Brayden Taylor scored on a 4-yard run with 30 seconds to play, and Zac Buckbee kicked the crucial extra point, as visiting Soldotna defeated South 42-41 on Saturday in nonconference action.
Taylor then had an interception in the final seconds to seal up the victory in the back-and-forth contest.
In regard to the playoffs, there was nothing on the line in this game. Soldotna, now 6-1 overall, has the top seed out of the Northern Lights Conference in the Division II playoffs. South, now 2-5 overall, is automatically in the Division I tournament, because all Division I teams make the playoffs.
As the game wore on and neither team was able to take more than an eight-point advantage, though, it was hard to tell how little the stakes were in the last game of the regular season.
“Our message to the kids was we saw some fight and grit out of some of them that we haven’t seen before,” Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. said. “We hope that momentum can carry over into the playoffs, and we can plug the pieces back in place and make another playoff run.”
The Stars host North Pole at 4 p.m. Friday in the semifinals of the Division II playoffs.
Brantley Jr. said the Stars had four players out due to COVID-related issues, and rested another with an injury. Midway through the game, SoHi also lost star running back Gehret Medcoff to an injury.
The SoHi coach said going deep into a physical game isn’t ideal with less than a week until the playoffs, but he said practices this time of the year are not physical so players should have a chance to recover.
The Stars also will be helped by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s decision to move Soldotna High School to universal indoor masking Monday. Brantley Jr. said the decision should cut out the COVID close contacts in school that have been hampering the program all year long.
“It’s not a pro- or anti-mask statement,” Brantley Jr. said. “We have to stop the bleeding with all these close contacts. I’ve already had to look a kid in the face twice in one season and tell him he can’t play because he’s a close contact.”
The coach did say the absences allowed players like freshman guard Kenai Lepule and freshman running back Wyatt Faircloth to step in and show their talent. Faircloth had two touchdowns.
Brantley Jr. also said quarterbacks Taylor and Buckbee both had great games.
South took a 7-0 lead with 8:22 left in the first quarter, but Faircloth, making his first varsity start, answered with a 5-yard run with 21 seconds left in the first quarter as SoHi trailed 7-6.
With 10:41 left until halftime, South scored again, but this time Buckbee answered with a 1-yard touchdown run with 8:50 left until halftime for a 13-all tie.
South again took the lead on a 49-yard touchdown run with 44 seconds left until halftime, but SoHi again bounced right back when Faircloth caught a 22-yard scoring pass from Taylor with 10 seconds until halftime. The score stood at 21-all at halftime.
Soldotna got the ball to start the second half and went on a long drive, with Gehret Medcoff finishing the drive with a 10-yard touchdown run with 5:40 left in the third quarter.
However, at the 3:16 mark in the third, South had the score tied again at 27.
The Stars again went ahead with 11:00 left in the game when Noah Harper caught a 7-yard touchdown pass from Buckbee and Wayne Mellon ran in the conversion for a 35-27 lead.
The Wolverines again answered quickly, with a touchdown pass with 9:50 to play. Crucially, South missed the two-point conversion.
South then got a defensive stop, and scored on another touchdown pass with 4:08 to play. The two-point conversion put the Wolverines up 41-35.
“There were plenty of moments when the kids could have thrown in the towel,” Brantley Jr. said. “Every time they’d make a big play, we’d claw back into it.”
The Stars answered with the Taylor touchdown run with 30 seconds to play.
“Everything mattered,” Brantley Jr. said. “We had guys play through bumps and bruises in a physical football game. Having guys play through discomfort helped get us through that game. We don’t win if they don’t.”
Nikiski 42, Seward 26
The visiting Bulldogs avenged a nonconference loss to the Seahawks earlier in the season Friday to win on Seward’s homecoming and senior nights. Nikiski also wins the Fish Bowl.
Nikiski finishes 3-1 in the Denali Conference and 3-4 overall, but doesn’t make the playoffs because Monroe Catholic took the lone berth out of the league. Seward finishes at 1-2 and 2-3.
Seward coach Tyler Mallory said it’s unfortunate there is only one playoff berth out of the league. He would like to see the two Division III conferences — the Mid Alaska and Denali — each get three berths, leading to a three-week playoff series.
Nikiski grabbed an 18-6 lead at halftime en route to the victory.
Tommy Cronin and Brett Gilmore each threw for and caught touchdown passes for Seward. Cronin and Noah Price also ran for touchdowns.
Seniors Cronin, Kekoa Albino, Marcus Lastimosa, James Milburn, Fayzon Lawrence and Daniel Correa were honored on senior night and homecoming for Seward.
The Seahawks lost two games to COVID this season, but Mallory said it was a lot better than last season, when only three games were played.
“The senior class had some of the best kids I’ve coached,” the coach said. “They worked their butts off and led the younger kids. They know they’ve got big shoes to fill.”
Mallory said he could have up to 20 players return next season, so the future looks bright.
The same can be said for Nikiski, which loses just three seniors.
Kenai Central 40, Kodiak 6
The Kardinals dominated the second half Friday to finish the regular season at 2-4 overall, while Kodiak finishes at 0-6 overall.
Kenai had already qualified for the Division III playoffs coming into the game and will face Redington in the first round. Kodiak had already been eliminated from Division II playoff contention.
The Kards led 13-6 at halftime before pulling away.
“We started a little bit slow on offense,” Kenai coach Dustin Akana said. “Our defense made one mistake, and they got the six points.
“After halftime, everything was clicking on offense, defense and special teams.”
Akana said this was the perfect tuneup for the playoffs, with no injuries coming out of the game. Kenai went into the game short-handed due to injuries and COVID close contacts.
“The boys are excited and ready to play in the playoffs,” Akana said.
Reagan Graves had three touchdown runs in the game for the Kardinals. Roc Riggle also threw touchdown passes to Wade James and Adam Anglebrandt. James also booted a pair of field goals.