Nearly seven years ago to the day Friday, the West Anchorage Eagles played the role of streak buster in a nonconference victory over the Soldotna Stars, which were then trying to break the state record for consecutive wins.
Friday night at Justin Maile Field in Soldotna, the Stars took a measure of revenge in a heavyweight showdown between the two reigning champions in their respective divisions, opening their season with a convincing 49-30 victory Friday night over West.
The result gave SoHi its 40th straight win, extending the state record that dates back to the first week of the 2012 season.
It also marked the second year in a row Soldotna has toppled the defending large-schools champion. A year ago, SoHi defeated 2014 large-schools champ South 21-17 to break the record with their 30th straight win.
The Eagles dominated Chugiak in a 41-0 beatdown last fall in the large-schools title bout, and a meeting with SoHi was quickly scheduled by SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. and West coach Tim Davis.
West stopped Soldotna’s first 29-game win streak with a 34-21 win in the 2009 season opener, and even though the current crop of SoHi players have never known defeat in their varsity careers, the reminder of that defeat still resonates through the program.
“Finally we got to beat them,” said senior lineman Bryce Martin. “That was a while back, but finally, we proved it.”
Martin then sent a message to the 2015 Cook Inlet Conference champion East Thunderbirds, who the Stars play Sept. 3 in another anticipated Anchorage-Peninsula matchup.
“Tell East we’re coming.”
Brantley Jr., who improved his head coaching record at Soldotna to 87-5, said beating West was a great accomplishment for the football program, but, in typical fashion, was already looking ahead to win No. 41.
“It’s off to North Pole,” he quipped, referring to next weekend’s date with the Patriots. “We’re extremely excited for this, it’s another feather in our cap.
“It’s a testament to the offseason work these kids have put in.”
Friday evening, it was another case of misdirection wizardry for the Stars, who pounded their way to 448 rushing yards on 69 carries, accounting for all but eight of total team plays. Brenner Furlong led the charge with 29 carries, a gritty effort that exemplifies the hashtag commonly used by the team on social media, #PoundTheRock.
“I’m not sore right now, but I think I may be in an hour,” Furlong said with a smile. “I just came out like heck, just wanted to be another varsity running back for SoHi.”
Senior receiver Andy West had three touchdown catches with 83 yards, junior Brenner Furlong rolled to 223 rushing yards and three touchdowns, and junior quarterback Brandon Crowder threw four scoring passes en route to the triumph. Austin Schrader also carried the ball for 109 yards and a touchdown.
While West rolled out the red carpet with an air attack that resulted in several big scoring plays, SoHi held true to its traditional brute running game.
Disregarding the final possession of the game that saw three kneeldowns, SoHi scored on all four of its second-half possessions, but the final three touchdowns came through the air, as the 6-foot-4 West made his varsity debut with a pair of sensational catches amidst tough defensive coverage.
“I just go after the ball, drown out everything else,” West said. “I was looking at the ball and it was barely moving. It looked like it was slowed down.”
West quarterback Qyntyn Pilcher threw 13 for 22 with 211 yards, including three touchdowns, and bruising running back Justin Tovio went 122 ground yards, including a score.
West receiver Turek Taylor had two touchdown catches and finished with 96 yards, while A.J. Su’esu’e led the Eagles with 102 receiving yards, although 74 of that came on a touchdown catch in the third quarter.
West drove 70 yards downfield and kicked a 29-yard field goal on its opening possession, but SoHi answered with a 68-yard drive that resulted in a 23-yard strike down the middle from Crowder to West.
The two teams traded turnovers, including a pick by SoHi senior Levi Hensley, but eventually the Stars scored again on a 28-yard rumble by Furlong.
The early SoHi lead of 14-3 was quickly erased in the second quarter when the Eagles scored on two straight possessions — a 54-yard run by Tovio and a 36-yard pass from Pilcher to Taylor — but the Stars rolled out a disciplined, 12-play drive that was capped by a 6-yard plunge into the end zone by Schrader, giving them a timely 21-17 lead at halftime.
In the second half, the Stars used their determined running game to draw out long drives that resulted in touchdowns. The opening possession finished with a 40-yard scamper on third down by Furlong to put Soldotna up 28-17.
“We executed well in the first quarter, but just fell asleep in the second,” Brantley Jr. said. “At halftime we made some adjustments and in the second half, we just got rolling.”
After the defense forced the Eagles to punt, SoHi went 89 yards on 13 plays, a drive that ate up 4:37 of game clock and finished with a fourth-down arcing touchdown pass from Crowder to Furlong.
The two sides traded scores, starting with a 74-yard pass from Pilcher to Su’esu’e, who fought off a SoHi defender on the catch and raced into the end zone as time expired on the third quarter.
Crowder found West in the end zone on the next drive. West brought the ball down with an Anchorage defender hanging on his side.
On the ensuing possession, West passed on six of its eight plays to score on a 50-yard pass-and-catch from Pilcher to Taylor, cutting the lead to 12 points with 5:50 left in the game.
However, after driving to the West 35-yard line, SoHi found itself in a crucial situation. Fourth down and 13 yards to go with 2:40 on the clock. Crowder took a chance to sent the ball airborne and into the hands of Andy West, who came down with two Anchorage tacklers.
“We were kind of in no-man’s land,” Brantley Jr. “We didn’t have a running play dialed up, but we have a talented quarterback and a talented end, and they’re going to get a lot of chances.”
Jace Urban iced the victory with an interception with 1:10 to play.
“It was an amazing game, and the team worked for it,” West said. “I’m glad West came down to play.”
Stars 49, Eagles 30
Soldotna 7 14 14 14 —49
West 3 14 6 7 —30
West — Fernandez 29 Field Goal, 9:12
Sol — West 23 pass from Crowder (Jones kick), 4:01
Sol — Furlong 28 run (Jones kick), 10:10
West — Tovio 54 run (Fernandez kick), 9:42
West — Taylor 36 pass from Pilcher (Fernandez kick), 5:42
Sol — Schrader 6 run (Jones kick), 1:11
Sol — Furlong 40 run (Jones kick), 8:28
Sol — Furlong 25 pass from Crowder (Jones kick), :48
West — Su’esu’e 74 pass from Pilcher (kick blocked), :00
Sol — West 25 pass from Crowder (Jones kick), 8:26
West — Taylor 50 pass from Pilcher (Fernandez kick), 5:50
Sol — West 35 pass from Crowder (Jones kick), 2:35
First Downs 26 10
Rushing 69-448 20-159
Pass 107 217
Comp-Att-Int 4-8-0 14-24-2
Return yds 4-68 7-133
Punts 1-27.0 2-27.5
Fumbles-lost 1-3 0-0
Penalties 10-55 7-50
Rushing — Soldotna: Furlong 29-223, Schrader 18-109, Urban 10-82, Lefoa 10-29, Crowder 2-5. West: Tovio 12-122, Pilcher 7-36, Hughes 1-1.
Passing — Soldotna: Crowder 4-8-0—108. West: Pilcher 13-22-1—211, Hughes 1-2-1—6.