The Streak, tested like never before, lives.
For the second time in four weeks, medium-schools Soldotna defeated the top-ranked large school in the state, taking down host East 22-21 on Saturday to extend the Stars’ state-record win streak to 43 games.
Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. said he told his squad before and after the electric game between unbeatens that it wasn’t important that East has more than 1,000 more students than SoHi.
“What’s important is that they love and care for each other and they’re willing to sacrifice to do what has to be done,” Brantley Jr. said. “They’re absolutely willing to sacrifice for each other and it’s been really special to be a part of this group.
After going down 21-14 with 8:52 left in the fourth quarter, Soldotna started a drive from its own 25 — a drive that would put the fate of The Streak on the line three separate times.
With 3:25 left in the game, Soldotna faced fourth-and-three from the East 13 but Austin Schrader was able to run the ball to East’s 5.
Brantley Jr. said the play was off-tackle behind Kyle Marcuson and tight end Andy West. The coach added that SoHi was running right so well at the end of the game that East had to have players change positions on the line to try and stop the run.
And this was after Marcuson had to leave the game briefly in the third quarter due to injury.
“Kyle’s a warrior and he battled through it,” Brantley Jr. said. “He played through pain because he knew it gave us the best chance to win.”
Then the Thunderbirds massive defensive forced Soldotna into a fourth-and-goal play from 6 inches. Schrader and the right side of the line was again up to the task, crashing into the end zone to pull Soldotna within 21-20 with 48 seconds left.
That left Brantley Jr. with a big decision — go for the extra point to tie the game or go for the two-point conversion and force the win.
“I won’t take credit for the decision,” Brantley Jr. said. “I looked in the kids eyes and asked what they wanted to do and to a man, they said, ‘Let’s win it.’
“Ultimately, the kids made the decision.”
But Brantley Jr. made the play call. East stacked the line with defenders. But SoHi quarterback Brandon Crowder calmly dropped back and found open tight end Andy West in the end zone for a 22-21 lead.
“They sold out to stop the run and left Andy completely alone,” Brantley Jr. said. “We faked the play we ran on that fourth down and the touchdown, and Brandon had all day long. The kids executed it well.”
Brantley Jr. said he told his squad the sun would come up no matter what happened on the play. But such execution under fire tends to take more than that.
“Our kids run the same stuff from ninth grade on through,” Brantley Jr. said. “We keep it pretty simple.”
Jace Urban would then seal the game with an interception with 23 seconds to play.
SoHi also converted a couple of fourth downs on their opening scoring drive of the game, which covered 65 yards. The last 45 yards came when Crowder hit West for a scoring strike.
The game then turned into a defensive struggle for the rest of the first half. East stopped Soldotna on fourth-and-one with 4:25 left in the half on the SoHi 40, but on the next play Aseli Finau recovered a fumble by East quarterback Carson Washburn.
After SoHi punted, East started on its own 19 and Crowder came up with an interception of Washburn to place the ball on the East 20 with 1:22 left in the half.
But SoHi would lose a fumble on the East 37 with 24 seconds left in the half, which was enough time for East to reach the SoHi 8, but not the end zone.
“I know people make a lot of our offense, but the honest truth is we won this game with defense,” Brantley Jr. said, lauding the work of assistants Phil Leck, Eric Pomerleau and Sarge Truesdell.
If Brantley Jr. had to pick out a defensive hero, it would be middle linebacker Wendell Tuisaula, but he said there’s no way a big and skilled team like East is contained without all 11 players.
“The thing that is absolutely key with our kids is they’re not anywhere near as big and fast, but they fly around and play hard,” Brantley Jr. said. “They flew around and never quit and got to the football.
“They absolutely earned it.”
The Stars started with the ball in the second half and a bad center-quarterback exchange gave East the ball at the SoHi 10.
The Thunderbirds took advantage on the next play, when Johnny Afuvai rumbled 10 yards for a SoHi lead that stood at 7-6 when the two-point run failed.
Then, for the third straight possession, the Stars turned the ball over when a Crowder pass went through the hands of West, giving East the ball at the SoHi 48 with 7:19 left in the third.
Two 15-yard penalties by SoHi set East up at the 13, and Washburn would eventually run in a TD and a two-point conversion for a 14-7 game with 4:43 left in the third quarter.
Soldotna punted on its final drive of the third quarter, but got the offense going again in the final 12 minutes.
“Our kids finally settled down,” Brantley Jr. said. “There were so many uncharacteristic mistakes along the way — a couple turnovers and some flags.
“Our kids had to overcome as much adversity as they’ve overcome in a long time, and on top of that there was a very good football team on the other side.”
SoHi started the fourth quarter on the 50 and Brenner Furlong would pull them even with a 27-yard touchdown with 9:56 left.
East started its next drive on its own 20 and the Stars had the Thunderbirds in a third-and-nine situation until a celebration penalty gave East a first down. On the next play, Josh Malnoske rumbled 64 yards to put the T-Birds up 21-14 and set up the dramatic finish.
“The fans mobbed the field after the game,” Brantley Jr. said. “It was a special moment for our program.”
But oddly, SoHi has yet to take a step toward the playoffs because the Stars have yet to play a Northern Lights Conference game. That starts Friday when SoHi hosts Palmer.
“It means nothing without a ring at the end of the season,” Brantley Jr. said. “The challenge now is a different kind of challenge — to continue improving and play our best football going into the playoffs.
“A lot of teams do special things in the regular season.”
The other challenge SoHi has is healing up after playing big schools in three of the first four weeks. While SoHi made a clear case it is the best team in the state on any given day, Brantley Jr. isn’t about to sign up for a season of big-schools football.
“We don’t have any season-ending injuries, but there are a lot of kids limping around here,” Brantley Jr. said. “We’ll have to reassess Monday.
“It’s why we can’t do that every week.”
Juneau 26, Homer 8
The medium-schools Crimson Bears came back from a 6-0 first-quarter deficit to top the small-school and host Mariners.
Homer falls to 0-4 with the loss.
Homer quarterback Teddy Croft found Joe Ravin for a 60-yard touchdown in the first quarter, but Cody Galletes would score for Juneau in the second quarter to make it a 6-6 game at half.
In the second half, Liam Van Sickle would score on the ground twice and Jonathan-Che Stults would score once to put the game away in the second half.
Timmy Woo had a late safety for Homer.
Seward 36, Redington 34
The Seahawks came back from a 34-10 deficit in the third quarter to claim a Peninsula Conference victory in Seward.
Seward is now 1-0 in the league and 1-3 overall, while Redington is 0-1 and 0-4.
Stars 22, Thunderbirds 21
Soldotna 7 0 0 15 —22
East 0 0 14 7 —21
Soldotna — West 45 pass from Crowder (Jones kick), 5:22.
East — Afuvai 10 run (run failed), 10:05.
East — Washburn 1 run (Washburn run), 4:43.
Soldotna — Furlong 27 run (Jones kick), 9:56.
East — Malnoske 64 run (Reed kick), 8:52.
Soldotna — Schrader 1 run (West pass from Crowder), :48.0.
RUSHING — Soldotna:Furlong 28-135, Schrader 15-70, Urban 6-14, Lefao 2-(-1), Crowder 9-(-13). East: Malnoske 9-92, Afuvai 8-36, Logoleo 5-22, Washburn 7-15.
PASSING — Soldotna: Crowder 2-5-1–43. East: Washburn 5-14-2–62.
RECEIVING — Soldotna: West 1-45, Schrader 1-(-2). East: Malnoske 2-55, Logoleo 2-9, Hague 1-(-2).
Crimson Bears 26, Mariners 8
Juneau 0 6 13 7 —26
Homer 6 0 0 2 —8
Hom — Ravin 60 pass from Croft, 4:56.
Jun — Galletes 3 run, 2:12.
Jun — Van Sickle 6 run, 6:51.
Jun — Van Sickle 15 run (Gifford kick), 4:25.
Jun — Stults 2 run (Gifford kick), 11:32.
Hom — Woo safety
First downs 16 8
Rushes-yards 49-236 25-107
Passing yards 38 122
Comp-att-int 3-6-0 6-19-2
Fumble lost 1 3
Penalties 9-90 6-45
Rushing — Juneau: Galletes-Fiagatusa 19-89, Galletes 2-6, Stults 13-41, Elisoff 1-(-25), Van Sickle 9-108, McCurly 3-3, Hamrick 2-14. Homer: Beck 3-(-20), Rios 2-22, Sumption 1-2, Croft 10-79, Love 9-24.
Passing — Juneau: Stults 3-6-0—38. Homer: Rios 2-9-2—45, Croft 4-9-0—77.
Receiving — Juneau: Galletes-Faigatusa 2-23, Van Sickle 1-15. Homer: Ravin 3-87, Love 1-9, Salzman 1-27, Heimbold 1-1.