The excitement of finishing 36 straight high school games without a single loss has not worn off on the Soldotna football team.
After a resounding 55-14 victory Saturday over large-schools opponent Lathrop at Justin Maile Field, the Stars have shown no signs of slowing down as they hurdle toward another Northern Lights Conference crown.
However, only 15 seconds into Saturday’s game, things weren’t looking as rosy as they were over two hours later.
Lathrop receiver RJ Henry sprinted 89 yards to the end zone on the opening kickoff to quickly put the Malemutes ahead 7-0, forecasting a formidable matchup of speed with which the Stars would have to deal.
However, things quickly settled back into their normal fashion. SoHi scored on five of its six possessions while stopping the Lathrop offense with three picks in a wild first half that ended with SoHi holding a 35-7 lead.
“It certainly wasn’t the plan to kick it to their fastest kid in the middle of the field,” Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. said about the opening kick touchdown return. “That was a mistake on our part.”
SoHi quarterback Brandon Crowder had four touchdown passes and 131 yards Saturday to spur the Stars to the nonconference win. Two of those scoring strikes were caught by senior Trevor Walden, who ended with 41 receiving yards.
“We could say both ways,” Walden said about catching passes from Crowder. “He’s making me look good.”
Crowder started at QB for a second straight week, filling in for Dylan Simons, who was concussed while playing Palmer in Week 5 of the season. Simons has been given the green light to return and will likely start next week against Kenai.
Walden said as great as the achievement is of continuing to expand upon their record-setting streak, SoHi football isn’t the first thing on his mind when 36 pops up.
“I instantly think Jerome Bettis, because I’m a Steelers fan,” Walden admitted, referring to the legendary Pittsburgh fullback’s jersey number.
Walden may idolize Bettis, but the senior tight end plays more like New England’s Rob Gronkowski, as he has frequently become a thorn in the side of opposing defenses with his size and ability to snatch footballs out of the air.
Walden, a senior veteran, has been a four-year varsity starter, and the only player that has gone without missing a game to injury.
“How I’ve been healthy I don’t know,” quipped Walden, who broke his back in February while squatting in the SoHi weight room.
Walden broke one of his vertebrae in three difference places and had to wear a back brace for 16 weeks, but he healed up just in time to join the Stars in their season opener against defending large-schools champion South Anchorage.
The new and improved Walden caught touchdown passes of 18 and 12 yards from Crowder amid a frantic Lathrop defensive secondary unit that had him in double coverage both times.
“They’re so quick and speedy,” Walden said about the Malemutes. “They can cut in an instant.”
Kristian Palauniuk led the ground game for SoHi, racking up 104 yards on 15 carries and a pair of touchdown runs, while teammate Mason Prior added 96 yards and a touchdown as well.
Crowder found Adrian Gomez-Dickson on SoHi’s opening possession to tie the game at seven points apiece. Crowder rolled out of the pocket and hit Gomez-Dickson in stride to the left sideline for a 33-yard touchdown.
“Starting off, I didn’t want to make any mistakes, but after I threw a couple passes and started connecting, I just settled down and did my job,” Crowder said.
On the next Lathrop possession, the Malemutes were stopped on downs at the SoHi 39-yard line. The defensive plug led to a five-play offensive possession that ended with a brutal 36-yard romp by Keola Finau, who had to break through a few sure tackles up the middle of the field en route to the end zone, putting Soldotna ahead 14-7.
Lathrop dazzled the crowd on its next possession with several creative plays, including a double-reverse pitch run play that gained 12 yards from Henry, and a flea flicker that saw the football go from Lathrop quarterback Glenn Maiden to twin brother Garrius, back to Glenn, who then heaved it 32 yards to a wide open Jake Carlson standing at the SoHi 11-yard line.
“It was definitely a bigger challenge, considering how athletic they are,” Crowder said. “All their kids are athletic, they work their butts off, but so do we.”
After a third-down stop led to a missed 32-yard field goal attempt by Lathrop, SoHi went 80 yards in nine plays to score again on a 19-yard run by Palaniuk.
From there, the Stars defensive secondary began to put a hurting on Lathrop quarterback Glenn Maiden, who recorded three straight interceptions. Wendell Tuisaula, Timmy Smithwick and Jesse Littrell all came down with the ball on each possession.
Soldotna also managed to return to normalcy in its discipline game, going the entire first half without a penalty and ending with only two for 20 yards.
Brantley Jr. said he was happy with the performance, which wasn’t easy against the vaunted Interior team from Fairbanks.
“They were able to come up with some plays when they got into open space, and that was to be expected,” Brantley Jr. “When we lined up and started playing football, I thought it was pretty one-sided, and I couldn’t be happier with their effort.”
With one week to go in the regular season, SoHi will now focus its efforts on crosstown rival Kenai Central, as the two sides will square off for the NLC crown next Saturday.
Stars 55, Malemutes 14
Soldotna 14 21 14 6 —55
Lathrop 7 0 0 7 —14
Lat — Henry 89 kick off return (Longaray kick), 11:45
Sol — Gomez 33 pass from B. Crowder (Jones kick), 8:23
Sol — K. Finau 36 run (Jones kick), 3:42
Sol — Palaniuk 19 run (Jones kick), 8:24
Sol — Walden 18 pass from B. Crowder (Jones kick), 5:12
Sol — Palaniuk 7 run (Jones kick), :21
Sol — Prior 11 pass from B. Crowder (Jones kick), 7:53
Sol — Walden 12 pass from B. Crowder (Jones kick), 3:02
Lat — Henry 46 pass from Maiden (Longaray kick), 10:41
Sol — Quelland 4 run (conversion failed), 1:11
Rushes-yards 53-342 27-154
Passing yards 131 107
Return yards 39 124
Passes 8-13-0 5-14-3
Punts 0-0 0-0
Fumbles-lost 0-0 2-1
Penalty-yards 2-20 5-68
Rushing — Soldotna: Palaniuk 15-104, Prior 13-96, Furlong 7-56, Finau 4-47, Quelland 5-32, Supple 3-12, Sproul 1-2, Trammell 1-0, B. Crowder 4-(-7). Lathrop: Henry 9-94, Kent 6-37, Ga. Maiden 9-12, Pelayo 1-11, Chapman 1-4, Gl. Maiden 1-0.
Passing — Soldotna: B. Crowder 8-13-4—131. Lathrop: Ga. Maiden 5-14-1—107.