Soldotna’s Northern Lights Conference showdown Saturday afternoon with Eagle River quickly turned into a blowout, which allowed for some early celebrating for the team and particularly for one player.
SoHi’s lopsided 81-7 win over the Eagle River Wolves came on Senior Day — and the Stars had a lot to recognize with 19 on the team — but it also gave the Stars the chance to celebrate someone who has poured his heart into the program, even without taking a single career snap on varsity.
That changed Saturday when senior team manager Matthew Martinelli lined up with his teammates on the first snap of the game to record his first start of his career.
What made the moment special was the journey Martinelli has taken to get there. Martinelli, 19, suffers from cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair as a partial quadriplegic, a condition he has dealt with from an early age.
But when the teams took to the field Saturday, Martinelli was wheeled out to the line of scrimmage and stood up, using leg braces and the shoulder pads of teammates to stand behind center and take the snap.
“It was definitely special, definitely a dream come true,” Martinelli said. “I’ve always wanted to put the pads on, and unfortunately I haven’t been able to do that. Coach Brantley let me live out my dream. It was only a few seconds, but it was definitely a memorable experience. One I’ll never forget.”
The victory clinched a state playoff spot for Soldotna for a 14th straight year, as well as home-field advantage in the semifinals. SoHi (2-0 NLC) will finish the regular season next Saturday at Kenai Central, and even a loss would give SoHi the tiebreaker over Eagle River (2-1), which has secured the second seed from the conference.
Adopted at age 6, Martinelli said he has been a SoHi football fan all of his life, and has spent time helping out on the sidelines since his seventh-grade year, when he linked up with head coach Galen Brantley Jr.
Ask any member of the SoHi program and they will say Martinelli is the team’s most passionate supporter.
“Nobody lives, eats, breathes SoHi football more than Matthew,” Brantley Jr. said before tearing up. “He loves these guys. He’s got a bunch of guys that look out for him, and it was really special for us to take him to San Diego with us.”
The Stars traditionally break each postgame and post-practice huddle by centering around Martinelli and joining in on a team chant, a tradition that Brantley Jr. said started the first day of his freshman year.
SoHi QB Jersey Truesdell said he played against Martinelli in youth soccer when the two were kids and Martinelli’s condition wasn’t as pronounced. Truesdell said Martinelli’s daily fight and perseverance stands as an inspiration to the team.
“Since I’ve been a freshman, he’s been there every single day,” Truesdell said. “He’s had so many little issues but you never hear about it, because he’s such a tough kid. He kind of keeps our team tough, in a way.”
Truesdell said he and a few teammates had kicked around the idea of giving Martinelli a proper sendoff as a senior for several years, as they knew early just how important he was to the program.
“I know with the passion he lives his life, I can’t imagine the way that he’d play this game,” Truesdell said. “He’d be so fun to play with, I know that.”
As a team manager, Martinelli helps set up and break down games and practices. During games, he is almost always seated in one end zone working a camera on the end of a high pole, filming the action that the Stars later break down for weekly analysis.
“It means everything,” Martinelli said about his time with the team. “I grew up with this group of kids, and to watch them grow and the dedication they’ve put in, the time they’ve put in, the countless hours of film … without their dedication, SoHi wouldn’t be what it is.”
Martinelli will graduate next spring, but said he still plans on sticking around the SoHi football program in his manager role for the foreseeable future.
Brantley Jr. thanked the Alaska Schools and Activities Association for allowing Martinelli to take a snap on the field. ASAA looked past Martinelli’s lack of practices as a player with a verified physical.
The opening celebratory snap kicked off a dominant game for the Stars. SoHi improved to 6-0 overall in 2019 and notched a 15th straight win dating back to Week 1 of last year.
The lopsided score was among the biggest blowouts in the Alaska state record books. According to Anchorage Daily News archives, only two other games stand out as bigger scorelines — Soldotna recorded an 89-0 win over Nikiski in 1988, Nikiski’s first season with a varsity football program, and in 2009, Eielson routed Valdez 84-7.
The game was the first meeting between SoHi and Eagle River since last October’s Division II state championship clash, which SoHi won 46-14.
After the opening snap, which was taken for a knee, it took SoHi two plays to reach the end zone, an 82-yard sprint by senior Wyatt Medcoff to open the scoring.
From there, SoHi forced Eagle River to punt, which set up another offensive highlight as senior Aaron Faletoi scrambled 40 yards for a TD, putting SoHi up 14-0 before two minutes were gone.
Another Wolves punt led to a booming 52-yard return TD for Medcoff, and the rout was on.
By the time the dust settled, SoHi had amassed 447 team rushing yards, with six guys notching 47 or more yards. Medcoff led the charge with 101 yards on just three carries, while Galen Brantley III added 88 on three carries.
Eagle River punted on its first five possessions before resorting to more desperate measures. In the second quarter, the Wolves turned the ball over on downs twice and lost it two other times on a pick-six by Tyler Morrison and a fumble return touchdown by Zack Zeigler.
Overall, SoHi held Eagle River to 19 yards of offense in the first half.
A halftime score of 69-0 allowed Soldotna’s starting players to change into street clothes by the third quarter, when Soldotna unloaded its JV crew.
Saturday at Soldotna
Stars 81, Wolves 7
Eagle River 0 0 0 7 —7
Soldotna 35 34 6 6 —81
Sol — Medcoff 82 run (Truesdell kick), 11:24
Sol — Faletoi 40 run (Truesdell kick), 10:02
Sol — Medcoff 52 punt return (Truesdell kick), 8:28
Sol — Metcalf 33 run (Truesdell kick), 4:14
Sol — Metcalf 20 pass from Truesdell (Truesdell kick), 1:17
Sol — Medcoff 4 run (Truesdell Kick), 9:42
Sol — Hanson 2 pass from Truesdell (Truesdell kick), 7:23
Sol — Morrison 40 Interception return (Truesdell kick), 6:28
Sol — Zeigler 8 fumble return (Truesdell kick), 4:07
Sol — Brantley 29 run (knee), 2:13
Sol — Mellon 5 run (knee), 3:49
Sol — Mellon 51 run (knee), 11:09
ER — Hamilton 3 run (Hamilton kick), 1:53
First Downs 7 4
Rushing yds 26-447 56-106
Pass yds 51 40
Comp-Att-Int 3-4-0 3-8-1
Return yds 3-53 12-193
Punts 0-0 5-32.0
Fumbles 0-0 2-1
Penalties 3-25 3-20
Rushing — Soldotna: Medcoff 3-101, Brantley III 3-88, Truesdell 3-70, Mellon 5-68, Metcalf 2-53, Faletoi 2-47, Taylor 4-17, J. Spies 1-7, Aley 2-(-1), T. Johnson 1-(-3). Eagle River: Hamilton 19-63, Reeves 8-22, Simon 10-14, Davis 9-10, Tripp 3-1, Guderian 7-(-4).
Passing — Soldotna: Truesdell 3-4-0—51. Eagle River: Guderian 3-8-2—40.