Nikiski junior Noah Litke scans the field for an open receiver Aug. 18, 2018, against Valdez at Nikiski High School. Litke returns this year to quarterback the Bulldogs. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

Nikiski junior Noah Litke scans the field for an open receiver Aug. 18, 2018, against Valdez at Nikiski High School. Litke returns this year to quarterback the Bulldogs. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

Season preview: Trio of peninsula teams eyeing return to Div. III playoffs

Football is back on the peninsula, which means teams at Nikiski, Homer and Seward are back on the hunt for October.

The Division III playoffs allow two teams from each conference to enter a playoff battle featuring the smallest schools in the state. The Aurora Conference boasts Eielson (Div. III champs in five of the last seven years) Barrow, Monroe Catholic, Redington and Valdez, while the Peninsula Conference features Nikiski, Homer, Seward, Ketchikan and Houston.

Last year, newcomer Ketchikan grabbed the last playoff spot with a 3-1 conference record (6-1 overall), behind Houston, which won its first conference title in school history. The Hawks ended up losing to Barrow 18-7 in the semifinals, while the Kings were blasted 55-0 by Eielson in the semis.

This year, the Div. III title game moves to Anchorage Football Stadium for an Oct. 19 clash of the two best in the state.

Before that, however, teams will need to adjust to a few rule changes. The biggest change in the course of play this year is the tweak of the 40-second play clock, which will start much quicker than in past years. Instead of the head referee starting the 40-second clock on his whistle, the time will begin as soon as the previous play is called dead.

The rule applies to all three divisions of football in Alaska, but Seward head coach Kelly Cinereski said it will be the smallest programs feeling the change the most because smaller roster sizes will have trouble keeping up with a quicker snap.

“It’s like installing a hurry-up offense, and it’s hard when you’ve got 14 kids out there,” Cinereski said. “Coaches that are old school like me, we get in the huddle, run a play in and that takes a little more time.”

Nikiski head coach Paul Nelson said the teams got some valuable time with the rule changes during a series of scrimmages last weekend between Nikiski, Homer, Kenai and Seward. Nelson said the rule change feels a bit redundant to him as the pace of play had never been an issue.

“I don’t feel like the games were dragging at any point,” he said. “But it’s something we’ll have to get used to. There’s nothing we can do about rule changes but adapt to them.”

The only coaching change among peninsula football programs in 2019 comes in Homer, which bids farewell to Walter Love and says hello to Justin Zank, who formerly coached in the small community of Voznesenka near Homer.

Zank said taking over a roster of 36 players has been the biggest adjustment in a town he’s with which he’s quite familiar. Voznesenka usually barely had enough players to start games. Instead of working 13, Zank now handles almost triple that number.

“That’s definitely a plus,” Zank said. “We’ve got more players and bigger facilities.”

The following is a closer look at each peninsula team:

NIKISKI BULLDOGS

After seeing a seven-year string of playoff appearances snapped last fall due to a 3-5 season, the Bulldogs return hungrier than ever to return to the postseason, Nelson said.

“The attitude is good, we’ve got a good group, they’re enthusiastic and full of energy,” Nelson said. “They’ve been a good group to coach. We’re going to have a really good year.”

Week 1 kicks off for Nikiski with a 7 p.m. Friday night game on the road at Redington High School.

A lot of that optimism comes from having a strong roster and improved numbers. Nelson said after starting 2018 with players numbers hovering in the teens, this year’s squad numbers around 30.

“We had players in and out of the lineup last year, it seemed each week had a different lineman in this spot, a linebacker there, a different back,” Nelson said. “We’re hoping to keep the same people in the same spots to make it easier.”

The Bulldogs lost a few of their top players to graduation, namely Cody Handley, Justin Harris and Brock Sarks. Handley had the third-most rushing yards for Nikiski last year in just two games he played in, while Sarks had the second-most rush yards on the team last year over the course of the season, and Harris averaged 5.2 yards per carry over four games.

However, Nikiski still returns several talented players at key positions on offense, including senior quarterback Noah Litke, who is back for his second year as starting signal-caller. In 2018, Litke led all peninsula quarterbacks with 586 passing yards, the bulk of that to senior receiver Michael Eiter, who hauled in 329 and five touchdown catches last year.

The Litke-Eiter connection will be crucial again this year, Nelson said, adding that the pair will be complemented by an array of ball carriers. The Nikiski backfield includes senior Sam Berry (5.2 yards per carry for seven TDs last year), junior Chris Druesedow at wing back and senior Michael Mysing at halfback. Mysing skipped football last year but played key roles for the Bulldogs basketball and soccer programs.

The Nikiski offensive line will see two new freshmen faces, which Nelson hopes will come up to speed quickly under guidance from their older linemen — freshman Charlie Chamberlain takes over at center, and will be flanked by senior guards Hamilton Cox and Caleb Weeks, with junior Quentin Oskolkoff and freshman Drew Handley at tackle.

The Nikiski defense will be comprised of nose tackle Oskolkoff and tackles Handley and Cox on the line, with Mysing, Weeks, Eiter, Dylan Harris and Caleb Payne as the linebacking crew. The defensive secondary includes Litke at safety and Berry and Chris Druesedow at the cornerback spots.

Nelson said the coaching staff also received a mild shakeup this year, as former player Cade Anderson will come in to essentially replace his older brother Colton as offensive coordinator. The Bulldogs will also see a pair of 2019 Nikiski grads go from the playing field to the sidelines in Cody Handley and Dustin Mullins, both of whom will help coach the line, and Tim Johnson returns for another year as well.

HOMER MARINERS

The Mariners open 2019 with a home meeting with Kenai Central, Saturday at 2 p.m.

Justin Zank comes into the Homer football program with a lot of familiarity, having coached against former Mariners teams as head coach at tiny Voznesenka. Zank said there will be about 10 players moving with him from the Voznesenka team to Homer’s program.

Zank said shutting down the program at Voznesenka was one of the most difficult decisions he has ever had to make, but it was a decision the whole program made in response to low numbers.

“It was the kids, the community, myself, the administration,” he said. “Ultimately we were running with 12 and 13 guys at times. Moving into Homer presents new challenges, and it was a step I was ready to take on.

“It’s been great so far.”

Following a breakthrough 7-1 season in 2017 that ended in a narrow championship game loss to Barrow, the Mariners fell out of the playoffs last year with a 2-6 record.

Zank said his philosophy with his new team is to simply be better.

“That’s what we’re telling ourselves every single day,” he said. “Ask of each other to be better today than yesterday. And be better tomorrow than today. It’s more of a lifestyle philosophy, not just football.”

Zank said Saturday’s opening day matchup with Div. II Kenai will be a challenging test right away for the Div. III Mariners. Last year, Kenai demolished Homer 58-6 in Week 2 of the season.

The biggest losses to graduation for the Mariners came on the offensive line with Jadin Mann and Finn Heimbold, as well as Prokohpv Konev, who accounted for 63 percent of Homer’s receiving yards.

But, Zank touted the talent in the returning cast, including senior QB Anthony Kalugin. Zank said Kalugin experienced a growing season in 2018 and returns with greater confidence.

Kalugin will have plenty of targets this year, Zank said, with a receiving core of junior Cade Hrenchir, Carl Wickstrom, sophomore Gabe Dash and freshman Carter Tennison, who transferred from the Soldotna area.

The Homer backfield will see sophomore Kamden Doughty get carries, while senior Noah Fisk hopes to be added to the roster later in the season. Zank said Fisk is currently still working for the summer, but Fisk played a huge role in 2018, averaging 6.8 yards in an injury-shortened campaign.

The Homer offensive line features sophomore Alex Hicks and junior Josh Manwiller at guard, senior Zach Condon at center, and junior River Mann and sophomore Dodge Petrosius as tackles.

On defense, Homer flaunts a defensive line composed of Condon, Hicks and Petrosius, with junior Josh Bradshaw and Tennison getting time there as well. The linebacking crew will be Mann, Manwiller and Doughty, while the secondary will feature Dash, Wickstrom and Kalugin. Zank added that sophomore Sean Pilant will miss Week 1, but he will likely be at offensive guard and nose tackle when he returns.

Zank’s coaching staff will include Bobby Dash as defensive coordinator, Jordan Jones as receivers and quarterback coach and Kyle Ostler coaching the line.

SEWARD SEAHAWKS

The Seahawks open the new season at home with a 4:30 p.m. Friday game against Monroe Catholic, a nonconference opponent.

Last year, Seward went 2-5 and missed the playoffs, which Cinereski attributes to too many missed opportunities.

“We gave up a lot of red zone touchdowns,” he said. “The goal this year is we’ve worked hard at punching it in. The line is older and more mature, so I hope we’ll be OK.”

Cinereski said he currently has 14 players eligible for Week 1, but expects several more to show up, meaning Seward could reach 20 or more.

The team lost running back Beau Freiberg, tight end Gabe Schrock and tailback Chris Kingsland to graduation, a group that Cinereski said helped bring the current crop of talent a long ways.

“Really and truly, the commitment is hard to replace,” Cinereski said. “All them played for me all four years, they were there for every practice and camp. Replacing that leadership is hard.”

Cinereski said that the returning cast should be able to bring Seward back to the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

Returning under center is sophomore QB Tommy Cronin, who stepped up after the Seahawks lost their starter Gunnar Davis to injury last year. Davis is now a junior and will feature in the Seward backfield more.

The Seahawks return several key ball carriers in Shane Saulivan (although Saulivan will miss week 1) Collin Mullaly, Stephen Harshman and Thomas Ooka. Sophomore Elmo Lackey and junior Jacob Wendt will fill in at tight end.

The O-line will feature senior Andrew Milligan at center, senior Chad Quinn and sophomore James Milburn at guard, and junior Dylan Marcus and sophomore Kakoa Albeano at tackle.

Cinereski said the defense is still coming together, but Mullaly is back after a big year in 2018 in which he grabbed six interceptions.

“When we get the rest of our team, we’ll be OK,” Cinereski said.

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