Call it a six-pack.
For a sixth straight year, the Soldotna Stars are reigning supreme as state football champions of the Division II level, thanks to a gritty 21-0 victory over the Palmer Moose on Saturday afternoon at Machetanz Field in Palmer.
The postgame celebration was much the same as it has been every year since 2012 — the celebratory dousing of head coach Galen Brantley Jr. with ice water, the call of, “Looks like we won!” followed by the jubilant school victory song, the handshake line, the hoisting of the ASAA First National Bowl trophy — but the path taken wasn’t easy.
“At some point (the record win streak) is going to come to an end,” Brantley Jr. said. “But it’s nice to head into the offseason with it still intact.”
Palmer tested the stout SoHi defense with a determined running game that was backed up by a deadly passing attack. The Moose outgained SoHi in total yardage 278 to 195, had more first downs with 19 to 9 and were mostly successful in keeping the Stars off the field by outnumbering Soldotna in total plays 72 to 38.
But, as they have done for now 59 straight games, the Stars simply executed better in the moments that counted.
“We had a hell of season,” said senior Brenner Furlong. “We played some real football.”
Furlong led SoHi with 109 rushing yards and a touchdown Saturday in his final game with the program. Sophomore teammate Aaron Faletoi ran for 64 yards and a touchdown on a team-high 16 carries and the SoHi defense came up big with two interceptions from sophomore Jersey Truesdell and senior Cody Quelland.
Quelland’s 20-yard pick six on Palmer QB Luke Guggenmos with three minutes left in the game provided the dagger moment.
“I watched the pass, got to the flats and caught it,” Quelland said. “I just read the quarterback.”
After another 10-0 season, Quelland said the team would be celebrating with their usual hang-out routine.
“We’ll probably play some Madden tonight,” he quipped, referring to the popular football video game series.
Brantley Jr. said after returning just one starter on the offensive line and two in the defensive backfield, the 2017 season was one full of adversity.
“The 10th-graders on the team, those guys held things together,” he said. “We never lost focus, and even being up 14-0 (Saturday), we never felt comfortable.”
After going three-and-out on its first possession, it didn’t take long for SoHi to find the end zone after that. On his first touch of the game, Furlong burst through a gap and sprinted 58 yards to put the Stars up 7-0.
That set the tone for the day. From there, Palmer came close several times to scoring, but could not put points on the board when needed.
Palmer couldn’t convert on fourth down at the SoHi 6-yard line on its first drive of the game, then turned it over again on downs in the dying seconds of the first half from the SoHi 15.
On their first possession of the third quarter, the Moose moved down to the SoHi 11, but Guggenmos was picked off by Truesdell to stop the drive. Later, Palmer again failed to convert a fourth down in SoHi territory.
In all, the Moose failed to come up with points on four red zone trips.
“I told my assistants that as many times as we stalled out, we could’ve had like 28 points,” said Palmer head coach Rod Christiansen.
Christiansen stamped his name in state lore earlier this season by becoming the all-time winningest coach in Alaska football history. He currently stands at 153 after passing the late coaching icon Buck Nystrom.
Christiansen is now 1-5 in state championship games during his lengthy tenure at Palmer.
Palmer was led by its trio of backs — Larry Cutsforth, Jared Oviok and Jeff Glynn combined to rush for 162 of Palmer’s 175 team yards — and Guggenmos, who hit 14 of 29 targets for 103 pass yards.
Amazingly, SoHi led 14-0 at halftime after running just 18 offensive plays in the first half.
“We knew it would be hard,” Furlong said. “Palmer has some really good kids, some real freaks.”
After Furlong’s long touchdown run, SoHi would string together a long drive on its next possession that lasted 13 plays and end with Faletoi’s 14-yards scamper to the end zone.
After a three-and-out possession ended with an injury to senior Eli Lovelace, the offensive line anchor, SoHi would watch as Palmer ticked off a 14-play drive that ultimately needed with an interception by Truesdell at his own 2-yard line. Truesdell ran back the return for 27 yards.
Palmer caught another break with a stripped fumble on Faletoi by Leif Mumma late in the third quarter, but again could not convert the opportunity to points.
Stars 21, Moose 0
Soldotna 7 7 0 7 —21
Palmer 0 0 0 0 —0
Sol — Furlong 58 run (Sheridan kick), :45
Sol — Faletoi 14 run (Sheridan kick), 5:13
Sol — Quelland 20 interception return (Sheridan kick), 3:00
1st downs 9 19
Rushing 37-194 43-175
Pass yards 1 103
Total yards 195 278
Comp-att-int 1-1-0 14-29-2
Return yards 52 60
Punts 2 2
Fumbles-lost 0-0 0-0
Penalties-yards 1-15 7-45
Rushing — Soldotna: Furlong 15-109, Faletoi 16-64, Quelland 3-11, Crowder 3-10. Palmer: Cutsforth 15-67, Oviok 11-45, Glynn 11-50, Guggenmos 4-(-11), Hale 1-13, Mumma 1-11.
Passing — Soldotna: Crowder 1-1-0—1. Palmer: 14-29-2—103.