Eight straight state titles, and 12 since 2006. An 18-game postseason winning streak. A coach with a 28-2 postseason record, including 11-1 in state finals.
Soldotna football players have the pressure of a legacy to uphold.
As the Stars prepare for a Division II state championship against Lathrop at 4 p.m. Saturday at Service High School in Anchorage, players talked about an additional obligation.
“From the seniors from last year, I got a few friends that were on that team,” said Soldotna senior Harley Johnson, a center. “That was definitely sad when all of us got robbed, but mostly the seniors who thought they were going to get a chance to go up there and prove what they can do.
“So, for me, I want to go and do it for my friends.”
Johnson throws out the names Josh Bond and Bryce Zimmer. Noah Harper, a senior tight end, linebacker and safety, mentions Dennis Taylor. Kaidan Spies, a senior right guard and defensive tackle, talks about Taylor, Josh Pieh and his brother, Jordan Spies.
“I grew up playing with those kids my whole life,” Harper said of the Class of 2021. “They got their season cut short and we’ve got a chance to do it right.”
The Class of 2021 didn’t get a ton of opportunities when they were juniors because the Stars started all seniors in rolling to the state title.
The coronavirus pandemic came at the end of that junior year, causing a summer of football workouts where they weren’t allowed to touch each other. Then came a stunted 2020 season in which the Stars played Homer twice and Kenai Central twice before the postseason was canceled due to rising COVID cases.
“They missed out on a great opportunity due to COVID last year,” Spies said. “This is for them, as well, for sure.”
The Stars (7-1 overall) will have to avenge a Week 2 loss to the Malemutes, whose only loss this season is to Division I East, to hang a 13th banner. Lathrop was in control of that game, driving for a three-score lead in the fourth quarter, before fumbling and holding on for a 27-21 victory.
“They have phenomenal athletes at every position,” Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. said of the Malemutes.
The coach said junior Tyler Clooten is the best running back the Stars have seen this season. That means that junior Peyton George, the Division I state champion at 100 meters as a sophomore, serves as a change-of-pace back.
Brantley Jr. said senior quarterback Jarren Littell can run for crucial yards, or get the ball to talented receivers Dean Silva and Elijah Deans.
“From an offensive standpoint, we have to score points to give ourselves a chance,” Brantley Jr. said. “There’s no other way around it. They have too many athletes for us to be able to keep them off the board.”
SoHi has offensive firepower of its own. Sophomore Gehret Medcoff has 124 carries for 1,235 yards and 18 touchdowns. Senior Brock Wilson has 75 carries for 290 yards and three touchdowns, plus three receptions for 69 yards.
Senior Wayne Mellon has 54 rushes for 344 yards and six touchdowns, while also catching two balls for 36 yards. Senior tight end Dylan Dahlgren has 15 catches for 300 yards and five touchdowns, while junior quarterback Brayden Taylor has rushed 46 times for 336 yards and 10 touchdowns, while hitting 9 of 19 passes for 172 yards and three touchdowns.
Due to COVID issues and injuries, the Stars were not close to full strength this season until Friday’s 73-20 semifinal victory over North Pole.
“Last week, we got everyone back pretty much fully healthy,” Harper said. “This week, we’re even more healthy. So we’re feeling pretty confident about that.”
SoHi scored on 10 of 12 drives against the Patriots, with the two exceptions being drives halted by the clock expiring at the end of each half.
When asked why Brantley Jr. and his coaching staff have so much success, Johnson said the key is the preparation that allows consistent execution.
“They’re just very much into making sure that we know everything mentally and that we’re physically prepared,” he said. “We’re getting into our film and making sure that we are fully ready.”
Spies said that wasn’t the case the first time against Lathrop.
“Just execution,” he said when asked how the team has improved since Week 2. “We’ve improved dramatically, just executing like SoHi usually does.”
Johnson said this game is important not only for last year’s seniors, but for his class as well. Of this year’s seniors, Dahlgren was the only major contributor to the 2019 title.
“Last year, we definitely lost our chance to go out there and prove what we can do,” Johnson said. “So this year, we want to come back and make sure that we can because, for a lot of us seniors, this is our last game of football. We want to make sure we leave on a bang.”