Wildfire smoke blew the Soldotna Stars out of Oregon on Thursday, but the Stars were California dreaming Friday.
Soldotna controlled the proceedings in a 20-7 victory over the Crater Comets, a Class 5A school in Oregon that was hosting SoHi for its season-opener at Del Norte County High School in Crescent City, California.
The win was Soldotna’s 53rd straight, extending the Alaska state record, which moved the Stars to 4-0 this year with a full conference schedule to go.
The meeting was originally slated to kick off at Crater’s home field in Central Point, Oregon, but smoke and haze from nearby wildfires forced school district officials to change venues due to unhealthy air quality. The new site of Crescent City, California, just over 100 miles southwest of Crater, was announced Thursday morning.
Going from an artificial turf field to natural grass didn’t slow SoHi down, as the Stars used their fearsome running game to control the clock and their airtight defense to force the Comets to punts and turnovers.
“It was sloppy and we won ugly,” said SoHi head coach Galen Brantley Jr.
Senior Brenner Furlong led SoHi with 106 yards rushing and a touchdown, while sophomore Aaron Faletoi notched 92 yards and a touchdown.
The Stars ran the ball an astonishing 63 times for 271 yards.
It was SoHi’s closest contest this season, with a 21-0 win over West Anchorage being the previously barnburner of the year for the Stars.
Soldotna struck first with a short run by Faletoi that capped a lengthy drive, then got two more touchdowns by seniors Brandon Crowder and Furlong. Crowder finished with 59 passing yards on 4-of-10 completion efficiency.
“They’re an extremely well-coached team with some very talented athletes,” said Soldotna head coach Galen Brantley Jr. “They really pushed us to the brink. I think we had one play offensively that was over 20 yards, maybe two. We really had to fight for every yard, and nothing was easy.”
In their season-opener against the Eagles, the Stars took on 30 pass attempts, their season-high. Friday against the Comets, Brantley Jr. said SoHi’s secondary faced another stiff challenge as the Comets threw 29 times, hitting 17 of their targets for 137 yards.
“West had some more size,” he said. “Crater had some more skill.”
The game nearly went off the rails for the Stars before halftime when senior center Eli Lovelace went down with an injury on the turf with 2:37 left in the second quarter and SoHi holding a 14-7 lead. Lovelace, who had been dealing with knee issues, got caught up in a tangle of players on a run play and spent the rest of the game limping on the sideline.
Lovelace, a 6-foot-6, 305-pound lineman for the Stars, is a key component on the offensive line, and Brantley Jr. had no choice but to put junior Cody Nye in the game at center. Nye, 5-foot-7 and 220 pounds, went the rest of the day with minimal miscues.
“We had some adversity we were dealing with, that was the name of the game,” Brantley Jr. said. “We were pretty confident in Cody, I knew if we gave him the opportunity, he’d hold up and get things done for us.”
Nye had a fumbled snap that resulted in a turnover in the second half, but otherwise held up on the fearsome front line.
Brantley Jr. said sophomore safety Jersey Truesdell also had to be taken out early with migraine pain, and was replaced by senior Sam McElroy.
“That’s football,” Brantley Jr. said. “It never goes to plan.”
Other than 94 rushing yards by running back Cade Weaver, the Comets were unable to move the ball effectively against the Stars, which outgained Crater 330 to 248 in total offense.
SoHi got two early scores to go up 14-0 by the second quarter, both short runs by Aaron Faletoi and quarterback Brandon Crowder that capped lengthy drives.
Crater finally responded with a speedy drive of its own that resulted in sophomore quarterback Trever Davis running the ball in on a 4-yard keeper, cutting SoHi’s lead to 14-7 with seven minutes to go in the first half. The score stood at halftime.
Without Lovelace anchoring the offensive line, SoHi put up a statement drive to begin the second half, eating up over five minutes of the clock and making a clutch fourth-and-three conversion from its own 39-yard line to score on a 5-yard scamper by Brenner Furlong.
From there, SoHi attempted to drain the clock and hold onto the ball, but found it difficult against a bigger school like Crater. The Comets recovered a SoHi fumble on a botched snap at the SoHi 40-yard line, then proceeded to march down the field, getting a fourth-down conversion on a pass play up the middle to put them in SoHi’s red zone.
However, Davis went down with an injury with 37 seconds left in the quarter, and Crater couldn’t score from there, turning the ball over on downs on at the SoHi 25-yard line. With Davis out, Crater struggled to move the ball for much of the rest of the game.
Davis hit 15 of 20 passes for 125 yards before his exit, and his replacement was 2 for 9 with 12 yards in his absence.
Immediately after taking over the ball, the Stars began to move. Crowder connected with Galen Brantley III for 23 yards to pick up a first down at midfield, then Faletoi received a pitch from Crowder to gain another first down at the Crater 41.
However, the Stars stalled out and turned the ball back over on downs on a screen pass to Faletoi.
After forcing Crater to punt, SoHi again failed to make up the needed yardage on a fourth down play, giving Crater the ball again on its own 35.
With 2:05 left in the fourth quarter, the Comets finally burst out with a big run, rumbling 45 yards into SoHi territory but losing 15 of those on an unsportsmanlike penalty. The Stars then added salt to the wound with a quarterback sack with 1:10 to go.
Crater failed to come up with a first down after airing the ball out three straight plays, and the Stars finally ended it in their victory formation.
Stars 20, Comets 7
Soldotna 7 7 7 0 —20
Crater 0 7 0 0 —7
Sol — Faletoi 7 run (Sheridan kick)
Sol — Crowder 1 run (Sheridan kick), 9:58
Cra — Davis 4 run (kick), 7:05
Sol — Furlong 5 run (kick failed), 6:37
First downs 19 10
Rushes-yds 63-271 19-111
Pass yds 59 137
Comp-att-int 4-10-0 17-29-0
Total yds 330 248
Punts 2-33 4-31
Fumbles-lost 1-1 2-1
Penalties-yds 3-25 8-75
Rushing — Soldotna: Furlong 25-106, Faletoi 18-92, Quelland 9-48, Crowder 11-24. Crater: Weaver 8-94, Davis 7-1, Lane 1-(-5), Acrey 1-14, Lowder 1-3, Kinney 1-4.
Passing — Soldotna: Crowder 4-10-0—59. Crater: Davis 15-20-0—125, Lane 2-9-0—12.