If the 2015 season of high school football in Alaska is a play, then the first weekend is guaranteed to be one whale of an opening act.
The sport of American football around the state has and will always create a resounding buzz for diehard fans. But tonight’s opening act is anticipated to be one for the ages.
Two football heavyweights will burst out onto Justin Maile Field in Soldotna at 6 p.m. to solve the riddle of gridiron supremacy. In one corner stands the home team, the three-time defending medium-schools state champion Soldotna Stars. In the other corner stands the reigning large-schools state champs South Anchorage Wolverines. The two sides will finally meet in a clash that has been several years in the making.
Social media barbs — mostly friendly — have been ongoing between players and fans of both sides. Ask Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. what he thinks of the ramp up to the game, and he’ll tell you to let the action do the talking.
“I’m tired of all the talking, all the Facebook and Twitter smack,” he said. “We just want to get it going.”
With both schools competing in separate divisions curtailed to school size and population, why has there been such a clamor to see these two powerhouses play each other?
Since opening in 2004, South has annually become a threat to claim the large-schools title (for schools with a school population of 901 and higher), hoisting the big trophy three times, including two of the last three years. Soldotna has essentially been South’s doppelgänger in the medium-schools (and formerly small-schools) division, only a more exaggerated version.
Since Brantley Jr. stepped up to coach the Stars after Sarge Truesdell relinquished the position in 2007, SoHi has been on a tear. The Stars finally snapped a championship game curse in fall 2006 with Truesdell at the helm, and Brantley Jr. continued the rise in dominance with a seamless transition.
SoHi has won seven state championships in the last nine years, including each of the last three, and has cobbled together a 29-game winning streak that dates back to 2012 — the second such streak for Soldotna and only the third in state football history. A 30th consecutive win against South tonight would break the all-time state record.
And as much as South coach John Lewis appreciates history, he also appreciates the significance of the matchup.
“Let’s be honest, the guy that sits back and says it’s just another game is a fool,” Lewis said. “We all know what this game is about. You’re not respecting what it’s all about if you’re saying that.”
Lewis said that he recalls the first rumblings of a South-Soldotna matchup almost nine years ago, soon after South claimed its first state football championship in 2006, but year after year, the opportunity never presented itself.
“You only want to play the best,” Lewis said. “I hope it lives up to all the billing. I know coach Brantley will have his sidelines pretty full, and I know we travel well.
“It shows the program that he’s created.”
As the Stars have steamrolled medium-school rivals for three straight years en route to a state record-tying win streak, some fans have asked, “Yeah, but how would they fare against the big schools?”
Time to answer that question, and perhaps make a little history while doing it.
“It’s going to come down to our kids playing loose, playing like they have nothing to lose,” Brantley Jr. said. “They need to be executing well and not making mistakes.”
For those fans that are unable to make it to the game but still want to catch the action, watch online with a subscription at www.NFHSnetwork.com.
With a school the size and strength of South, the atmosphere at Justin Maile Field is expected to be at its peak. Brantley Jr. said his Stars do not often get the opportunity to play Friday night games in front of packed houses,
“I’m glad to be home in front of our fans,” Brantley Jr. said. “There’ll be some rowdy fans that’ll help keep our kids motivated.”
Even after the night is over, the weekend’s action does not stop there. The Kenai Central Kardinals — runner-ups in last year’s NLC standings — will be getting ready for a heavyweight matchup of their own Saturday afternoon as they square off with a large-schools opponent from Anchorage, the Bartlett Golden Bears. Kickoff is set for 4 p.m. Saturday at Ed Hollier Field at Kenai Central.
Kenai coach John Marquez said he plans on finishing off the weekend of Peninsula football with a 2-0 record against the Anchorage squads.
“I want Anchorage schools to understand that Peninsula football can play,” Marquez said. “We can play with anybody, and I think a win would go a ways in garnering a little more respect for us.”
Marquez said he plans to be at Friday’s game at SoHi, along with many of his players, where he will be cheering on Kenai’s perennial rival, instead of the other way around. Even with the addition of former large-schools opponents Palmer and Eagle River to the Northern Lights Conference, Marquez said SoHi is still king.
“(Soldotna is) on everyone’s mind,” he said. “They have things rolling, and I think they have a great team this year again. They’re the team to beat.”
At the small-schools level, a shakeup in the division has split what was once the Greatland Conference into two. Schools with a student population of 450 and below have been divided into the Aurora Conference — consisting of the northern teams of Eielson, Monroe, Valdez, Barrow and Houston — and the Peninsula Conference — consisting of Nikiski, Homer, Seward and Voznesenka.
Homer and Houston are the two new kids on the block. Homer dropped down from the medium-schools division, while Houston enters as a former independent program.
“It’ll bring some parity in there,” Nikiski coach Ted Riddall. “It’s a little more competition, and a lot of times (in the past) we were beating a team pretty good, and our starters didn’t get to play in the second half.”
Homer coach Josh Fraley echoes Riddall’s thoughts, and expressed confidence that the Mariners will stack up nicely against the small-school heavyweights like Nikiski and Eielson.
“Eielson got us pretty good last year, but of course they had Anthony Griffith,” Fraley said, referring to the now-graduated running back who holds the state record of 516 single-game rushing yards.
“Nikiski is tough as nails, they always are, but it’s gonna be great because it’s gonna be new.”
South at Soldotna, 6 p.m. Friday
The Stars have been here before. A record on the line. An unstoppable force meets an immovable object.
Soldotna rode a 29-game win streak into the 2009 season, but lost the season opener 34-21 to the West Eagles. Before that, the only other team to win 29 straight were the East Anchorage Thunderbirds from 1984 to 1987. The team that put a stop to that particular streak in East’s 1988 season opener? The West Eagles.
The 2009 loss was Brantley’s first as a head coach, as he had guided his Stars team to two undefeated campaigns prior to that game.
Brantley’s overall record as a head coach since 2007 currently stands at 76-5, a run that includes five undefeated seasons in eight years — 2007, 2008, 2010, 2013 and 2014.
Of course, Brantley is a little older and little wiser since that first loss almost six years ago.
“Each and every year we’ve gotten better as a staff,” he said. “It’s a different group of kids and it was a fun ride the first time getting there.
“It kind of happened in a similar way, too.”
Just like the current streak, Brantley’s late 2000s crew did not set out to set the record of consecutive wins in Alaska. It just happened due to hard work and diligent preparation.
“Certainly, we came up a little short last time, but it was to a good West team,” Brantley Jr. said. “We feel like if we do things right, we’ll give ourselves a chance. Certainly we’re an underdog, but we don’t have anything to lose.”
How ready are the Soldotna Stars for this game? On the wall of the SoHi locker room hangs a countdown clock. It has been running with the days, hours, minutes and seconds remaining until the first game of the year. On June 9 — just as summer was heating up — coach Brantley Jr. posted a picture on Twitter of a countdown clock in the SoHi locker room with the message “Stay Hungry.”
The clock has been a tradition in the locker room for about seven or eight years, Brantley said, but this year, it holds added hype.
“Like I told the kids, we’ve been looking forward to this for a long time, we’ve been counting down since January,” he said. “We expect it to be our toughest challenge in recent memory, probably biggest since that (2009) West game.”
If the Wolverines are to stake their claim as Alaska’s best, it will take some crafty play on defense to thwart the Stars offense. SoHi utilizes a tricky Wing-T system that features only a few plays, but has perfected each to the point that even the hardiest of defenses have been completely fooled.
“We’ve seen it,” said coach Lewis. “Our job is to score points, and our defense has been stout because of the scheme we run. If we give up yards, that’s OK. There’s no true purpose in saying we have to shut it down.
“We just can’t get too aggressive and overpursue.”
South is going through a big shift with the loss of 19 seniors from last year’s championship squad, including dynamic playmaking quarterback Justice Augafa. Coach Lewis has tabbed sophomore Jack Hanson as this year’s starter under center.
While SoHi’s offensive schemes will remain virtually the same, the Stars lineup will feature some new names. Gone from the 2014 squad is quarterback Brooks Furlong, backs Ty Fenton, Jared Chavez and Bailey Blumentritt, receiver Tim Duke and linebacker Drew Fowler, all valuable starters that graduated in the spring.
With the combined loss of Fenton, Blumentritt, Furlong and Chavez, SoHi is losing 61 percent of its offensive production from 2014, all of its passing and just over half of its ground game in yardage.
But medium-schools Offensive Player of the Year Drew Gibbs is returning for his senior year at running back and Defensive Player of the Year Trevor Walden is returning as a senior at the tight end position. Gibbs tallied 15 touchdowns with 857 rushing yards in 2014, third among Peninsula athletes. Walden will team up with fellow senior Adrian Gomez as receivers on offense and versatile linebackers on defense.
Brantley Jr. has decided to go with senior Dylan Simons at quarterback this season. Simons grew up in Soldotna but returns after a few years in Wasilla. Brantley Jr. said Simons moved back in December, along with a few other transfer students.
In front of Simons will be a senior-heavy offensive line that includes Austin Crowder at guard, Dalton Best at center and Sage Hill at tackle. Junior Bryce Martin, who was injured last year, will join the line.
With a tough schedule that includes games with other large-school opponents Colony, Service and Lathrop, SoHi is facing one of its most challenging seasons yet.
“We just need to stay healthy and survive the schedule,” Brantley Jr. said. “Our conference has gotten tougher with Palmer in the mix, and Eagle River continues to improve.”
The home fans have been encouraged to bring white and navy blue towels to the game to support the Stars.
There will be a halftime ceremony for the late Mark Devenney, the successful Soldotna track and cross-country coach who passed away last year at the age of 69.
Bartlett at Kenai, 4 p.m. Saturday
Day two of the new season will feature a second big matchup. The Kardinals will be featured in another big clash this weekend against large-schools opponent Bartlett High School.
Bartlett had a rebound season in 2014, going 6-2 with a defense that allowed the second-fewest points in the Cook Inlet Conference in the regular season. The Golden Bears reached the large-school semifinals, where they were dispatched by eventual state champion South Anchorage.
On paper, it appears Kenai will be pressed to match the kind of success it enjoyed in 2014. The Kards finished with a deceptive 3-4 overall record en route to the medium-schools semifinals, where their season ended with a loss to North Pole.
Gone from last year’s group is quarterback Jace Baker and running backs Chase Logan and Kyle Foree. Logan piled on 1,134 rushing yards and nine touchdowns last year, tied for the leading Kenai Peninsula rusher.
Amazingly, those three represented 87 percent of the Kardinals’ total offensive yardage, the bulk of that in a deep ground game. The loss leaves coach Marquez scrambling to find the next crop of backs.
“They’re big holes, but we feel we have some guys coming in that are going to take over and continue that,” Marquez said.
Marquez said the Kenai backfield will feature a slightly changed look, drifting away from the power-I that was used last year.
The new backfield will feature junior Chase Gillies and seniors Andrew Welborn and Draiden McMinn. Add to the mix sophomore Zach Tuttle — a speedy back that lifted the Kenai boys soccer team to its first-ever state victory in May — and the Kards are not looking as bad as it would seem.
“He’s gonna be our spark,” Marquez said about Tuttle.
The whole system will be quarterbacked by junior Nick Beeson, whose family made the move back to Kenai after a year in Washington state.
“He’s got a good mind for the game, he understands the football side of things,” Marquez said. “He doesn’t get flustered, and he’s athletic enough to run the ball.”
With a formidable offensive line in front of him, including guards Zach Koziczkowski and Royal Brown, center Toby Randall, and tackles David Beck and Jonathan Delgado, Beeson will have plenty of protection. All but Delgado are returning seniors to the line, and Koziczkowski was named medium-schools Lineman of the Year in 2014. Marquez considers him one of the top five in the state at the position.
The question is, will it be enough to break through Bartlett’s highly praised defense?
“That’s a huge challenge,” Marquez said. “Our approach is our best defense is keeping their offense off the field. We want to control the clock as much as we can.”
As fast as Kenai’s season will open, it will slow. The Kardinals will face a bye week before heading off to Kodiak. Games with Eagle River and Palmer in Weeks 4 and 5 will test the team, but a playoff semifinals rematch with North Pole in Week 7 is sure to be a thriller.
“We’re looking toward to it, but not putting a bunch of stock into it right now,” Marquez said. “The kids want a little revenge, but it’s just another game right now.”
Kodiak at Nikiski, 2 p.m. Saturday
With the entrance of Homer and Houston, two former medium-schools opponents, the newly formed Peninsula Conference is set to begin perhaps its most competitive season yet.
However, even with the addition of what should be greater competition, Nikiski coach Ted Riddall believes his Bulldogs can make a run at a fifth straight small-schools title game berth.
“I’d be shocked if we weren’t in the playoffs again,” Riddall said.
Coach Riddall has guided the Bulldogs to four consecutive state championship game berths, winning two of them, but the sting of an epic 55-51 loss to hard-nosed rival Eielson last October lingers in the minds of Nikiski players, who have done their best to move on to 2015.
“We’ve talked about it a little bit, but that was then and this is now,” Riddall said. “We’ve played in the last four title games, so the kids know success is what we’re shooting for.”
Nikiski and Eielson will get the rematch that fans are wanting in Week 6, when the Bulldogs head up north to take on the Ravens on Sept. 19. But for now, Riddall and company are focused on Saturday’s contest with Kodiak.
“We’re just going to get in the arena and see where we’re at,” Riddall said. “We’re not playing to not lose, we’re playing to win. But we also understand it’s just the beginning.”
Gone from the 2014 Nikiski squad are a few big pieces, including running back Christian Riddall, who compiled 1,134 rushing yards and scored 21 touchdowns on the ground.
“It’s going to be hard to replace someone like Christian,” Riddall said about his son, who finished off his football career with a 256-yard, seven-touchdown performance in last October’s title tilt.
Along with Riddall, the Bulldogs lost Nico Castro and Sullivan Jackson, which turns out to be two-thirds of the Nikiski rushing offense from 2014. It’s ultimately left coach Riddall searching for skill position players.
The good news is quarterback Cade Anderson returns for his senior season, a year after leading all Peninsula passers with a school-record 1,069 yards through the air, while throwing 12 touchdowns and only one pick. Surrounding Anderson will be a solid offensive line Jon McCormick at guard, Rueben Sepeda at tackle, Dalton Mullens at center and Ian Johnson as slot receiver.
Nikiski’s biggest strength lies in a returning core of linebackers, led by small-schools Defensive Player of the Year Luke Johnson and Jon McCormick.
“There were some guys that were pretty dominant all the way through, and this year we have four guys instead of two guys to carry the load,” coach Riddall said. “It might’ve hurt us in the past but everybody’s gotta contribute.”
Homer at Houston, 7 p.m. Friday
Tired of facing a continually widening gap between themselves and the competition in the Northern Lights Conference, the Mariners are happy to be competing in a more equitable conference.
The move from the medium school to small schools was positive for everyone involved, said second-year Homer coach Josh Fraley.
“There’s definitely going to be some growing pains as with any major change like that, but overall, the enrollments have been trending in that direction,” Fraley said. “Honestly, some of the scores had just become too much to overlook.”
The change in divisions has left the Mariners feeling optimistic, Fraley said, pointing to the boost in size this season from 29 at the end of last year to 35 currently, with more expected once the summer fishing season wraps up.
With their participation in several offseason training camps, including the All Alaska camp at Colony High in June, which is annually attended by the majority of teams in the state, the Mariners are on the upswing.
The Mariners kick off their season tonight with a road date with the Houston Hawks, a contest that Fraley is anticipating not just because it is the season opener, but also because it offers a decent opportunity at what Week 3 of the season will bring against Nikiski on Aug. 29.
“It’s the type of mentality they bring,” Fraley said. “I think it’ll be a great precursor to Nikiski in week (three). They play the entire game, whether they’re up 50 (points) or six.”
Fraley said he believes his squad has improved the most at the skill positions. With the departure of recently graduated quarterback Sheldon Hutt, it didn’t take long for Fraley to find his guy.
Sophomore Teddy Croft will be taking snaps under center this season. Croft was an All-Conference freshman wide receiver last year for Homer.
“He understands how to create space, and working with Sheldon closely last year, he understands things he needs to do to be a quarterback,” Fraley said. “It’s a unique perspective on that side of the ball, but he picks things up and is good at it immediately.
“He’s a born reader.”
Homer’s offensive line will include freshman center Jadin Mann — recently awarded the “most improved JV lineman” at the All Alaska camp — tackle Cole Sallee, guards Levi King and Ralph Mitchell, and James Krazeski.
One of Homer’s deadliest players in the backfield returns as well. Josh Fisk returns for his senior campaign hoping for an encore performance following a 2014 season of 459 all-purpose yards on offense and five touchdowns. Senior Michael Swoboda will join Fisk as a tight end, and will be supported by a receiving core of senior Greg Smith and sophomores Justin Sumption and Boston Felde.
Fraley said Homer’s defensive linebackers is where the team will really shine. Zach McKenna — who is “140 pounds, soaking wet” — has led the team in tackles the last three seasons, and is joined by Arkansas transfer Alex Stephens.