The playoff race has ended, the seedings have become final and now the two-week fight to decide the 2018 champions in three divisions of Alaska football begins in earnest.
The lone peninsula school to make it bears a familiar face. The Soldotna Stars are once again the favorites to claim the Division II state crown after securing the school’s 13th consecutive Northern Lights Conference title and 24th overall, both records.
Soldotna begins its march for a seventh-straight state championship 1 p.m. Saturday afternoon against the Palmer Moose at Palmer High School.
No, that was not a typo. The higher-seeded Stars will travel to play Palmer, the No. 2 seed out of the Railbelt Conference, at Palmer High School’s Machetanz Field. The Palmer stadium has hosted the Division II playoffs for three straight years, but SoHi head coach Galen Brantley Jr. believes it’s time for a change.
“My fear was we’d have to go up there and they’d host us,” Brantley Jr. said. “They’ve already got (the chance) to play us twice at home for state championship games, and here we go again.”
Brantley Jr. voiced frustration with the Alaska School Activities Association keeping the state semifinals at Palmer for a third straight year. According to ASAA Executive Director Billy Strickland, the organization voted to have Palmer play host for three straight years in 2016, 2017 and 2018 due to the logistical and financial burden that would be faced for teams in a conference that featured two Juneau schools.
However, after the 2017 season, both Juneau-Douglas and Thunder Mountain left the Northern Lights Conference due to a realignment that combined both schools and pushed them into Division I football.
While Juneau left the conference prior to this season, ASAA did not change its hosting plan, meaning it was possible that Palmer could host a semifinal game as the lower seed for a third straight year.
“They had a chance to fix it and ASAA wouldn’t do it,” Brantley Jr. said. “Here we go, we’ll play in front of their home fans again.”
Since Juneau-Douglas exited the conference after the 2017 season, Brantley Jr. said the logic in having a “neutral” site for semifinal contests has since gone out the window. Brantley Jr. said he drafted a proposal to ASAA in spring 2018 to change the hosting sites, and got support from seven of the eight schools in Division II football, the lone exception being Palmer.
Strickland explained in an email that ASAA wanted to keep its deal intact with Palmer.
“While the board did allow Juneau to co-op into a single DI team,” Strickland said. “It did not feel (the need) to renege on its decision to allow Palmer to host for the last year of their bid.”
That still did not satisfy Brantley Jr. and the rest of the Division II schools, which Brantley Jr. said were put into a changed conference with an outdated venue plan.
“We had seven out of eight teams agree to see the higher seeds host the playoffs since they jerked the rug out from under us and changed the division,” he said. “ASAA said they’re going to honor Palmer’s bid, and Palmer’s (athletic director Dale Ewart) is one of the ASAA board members, so it’s got the good old boy hookup feel.
“We’re disappointed in ASAA and disappointed in Billy Strickland, because they had an opportunity to fix it, and they chose to take care of Palmer.”
Strickland added in the email that ASAA is planning to move the Division II and III semifinal games back to the higher-seeded team’s field in 2019, and the state championship games will also be brought back to Anchorage, although he did not specify which venue.
Ultimately, the venue may not make a difference for SoHi at all. Since 2016, the Stars have won all seven games against the Moose they have played on Palmer’s home field, including the 2016 and 2017 state title games.
Saturday’s semifinal clash with Palmer is a rematch of the previous two state title games, both of which were also held at Machetanz Field. SoHi won both convincingly, but Brantley Jr. said he knows Moose head coach Rod Christianson and his players will return for Round 3 looking to avenge the previous two years.
“They’re highly motivated,” he said. “They have a big group of seniors, and they don’t want to go out having never beaten Soldotna.”
Last week against Kenai Central, the Stars gave up 303 rushing yards. Brantley Jr. said the SoHi defense will have its hands full again with a similar Palmer rush game, which eats up yards between the tackles and can surprise opponents with a passing game from QB Luke Guggenmos.
“Every year they stumble out of the gates but finish strong,” Brantley Jr. said. “They’re a quality football team.
“When it comes to October they play great football and their kids fly around.”