By JEREMIAH BARTZ
PALMER — The Soldotna Stars haven’t made the trip to Colony High School since 2009. But one member of the 2015 Stars is a bit more familiar with the Knights and Colony High, and helped Soldotna extend a state record with its 31st straight victory.
Soldotna senior Kristian Palaniuk, a former Wasilla High player, enjoyed a monster game in his return to the Valley, and led Soldotna to a 45-20 nonconference win over the Knights on Friday night at Colony High.
Palaniuk rushed for a game-high 183 yards and three touchdowns to help Soldotna improve to 2-0, and record its first win at CHS in more than a decade.
“I was definitely excited. It was super fun,” Palaniuk said after the win.
Palaniuk carried the ball 25 times in the victory, and rushed for scores of 4, 7 and 36 yards.
“Boy, he’s a full-grown man,” Soldotna head coach Galen Brantley Jr. said of 6-foot, 210-pound Palaniuk. “He’s just so powerful, and he’s come so far. He never really played offense before. He showed up in our program and we figured out what to do with him. Face him downhill, and get him to run power. He did not disappoint.”
Palaniuk was one of two Stars to eclipse the 100-yard mark in the game. Senior Mason Prior added 113 yards and a score. Junior Jace Urban collected 89 yards and a touchdown. Quarterbacks Dylan Simons, another transfer from Wasilla High, and Brandon Crowder, also scored rushing touchdowns.
Soldotna finished with 485 yards rushing the game.
The Stars headed into Colony High on the heels of an emotional season opener. Soldotna, the three-time defending medium-schools state champions, used a Week 1 victory over defending large-schools state champion South Anchorage to set a state record with its 30th straight win. But during that victory, the Stars lost senior running back Drew Gibbs, the 2014 medium-schools Offensive Player of the Year, to a season-ending knee injury.
“Everyone had to dig deep. We have his number on our helmets and we did it for him,” Palaniuk said of the Stars and the loss of Gibbs, as he pointed to a sticker with Gibbs’ No. 28 on the back of his helmet.
As far as the streak, which was extended to 31 straight Friday night, Brantley Jr. said it’s not the focus.
“It sounds really crazy, but the monkey’s off our back. We got (the record). At some point, someone’s going to tattoo us and it’ll all be over with. But we don’t talk about it at all. Seems like everyone else talks about it more than we do,” Brantley Jr. said. “We’re just trying to focus on the game. There’s too much detail to take care of to be worrying about that thing.”
Soldotna jumped to a quick 12-0 lead, but needed a monster fourth quarter to ensure the streak stayed intact. With the legs of senior Jordan Nero and the arm of senior Steven Bilafer, the Knights sprinted back into the game. Soldotna led by only six points at the half, 19-13, and held a six-point lead, 26-20, after three quarters.
“This team is going to beat some folks,” Brantley Jr. said of the Knights. “I know they came off a little bit of a struggle last year, but coach (Rhett) Magner is doing the right things with them, and they’ve got some athletes.”
Colony had eight plays of more than 20 yards in the loss, and finished with nearly 400 yards of total offense.
“They certainly had a little more big-play potential than we did for sure,” Brantley Jr. said. “We had to grind it out and work for it.”
Late in the first quarter, Nero scampered free for a 60-yard touchdown to cut Soldotna’s lead to 12-7. Nero, playing in the slot, took the handoff, cut up the middle to the far sideline, sliced back across the field, then outran the defense en route to the score.
“He kind of came out of nowhere,” Magner said of Nero. “We haven’t seen that kind of electric play even in practice. I could tell he was a little upset. We fed him the ball, and he kind of ran angry for a while. We kept giving him the ball, and he kept making plays.”
Nero added a 6-yard touchdown late in the third quarter to cut SoHi’s lead to 26-20. Overall, Nero finished with a team-high 143 yards rushing on 12 carries, and three catches for 71 yards.
Bilafer completed eight passes for 201 yards, and ran for a 12-yard touchdown. Sophomore Jon Pomrenke caught four passes for 81 yards. Jake Hessinger added a 49-yard catch in the loss.
Overall, Magner said he saw some good things, but plenty the Knights need to work on. The first-year head coach put an emphasis on toughness.
“They’re being asked to be a lot tougher than they have in the past. That’s something I pride myself in 100 percent. Toughness across the board,” Magner said.
Magner said the Knights will continue to work on that as they work through the adversity.
“It’s not going to happen overnight unfortunately, even though I want it to happen overnight. Breeding toughness takes a little while,” Magner said.
Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman sports editor Jeremiah Bartz at email@example.com
Soldotna 45, Colony 20
Aug. 21, Colony High
Soldotna — Urban 56 run (kick blocked) 8:02.
Soldotna — Palaniuk 4 run (pass failed) 2:00.
Colony — Nero 60 run (Boyer kick) 1:18.
Soldotna — Palaniuk 7 run (J. Smithwick kick) 6:50.
Colony — Bilafer 12 run (run failed) 0:31.
Soldotna — Simons 20 run (J. Smithwick kick) 6:43.
Colony — Nero 6 run (Boyer kick) 2:39.
Soldotna — Palaniuk 36 run (kick failed) 7:39.
Soldotna — Prior 1 run (J. Smithwick kick) 4:51.
Soldotna — Crowder 16 run (kick blocked) 2:42.
RUSHING — Soldotna: Palaniuk 25-183, Prior 23-113, Urban 8-89, Simons 6-43, Finau 5-8, Crowder 4-36, Furlong 4-11, Schrader 1-1; Colony: Nero 12-143, Bilafer 11-6, Havel 4-24, Hessinger 3-1.
PASSING — Soldotna: Simons 0-4-0—0; Colony: Bilafer 8-19-1—201.
RECEIVING — Soldotna: none; Colony: Pomrenke 4-81, Nero 3-71, Hessinger 1-49.