponents is the tide doesn’t seem to be turning any time soon. Entering this year, the Stars return a full cast of experienced seniors that could romp their way to one of SoHi’s best years yet.
“We’re likely going to start 11 seniors on offense,” said SoHi head coach Galen Brantley Jr., who enters his 13th year helming the program. “That’s never happened in my years as a coach here.”
Brantley Jr. said three of the four ball-carriers in his backfield have three years experience on varsity, and the experience extends to the defense as well, since many of the names are two-way players.
“They’re a veteran group,” he said. “They’ve all played or started for a couple years already.”
Even the rest of the starting lineup, which isn’t as experienced, could be formidable. Brantley Jr. said many of the players new to varsity have been ingrained in the SoHi system for years as JV players.
“It’s nice having guys filling in that are seniors that have been with the program for three years,” he said. “They understand our system and are ready to play.”
One of the teams still trying to beat SoHi is their peninsula rival Kenai Central, which failed to make the Div. II playoffs last year for a third straight year. Kenai’s last postseason appearance came in a 33-18 championship game loss to Soldotna in 2015.
Dustin Akana is back coaching the team after debuting as head coach last year, and said knocking SoHi off its perch is something Kenai can only accomplish if they take care of the little things first. Akana leads the Kards with the team’s “Rise as One” motto, which he said the team practices each day with hard work and discipline.
“It’s the same thing I told the boys last year — take it one day at a time,” he said. “We have a goal, we want to make it to the playoffs and then the championship game, but our goal every day is to get better with every practice. Don’t look to the future, don’t worry about the future, let’s win today. When we win today, it’ll make us that much better each day.”
The Div. II postseason begins Oct. 11 and 12 with semifinal games at the higher seed’s home field, a change from the past three years when semifinal contests were played at a neutral field in Palmer.
The Div. II championship venue will move to Anchorage Football Stadium, where the two semifinal winners will clash Oct. 19.
Last year, Eagle River announced its presence on the Div. II scene with its first championship game appearance in school history, but lost 46-14 to Soldotna. The Wolves were senior-laden in 2018, which could spell trouble for the program this year.
Brantley Jr. pointed to Lathrop and Palmer as potential contenders this year, while Akana is looking at Kodiak as a team that could upset the apple cart.
The following is a closer look at peninsula programs:
Kenai opens its season on the road against the Div. III Homer Mariners, Saturday at 2 p.m. The Kardinals sunk the Mariners last year 58-6.
Akana enters his second year as head coach but fourth overall on the coaching staff, following two years under former coach Ted Riddall. Akana said leading the Kardinals last year was a huge learning experience, but one that left him more prepared for 2019. He also said the senior class of 2020 is the first group of players that he’s been around for all four years.
“The senior class this year were freshmen when I started, so I know them very well,” Akana said. “I know their potential, and that’s a plus for me this year.”
Among those seniors is co-captain and QB Kayden Daniels, who got time behind starter Connor Felchle in six brief appearances last year, hitting 11 of 19 targets for 111 yards and a TD. Akana said Daniels learned a lot from his time last season.
“He’s a solid player who knows his place and knows what he’s doing,” Akana said. “All that time is paying off.”
One of Daniels’ top targets this year figures to be senior Braedon Pitsch, Akana said. Pitsch averaged 15.2 receiving yards last year and two scoring catches.
The Kenai backfield features a stacked lineup of junior Tucker Vann, senior Zach Burnett, junior Sammy Baker and junior Joey Sylvester at the wing. Akana said all four should see significant carries this year.
The Kenai offensive line returns just one starter in senior center Hunter Beck, who will be joined by senior guards Justin Anderson and Gary Dent and freshmen tackles Ben Spinka and Jordan Kvasnikoff. The tight end position will be filled by sophomore David Martin, with junior Aidan Milburn getting time there as well.
The Kards defense will be a collection of experience vets and rookies, Akana said. The D-line will include Beck and Spinka as tackles and Kvasnikoff, Milburn and Martin as defensive ends. The linebacking crew will include Dent, Baker and Anderson in the middle, with outside linebackers Joey Sylvester and Vann getting major reps. The defensive secondary will see Pitsch at safety and Burnett and Isaiah Daniels at the corners.
The SoHi Stars open week 1 on the road against West Anchorage for the fourth straight year, something Brantley Jr. explained is simply a good matchup to start the year. Kickoff is 7 p.m. at West High’s field.
Last year’s matchup on Soldotna’s home field turned out to be a nightmare, as the Stars fell victim to a last-second touchdown and lost their state-record 59-game win streak in the process. Before that, SoHi has beaten West twice, once at home and once on the road.
Brantley Jr. said this year’s matchup is no different.
“They’re one of the top schools, they’ve been a good matchup for us,” he said. “They’re very talented, and have several kids with college offers.”
SoHi’s schedule is packed with intrigue, including a week 3 home game against South Anchorage and a week 4 trip to El Cajon, California, near San Diego, to play Christian High School, a Div. III team down there.
But Brantley Jr. cast aside thoughts of the schedule, maintaining a workmanlike approach to only week 1.
“Right now, since the schedule came out, we’ve been focused on week 1,” he said. “All of our energy and time we’ve put in throughout the summer is setting us up for this first challenge. We’re pretty focused.”
The Stars lost four players, including three linemen, to graduation, but the rest of the returning cast is full of all-conference talent.
Jersey Truesdell is back for his senior season at QB, and has shown the leadership in four years in the SoHi program. As a freshman, Truesdell made his first career varsity start in the championship game, leading the Stars to the title over Palmer.
Last year, Truesdell flaunted an accurate arm but was most dangerous on his feet, gaining 523 rush yards compared to 449 passing.
Truesdell is joined by ball carriers Aaron Faletoi, Wyatt Medcoff and Hudson Metcalf, all seniors. Medcoff led the way last year with 14 touchdowns and 905 rush yards, averaging 10.6 yards per play. Senior Galen Brantley III will also return as a tight end.
The SoHi offensive line is comprised of seniors — right tackle Melvin Lloyd, right guard Trenton Walden, center Jacob Cooper, left guard Justice Roy and left tackle Braden Lemm. Roy and Cooper got varsity time last year but the others are newer to varsity. Brantley Jr. tabbed Zach Hanson and Ray Chumley as potential ends.
The defense includes Walden and Lloyd as inside tackles and Chumley and senior Zach Ziegler as defensive ends. The linebacker crew will see Brantley III and Faletoi on the inside and Hanson and Metcalf as outside linebackers. The defensive secondary will feature Truesdell, Medcoff and Tyler Morrison in the back.