The schedule has been kind to Kenai Peninsula football fans once again.
After a Week 8 that allowed spectators to take in three games on the central peninsula with playoff implications, and a playoff semifinal weekend that allowed viewing all three peninsula teams in the playoffs in two separate central peninsula games, this week the dedicated can take in a state championship doubleheader involving peninsula teams.
The difference is it will involve a drive to Service High School in Anchorage for Saturday’s games.
At noon, Soldotna and Lathrop, both with 9-0 overall records, clash at noon for the Division II title. At 4:30 p.m., Homer, at 6-3, takes on 8-0 Houston for a Division III title.
Soldotna vs. Lathrop, noon
After losing 34-20 to Soldotna in Saturday’s Division II semifinal, North Pole head coach Mike Hollett anticipated what would happen if Lathrop was able to top Chugiak in the other semi and advance to the finals.
“They’ll both be undefeated and it’ll be the clash of the titans,” Hollett said. “I think the whole state will be watching.”
Soldotna head coach Galen Brantley Jr. agreed with Hollett.
“Regardless of division, both of the programs are two of the top teams in the state,” the Soldotna coach said. “Not to take anything away from Juneau, Colony and Bartlett, but Lathrop’s right in the mix and we’re probably not very far behind.”
The Stars and Malemutes will be playing for the Division II title for the third straight time. Soldotna won 69-23 in 2019 before 2020 was lost to the pandemic. Lathrop beat SoHi 27-21 in Week 1 of the 2021 season, then backed that up with a 39-28 victory in the title game for the school’s first state title.
“We definitely feel like an underdog,” Brantley Jr. said. “They have bigger wins this season and have beaten us the last two times. They boast some serious talent.”
Lathrop head coach Luke Balash, in his 11th year at the school and 22nd year coaching in Alaska, told the Anchorage Daily News after last season’s title game: “But I meant it when I said if we played Soldotna 100 times, (it) would win 80 of them because it’s such an amazing team.”
The underdog role is appealing for a reason. Brantley Jr. has 11 state titles, while SoHi’s program has 12. He is 29-3 in the playoffs and 11-2 in state finals.
The only other time Brantley Jr. met an undefeated team in the final was 2013, when the Stars topped Juneau 56-49 for the medium-schools championship.
“It’s certainly more enjoyable to have a challenge,” Brantley Jr. said. “Some years we’ve walked through, and at some point you’re going through the motions.
“We’ve never had to fight for motivation this year. Our kids knew at some point they’d be a massive underdog and they’d have to perform. It’s been hanging over their heads.”
SoHi has set the standard in the state with a year-round strength and conditioning program, and meticulous coaching, for some time now. Brantley Jr. said it’s good to see Lathrop doing the same thing.
“They’re scooping up a lot of the talent in Fairbanks,” he said. “Their coaches are doing a great job of scheming. Their kids are working throughout the year and you’re starting to see a cultural shift. They’re not going away anytime soon.”
The schedule for each team offers no clues as to superiority. Both have been dominant in every game, with Soldotna topping Division I schools Service and South, and Lathrop beating Division I West.
The closest game either team had is Soldotna’s 34-20 semifinal victory over North Pole, but Brantley Jr. was resting some nicked up players and he said all are ready to go this week.
The forecast is calling for Saturday’s game to be played in a chilly rain. Lathrop runs the spread offense, while Soldotna runs the Full House T.
“We’re a nasty weather offense,” Brantley Jr. said. “We’re under center and we have two hands on the football at all times.”
The Full House T has served to feed the culture of the program, with each of the runners carrying out fakes to help the actual ballcarrier. Brantley Jr. said that team-first culture will be vital in this game, because it’s going to take everybody because of all the pressure Lathrop’s dynamic players put on all three phases of the game.
“The wait is over,” he said. “We’ve kind of been on a collision course with one another. We’ve known it and they’ve known it all season. Now it comes down to 48 minutes.”
Homer vs. Houston, 4:30 p.m.
The Mariners return to a football state title game for a fourth time in search of their first title.
In previous appearances in the championship, Homer lost the Division III game to Barrow 20-14 in 2017, lost the medium-schools game to Soldotna 62-20 in 2012, and lost the medium-schools game to Kenai 26-14 in 2011.
“We haven’t talked about it too much with the guys or the coaching staff,” Homer coach Justin Zank said of a potential title. “Obviously, it’s something I’m aware of and it’s definitely something I think about for sure.
“It’d definitely be special. It’s something our school needs. It would mean a lot, for sure.”
The Hawks had the school’s first state title and undefeated season in 2019. Houston lost in the Division III championship to Redington last year before returning to the title game undefeated this season.
Included in Houston’s undefeated run thus far is a 46-0 victory over Homer in Week 2. That victory came with Mariners quarterback Carter Tennison sidelined due to injury.
“We know what you get when you play them,” Zank said. “They’re gonna run the ball, they’re gonna run the ball off tackle. They’re gonna blitz at least two linebackers on defense.
“They’re gonna hit hard, be aggressive and be tough.”
In the first game, Zank said his team was physical on defense, but the offense made a ton of mistakes that were impossible to overcome.
“I’m hoping it will be a different game,” Zank said. “Obviously, we’ve got to minimize mistakes. The Houston defense is very opportunistic.”
Tennison has rolled up stats since returning to action in Week 3, culminating with six rushing touchdowns and a passing touchdown in a Division III semifinal victory over Nikiski.
“I think anytime your big-time player has a big-time game, it bodes well for you,” Zank said. “I’m hoping he can have a big game Saturday. I’m hoping other guys can have big games as well.”
In a steady rain Saturday, Zank said receivers Markary Reutov and Mo Techie made some difficult catches.
There’s a good chance the Mariners will play in the rain again Saturday.
“We’ve been practicing in the rain the last two months,” Zank said. “I think we’re OK.”
Zank said a physical Chugiak team woke his team up in a Week 8 loss. Zank said Homer carried that physicality into the playoff game against Nikiski.
“I think our guys are confident given the season we’ve had,” he said. “We played Houston in Week 2 and we’re a different team now, but I know Houston is a different team as well.”