A real scare from the North Pole Patriots woke up the mighty Soldotna Stars football program in a state playoff semifinal last weekend.
This weekend, with everything on the line, the Stars will have to face their fears one more time.
A state-record win streak that currently stands at 48 straight, a string of five consecutive state crowns, and a fourth straight undefeated season are all at stake when Soldotna steps onto Machetanz Field at Palmer High School on Saturday afternoon in the state medium-schools championship game against the Palmer Moose.
Kickoff is scheduled for 12:30 p.m., and the game will be on 1140 AM. GCI also will provide broadcast coverage on channel 907.
In order to reach that pinnacle, SoHi will have to cast aside their memories of one week earlier, when North Pole threatened to bring The Streak to a crashing halt in the playoffs. Earlier in the season, Soldotna crushed North Pole 57-13 at home, but an improved and passionate Patriots squad looking for vengeance took a 15-0 lead at one point in the first half, before SoHi was able to recover for the 25-21 victory.
“One thing I know about this sport is there are no guarantees,” said Soldotna head coach Galen Brantley Jr. after a practice Wednesday afternoon.
The Stars struggled to gain momentum because they fumbled the ball against North Pole a season-high six times. SoHi senior Jace Urban — making his first varsity start at quarterback in place of the injured Brandon Crowder — accounted for four of them himself as he struggled in the new role.
However, Urban made up for it by scoring the go-ahead touchdown and hauling in a decisive interception with just minutes left in the game.
“(North Pole) came out to play, and we were a little flat,” said senior left tackle Kyle Marcuson. “I guess we thought it was gonna be a walk-through game.”
SoHi defeated Palmer 42-21 in a Sept. 9 matchup between the two Northern Lights Conference schools. It was a game that saw the Moose threaten for nearly the entire duration, only to come up short in the end.
So, who’s to say that the North Pole scenario won’t play out against Palmer?
“I don’t think it will happen again,” Marcuson responded. “This seems like we owe it to the guys that played before us. They got the job done.”
For senior left guard Bryce Martin, who has been with the SoHi football program all four years of high school, Saturday is a day for the senior class to go out as the first undefeated class of players in state history. Soldotna’s most recent loss came in Aug. 2012, when Martin and his fellow seniors were still eighth-graders.
“Basically, this is our last shot,” Martin said. “For the seniors … we’ve got to go all out, we got to keep it hyped.”
Marcuson said the Stars have been poring over game film at least three hours every day this week, and the practice time he and his SoHi teammates have had with Brantley Jr. and assistants Sarge Truesdell, Phil Leck and Eric Pomerleau has been valuable.
“We’re really lucky because we have one of best coaching staffs in Alaska,” Marcuson said. “They’ve done the job the last five years getting us to this point.
“It’s always the same thing like any other week, only more pressure.”
Palmer punched its ticket to the state final last weekend with a tight 28-26 semifinal win over Thunder Mountain. The Moose clinched the victory after the Falcons failed to convert a two-point play in the fourth quarter following a touchdown.
In Week 5 against Palmer, the Stars had trouble passing the ball. Crowder hit 2 of his 11 targeted receivers for 26 yards and was picked off twice.
Meanwhile, Palmer quarterback Clayton Southwick moved the ball 131 yards through the air, hitting 10 of 21 passes, including a pair of scoring strikes. Southwick also scrambled for 49 rushing yards, making him a difficult target to track.
On the ground, the Moose offense amassed 151 yards on 39 carries, while the SoHi attack found its greatest success with 331 yards on 45 carries.
“This is a game that’ll be won or lost in the trenches,” Brantley Jr. said. “Palmer’s a very good team and it was a one-touchdown game in the fourth quarter last time.”
Brantley’s biggest concern remains the formidable Palmer backfield. A big offensive line has allowed the Moose to run rampant in 2016, and in the loss to SoHi, Palmer running backs Jeff Glynn, Larry Cutsforth and Southwick combined for 133 rushing yards.
Brantley Jr. said if the Stars can take away Palmer’s run or pass game, making the Moose one-dimensional, the path to the state title will become an easier chore.
In a season full of high-stakes games — see the 22-21 win over East Anchorage and the 49-30 win over West — SoHi’s path to greatness will be decided in how well the Stars can execute what they do best. Approaching his final game with the team, Martin said he is finally beginning to sense the finality.
“With senior pictures (taken Wednesday), it’s kicking in,” he said. “We have one more practice left on our field, it’s almost a depressing feeling.
“We’ve accomplished so much here, and it’s the last thing to be able to prove our worthiness.”