By JEFF HELMINIAK
Soldotna, Kenai Central and Nikiski all play their homecoming games on a busy Week 5 on the central Kenai Peninsula.
Friday, Soldotna has a Northern Lights Conference contest against Palmer at 6 p.m., while Nikiski welcomes Seward for a nonconference contest at 5 p.m.
Saturday, the Kardinals face Mid Alaska Conference foe Redington at 3 p.m. Also, Homer travels to Houston for a Mid Alaska Conference game at 7 p.m. Friday.
Palmer at Soldotna
Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. said the result against an improving Palmer squad will depend which team shows up, literally and figuratively.
Palmer (0-1, 1-3) started out the year getting blown out by Eagle River, but since then has cruised past West Valley and suffered close losses to Bartlett and Eagle River.
Soldotna (1-0, 2-1) started the season with a loss to Lathrop before defeating Chugiak and Service.
“That’s tough,” Brantley Jr. said, when asked how his team would stack up against the Moose. “It depends which group of kids shows up.
“If we play like we did last Friday, I think we’ve got a good chance. If it’s the same group as in the first half against Chugiak, we could be in trouble.”
The coach also must worry about players being ruled out of the game due to COVID-19, or due to being ruled a close contact of a COVID-19 positive.
SoHi can normally field C, junior varsity and varsity teams. Service doesn’t have a C team, but last weekend SoHi had so many close contacts among younger players that the JV game against the Cougars had to be canceled.
The good news is early in the week Brantley Jr. said he didn’t have any players out due to close contacts. The bad news is close contacts can strike at any time.
If they do, Brantley Jr. will need more players like freshman Izaiah Gilbert. The fourth-string defensive back stepped in and made an impact after that position had been decimated by close contacts.
Brantley Jr. said that with just three more conference games to play, the Stars can’t afford to slip up and lose a home playoff game.
“A loss in a conference game and we’re probably headed to Fairbanks, if we make the playoffs at all,” he said. “I really don’t want to go to Fairbanks again.”
Against Palmer, the coach said the offense continued to improve, with the big addition being the execution on the off-tackle running game. Brantley Jr. said Wayne Mellon and Brock Wilson ran well off tackle, while tight end Andrew Pieh and tackle Hakoa Montoya threw key blocks.
Redington at Kenai Central
The Kardinals come into the game 0-1 in the conference and 0-2 overall, while Redington is 1-0 in the league and 3-0 overall.
The Mid Alaska gets three Division III playoffs spots, so it’s too early to talk must-win games, but the Kards could definitely use a homecoming victory in the home opener at Ed Hollier Field.
“It’s exciting to finally be playing at home,” Kenai coach Dustin Akana said. “I talked with them today and told them this is our field. Some boys use the term ‘Protect the nest.’ They’re definitely going into this game wanting to get that win for the fans.”
Kenai lost 32-2 to Houston on Friday to a Hawks team featuring over 900 pounds of lineman in Siu Sasiu, Kiderro Fono and Josiah Bowman.
“That score doesn’t indicate anything about how the game really went,” Akana said. “Our boys played really well against their three big boys.”
On defense, Akana said the Kards forced multiple fumbles. He said Kenai moved the ball on offense, but was hurt by four fumbles and two interceptions. The coaches watched the game film and came away impressed by how Kenai’s offensive and defensive lines had played, with the exception being room for improvement in pass protection.
“If it wasn’t for multiple turnovers and small mistakes, we’re in it,” Akana said. “Because of those mistakes, it ended up being what it was.”
Akana said Redington runs the spread offense with a very talented running back and quarterback.
On the injury and close contact front, Akana said one player may be out with a concussion, but also that a handful of players missed Tuesday practice due to illness. He said it’s too soon to say whether those players will be ready Saturday.
Seward at Nikiski
Both teams are in the Denali Conference, but this will be a nonconference matchup. The conference game will be played Oct. 1 at Seward.
The Seahawks and Bulldogs both did not play last week due to COVID cancellations.
Seward was supposed to host Homer, but could not because the Seahawks had too many close contacts.
“We would have had just 13 kids, half of which are freshmen,” Seahawks coach Tyler Mallory said.
Barrow was supposed to play at Nikiski, but the Whalers did not make the trip due to COVID issues.
Mallory and Nikiski coach Paul Nelson said Friday’s result may depend on which team has shored up defensive deficiencies.
Seward (0-2) has not tackled well on defense, which won’t go well with Nikiski’s rushing-based attack.
“Our defense has fallen apart due to missed tackles, missed assignments and not pursuing the ball,” Mallory said. “We have to get to the ball and make sure we’re wrapping up because Nikiski has a good run game.”
The coach said having senior defensive tackle Marcus Lastimosa back at full strength should help the defense.
Nikiski has had a tough time stopping the pass this season.
“We’ve kind of changed things up a bit schemewise and moved some kids around,” Nelson said. “Hopefully, we have those troubles behind us.”
With four-year starter Tommy Cronin at quarterback, and freshmen and sophomore receiving targets coming into their own, Mallory said Nikiski’s new-look secondary will be tested at some point.
“My goal is to be balanced every game,” Mallory said. “We’re a run-first team out of the spread.”
Nelson said he is looking forward to the return of running back and defensive back Dwyght Mullins from injury. The coach said that Mullins is the type of player who can make a big difference at the small-schools level.
“I think this will be a good, competitive game that’s good for both programs,” Nelson said. “Win or lose, for both programs to go out and actually compete will be nice.”
The school is inviting all first responders, law enforcement, current members of the military and veterans to the game for a 9/11 memorial. The memorial starts at 4:45 p.m. and all being honored will be invited to the track. Those being honored get free admission.
Homer at Houston
The Mariners varsity will make the trip to Houston despite dealing with close-contact issues on the team. Homer will not be able to play the junior varsity game.
“We have quite a few dudes out on protocol right now,” Homer coach Justin Zank said. “Some younger guys have had to step up this week. Younger guys have to step into roles they haven’t taken part in yet, and we’ll have to move some guys into different positions.”
Homer’s season was on the upswing before COVID intervened. The Mariners, a Division III school, were blown out in Week 1 by Division II Eagle River before losing in overtime to Division II Chugiak in Week 2. Homer then scored a 34-0 victory over Division II Kodiak in Week 3.
The Mariners (0-0 Mid Alaska, 1-2 overall) did not play in Week 4 because of Seward’s COVID problems, and now, at less than full strength, must face a rolling Hawks team.
Houston (1-0, 2-2), the Division III state champ in 2019, started with losses to Division II foes Wasilla and Eagle River, but then rolled past Division III Nikiski and Kenai. Zank said the Hawks are big, talented at the skill positions, and physical.
“We’re up for the task,” Zank said. “We’re excited we got a game. We lost our game last week. I know the guys are eager to get back on the field for varsity snaps.”