The Soldotna football team defeated North Pole 34-20 on Friday at Justin Maile Field in Soldotna to advance to the Division II state final.
The Stars moved to 9-0 overall as head coach Galen Brantley Jr. advanced to his 14th final in 16 years — only having been stopped by Kenai and the pandemic. The Patriots finish at 5-4 overall.
Soldotna will face the winner of the Saturday contest between Lathrop and Chugiak for the 13th state title in school history and first since 2019. The game will be Oct. 15 at noon at Anchorage’s Service High School.
Before Friday, the closest a team had been to SoHi this year was 29 points, and that includes a 60-6 score the Stars hung on the Patriots in Week 1.
Brantley Jr. said Friday he was balancing getting to the state title game and getting his team healthy.
On offense, Soldotna didn’t play two of the three starting running backs and an offensive lineman. On defense, Soldotna didn’t play another starter.
“Two probably could have gone, but it was one of those situations where, as long as we felt we were in control and our season wasn’t going to end, we didn’t really want to risk it,” Brantley Jr. said. “It was just an attempt to have them more healthy next week.”
The Stars got just the start Brantley Jr. wanted when North Pole went three-and-out on its first two possessions and SoHi capitalized on scoring drives capped by Zac Buckbee and Lokeni Wong runs.
“We tried to replicate their offense in practice as much as possible, but you can never replicate it at full speed,” North Pole head coach Mike Hollett said. “I thought as our kids got comfortable with it, as the game went on, you could see them getting to the ball and feeling their reads a little bit faster.”
Hollett also said missed opportunities on offense hurt his team in the first half. With 8 minutes left in the second quarter, North Pole had a touchdown pass called back due to penalty. Then on fourth down, SoHi’s Leigh Tacey used his fingertips to break up another pass that would have went for a score.
The Stars immediately answered with a drive capped by a Buckbee touchdown run that sent SoHi into half up 21-0.
“We lost our big-play capability for sure,” Brantley Jr. said. “I think that’s the dimension that both Gehret (Medcoff) and Wyatt (Faircloth) give us. They have the ability to break off long runs and a level of physicality as well, but the guys that stepped in did a great job.”
Tanner Clyde stepped in on the offensive line, while Zeek Miller and Lokeni Wong filled in running the ball.
The Patriots, who lost a 73-20 semifinal at SoHi last year, refused to fold at the half. SoHi went four-and-out on the opening drive of the half, then North Pole drove for a Via Skipps touchdown and 21-6 score with 7:27 left in the third.
“This is the last game for kids, and nobody wants to go out getting blown out,” Hollett said. “We came down here last year and just got outclassed all day. Our senior group, they’re good, they have a lot of pride and the kids around them wanted to send them out a better way.”
North Pole had Soldotna second-and-21 on the next drive, but Buckbee completed a 39-yard screen pass to Miller that set up a Buckbee score for a 27-6 lead with 5:03 left in the third.
Miller was filling in for Medcoff at fullback.
“I was a little nervous because he has a little bigger body,” Miller said. “I just knew I had to step up for my team. And I know how physical I am and what I could do to open up plays for my boys to run.
“And that’s what I did. I left my body out on the line for them.”
On the next drive, Miller, playing corner, was in tight coverage when quarterback Marcus Lipari threw in his direction and Brayden Taylor, playing with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, ranged over to intercept the ball.
“Brayden, he’s been my lifelong buddy and we’ve played football for years together,” Miller said. “Usually, I’ll lock down on my guy and Brayden will come in and take the pick, usually every time.”
But North Pole was not done yet. Buckbee fumbled a snap, North Pole recovered, then Skipps finished off a drive for a 27-12 score with 10:47 left in the game. Skipps finished with 127 yards and two scores on 22 carries.
“That Skipps kid is as good of a running back as there is in the state,” Brantley Jr. said. “He’s really talented, physical and hard to bring down.”
SoHi responded with a 12-play drive that ran the clock all the way down to 4:40 and ended with Collin Peck scoring for a 34-12 game.
“We made our mistake, then we came back and the next drive was the one that kind of iced it for us,” Brantley Jr. said.
North Pole got a late touchdown pass from Lipari to Collin Drumhiller.
Hollett, who complimented the play of SoHi inside linebacker Joe Whittom, said the game was a step in the right direction for his program that will hopefully carry over into the offseason.
The coach also said Lipari ran the ball better than he ever has and Gabe Hollett closed his career with a great game at H-back and defensive end.
Stars 34, Patriots 20
North Pole 0 0 6 14 —20
Soldotna 14 7 6 7 —34
Sol — Buckbee 6 run (O’Reagan kick), 8:21.
Sol — Wong 15 run (O’Reagan kick), 1:20.
Sol — Buckbee 11 run (O’Reagan kick), 4:42.
NP — Skipps 2 run (kick failed), 7:27.
Sol — Buckbee 4 run (kick failed), 5:03.
NP — Skipps 1 run (run failed), 10:47.
Sol — Peck 7 run (O’Reagan kick), 4:40.
NP — Drumhiller 20 pass from Lipari (Skipps run), :02.
First downs 15 15
Rushing yds 48-303 45-215
Passing yds 62 65
Comp-att-int 3-5-0 4-8-1
Return yds 2-29 6-72
Punts 1-45 4-25
Fumbles 2-1 1-0
Penalties 7-55 4-30
Rushing — Soldotna: Z. Buckbee 15-99, C. Peck 10-73, Z. Miller 9-64, Wong 8-47, Kemp 2-11, Tacey 2-9. North Pole: Skipps 22-127, Lipari 17-58, Bellmay 2-35, Drumhiller 1-5, Nicholson 3-(-6).
Passing – Soldotna: Z. Buckbee 3-5-0—62; North Pole: Lipari 4-8-1—65.
Receiving — Soldotna: Z. Miller 1-54, Tacey 1-8, Peck 1-0. North Pole: Drumhiller 2-54, Hollett 1-6, Skipps 1-5.