Two teams that are well familiar with each other will step onto the turf at Anchorage’s Dimond Alumni Field to settle a championship.
Undefeated Soldotna takes on the perennial challenger Kenai Central in a medium-schools heavyweight bout that will kick off at 4 p.m. Saturday afternoon.
What happens next is anyone’s guess.
Kenai coach John Marquez said that no matter what, the spectacle is sure to be a thriller.
“We could play SoHi on a Monday afternoon in a parking lot, and sell tickets, and it’ll be some good football,” Marquez said. “They’re going to bring it, and we’re going to bring it.”
Marquez said he and his Kenai squad is embracing the role of underdog, which is a common tag for teams facing the undefeated Stars, a team that brings a state-record 38-game winning streak into Saturday’s championship.
“There shouldn’t be a team that plays Soldotna this year that isn’t the underdog,” Marquez said. “You can’t contest 38-and-0. We’ll take that role all day long. It’s a beautiful thing.”
SoHi, which is back in the medium-schools championship game for a fourth straight year, simply does not know what it is like to lose. That is a fact that Marquez has made clear, and one that SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. knows can end any week.
“They deserve victory, but ‘deserve’ has nothing to do with it,” Brantley Jr. said about his team. “They’ve got to show up and earn it.”
Brantley Jr., who holds an 85-5 record as an eight-year head coach of the Stars going into Saturday’s game, knows all too well what Kenai is capable of if the Stars let down their guard.
After their 23-0 win over the Kards on Oct. 3, the Stars boosted their 35-year-old rivalry with Kenai to a 25-16 record, but the Kardinals still hold the advantage in the postseason with a 4-1 lead, including three playoff wins in years that SoHi won the regular-season contest.
2002, 2009 and 2011 are all years in which the Stars handily beat the Kards in regular season play but later saw their season come to a crashing halt at the wings of the red birds. Brantley Jr. was the SoHi head coach during the two most recent losses, and said he is bound to not let that happen again.
“Kenai’s a talented football team,” Brantley Jr. said. “But they’re not going to get lucky and have us overlook them.”
The last time Kenai and SoHi met in the postseason was that fateful 2011 semifinal, when Kenai returned to beat SoHi 28-12.
As nice as the postseason numbers against SoHi look for Kenai, Marquez made it clear that Saturday’s contest is about pushing his team to win a championship, not just to beat the team from across town.
“We’re looking forward to trying to hold true to that, that we play better the second time around,” Marquez said. “Our kids can make adjustments to teams that beat us, and understand the game and work harder to make that change.”
So what kind of game can fans expect? The kind that the sport of football was raised on, the 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust type of slugfest that is typical of Kenai-SoHi battles.
“Our defensive coordinator just has us look at one guy, and just tackle that one guy,” explained Kenai senior Zach Koziczkowski. “Everybody has to tackle their one guy, and one of them will have the ball.”
Koziczkowski, a 284-pound lineman, understands the friendly rivalry between the two schools very well. As a two-year starter that has played football all four years of high school, Koziczkowski has had to deal with the Stars infamous running game for a while.
Against running backs like Kristian Palaniuk, Mason Prior and Jace Urban, the Kenai defense will have its hands full. The three SoHi backs have amassed a combined 1,820 rushing yards between the three of them. Koziczkowski’s teammate, senior Toby Randall, expressed confidence that the Kardinals have learned enough in the film room to contain the Stars offense.
“We’ve been playing them for four years, so it’s not hard to know who you’re playing against,” Randall said. “We’re not too worried about it, we’ve got a pretty hard-working D-line that we pride ourselves in.”
Randall and Koziczkowski together have provided a near-inpenetrable wall of defense against opposing teams this year, along with Royal Brown, David Beck, Jonathan Delgado and Connor Johnson.
Two weeks ago, the two sides combined to pile up 359 yards of rushing offense, but just 49 yards of passing.
However, a big passing play has often spelled the difference in tight games. In their most recent victory, SoHi converted a fake punt into a first down on a 29-yard throw from Brandon Crowder to Urban early in the third quarter, a drive that ultimately ended in a touchdown.
“It’s always been about who’s the baddest cat in town,” said SoHi lineman Austin Crowder. “Ever since it’s started, SoHi-Kenai is the game to watch.”
Like the Kenai offensive and defensive lines, Crowder joins a highly touted Soldotna line that has forced opposing teams into fumbles and mistakes time and again. Seniors Sage Hill and Dalton Best are also a part of the line, and both are two-year varsity starters. Best stands out as the biggest bruiser in the backfield at 270 pounds.
“(Kenai is) coming after us more than most teams,” Hill said. “It’s a rivalry, that’s how I see it.”
Best added that the longtime rivalry serves as a big motivator, which at times can also be a detractor.
“I think it’s just a mental thing, because it’s a big school rivalry,” Best said. “I think they sometimes get in our heads, but I think we do to them too.”
Brantley Jr. heaped praise on his senior class, adding that the 2015 class has really embraced the idea of brotherhood in the team.
“They always seem to figure out a way to get things done,” Brantley Jr. said. “They’ve been in some tight situations, like against South when Drew (Gibbs) went down (to injury), and they figured out a way to get it done.
“I think it’s a testament to their character.”
The 9-0 Stars kicked off their 2015 campaign with a bang, surviving the defending large-schools champions South Wolverines in a 21-17 win that broke new ground in Alaska high school football with a 30th consecutive victory, a streak that dates back to 2012.
From there, SoHi barreled over larger teams such as Colony, Service and Lathrop. But the biggest challenge the Stars faced all year was sitting right on the central Peninsula.
Hill, a former Skyview High athlete, spent two years at Skyview before transferring to SoHi for his junior year. Hill said the transition from a Panther to a Star has really made him appreciate the Kenai-SoHi rivalry, and that the level of play was significantly raised.
“The expectations were raised,” Hills said. “(Brantley Jr.) expects greatness from us, and that’s what we try to give.”
One motto in particular the Soldotna coaching staff has instilled in their players is “G.A.T.A.,” or Get After Them Aggressively. The phrase keeps the defense amped up and focused on the ball carrier.
As part of a group of departing seniors, Hill said there is only one way to finish his high school football career.
“We’ve gotten together a couple times and talked about why we’re here and what we want to accomplish,” Hill said. “We’ve challenged everyone else on the team to step it up and give everything they’ve got this week.
“If they’re not with us, then just get out of the way.”
As much championship game experience as the current crop of SoHi players hold, the current group of Kardinals are heading into Saturday with nothing to lean back on. This year’s senior class was in eighth grade when the 2011 Kardinals unseated Homer en route to the inaugural medium-schools title. Since then, SoHi has taken a firm hold on the trophy and hasn’t relinquished its grasp.
“Our approach to them is, we’re not going to sugarcoat it. This is the biggest game of your career,” Marquez said. “When pro guys play the Super Bowl, they don’t go in there thinking it’s just another game. It’s the biggest game.”
The 6-2 Kardinals were also a team that got better as the season progressed, but did so without the pressure of a 30-something game win streak on their backs.
A 47-6 loss to Bartlett in the season opener at home left coach Marquez wondering what could have been if star running back Andrew Welborn hadn’t been lost to an injury. Welborn scored first in that game for a quick Kenai lead, and the Kards trailed only 14-6 at halftime, but the Golden Bears ran rampant in the second half in Welborn’s absence to cruise to the win.
Welborn sat out a Kenai win against Kodiak, but returned for a blowout win at home against Houston, scoring twice in the first 32 seconds of that game.
“He’s a tough guy to bring down,” Crowder said.
Yet, Marquez said the turning point in the season was a Sept. 19 home game against conference opponent Palmer. With the score tied at 28-28 early in the second half that day, Palmer scored quickly to go up by seven, but Kenai posted 28 unanswered points to win the game.
“That was when our kids knew we could be in the state title game,” Marquez said. “We went on to do good things the remainder of the year.”
Marquez said that he never said anything in the huddles that sparked the team that day.
“They knew deep down they were better than Palmer, and sometimes you just got to let them figure that out on their own,” he said. “There’s no magic words. When it hits, all we can do as coaches is sit on the sidelines and let them figure it out.”
A state crown on the line. An old-school rivalry set to write a new chapter. Who knows what’s in store Saturday?