Having withstood the physical tests of bigger competition and coming out with a perfect record, the streaking Soldotna Stars approached Friday night’s Northern Lights Conference clash against Palmer with high anticipation.
The Stars held on to win their first NLC game of the season 42-21 over the Moose at Justin Maile Field, just as the final rays of dying sunlight were casting their last glows.
The win moved SoHi to the top of the conference standings with a 1-0 record, while Palmer dropped to 1-1. SoHi is now 5-0 this year and extended its state-record win streak to 44 in a row.
Like Soldotna, the Moose have had to fight through a tough opening stanza to the 2016 season, which began with losses to East, Bartlett and Colony, all big schools. Last week, Palmer opened its conference schedule with a 35-18 win over Kodiak.
However, despite their 1-4 record in 2016, the Moose tested the Stars on both sides of the ball.
“They’re a well-coached team and coach (Rod) Christiansen has a history of upsetting teams and going deep in the playoffs,” said Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. “I think they can make a lot of noise here in October.”
Brenner Furlong led the SoHi charge with 110 rushing yards, while Austin Schrader and Jace Urban each scored twice. Schrader finished with 97 yards and Urban with 88.
SoHi outgained Palmer 357 yards to 282, and while SoHi has breezed through the bulk of their conference schedule the past few seasons, Palmer gave the Stars a legit fight Friday night.
The Moose intercepted the Stars twice in the first half and also forced them to punt twice, including on the opening drive of the game.
“They were pretty good,” said Soldotna senior tight end Andy West. “They were watching a lot of film, they were following me around out there.”
West had several near misses go through his hands, but caught the biggest throw of the night when he intercepted Palmer quarterback Clayton Southwick late in the game, effectively sealing the victory. In addition to his crucial defensive play, West also caught a 6-yard scoring strike from quarterback Brandon Crowder early in the fourth quarter, putting SoHi up 35-14 at the time. Crowder finished 2 for 10 with 26 yards. Both completions went into the end zone.
Soldotna rolled to 331 team rushing yards on 45 carries, while Palmer spread the field with a talented core of receivers that had the towering 6-foot-8 Southwick slinging the rock. Southwick finished 10 for 21 with 131 yards and two touchdowns, and also found success on his feet, carrying the ball for 49 rushing yards.
In the end, Southwick, leading a Moose contingent that hadn’t turned the ball over once, finally found trouble in the form of West. Southwick rolled out to his right to escape pressure from the Stars line, but lobbed a pass that was picked out of the air by the 6-4 West with 2:20 to play, all but sealing the SoHi win.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my (defensive) line pressuring the quarterback,” West said. “I was just there to pick it up.”
The Palmer defense gave SoHi trouble all night. After stopping SoHi early, Palmer made a gutsy call to try and convert a fourth down deep in Palmer territory, but were stopped short on the outside, giving SoHi the ball at the Moose 19-yard line. A 9-yard Austin Schrader run opened the scoring for SoHi.
“They have athletes, there’s no question about it,” Brantley Jr. said.
Brantley Jr. said after the previous week’s win over East — a 22-21 thriller that wasn’t decided until the final minute — SoHi was simply trying to recover from the bruising battle against the colossal Thunderbirds line, which features several 300-pound linemen.
“I expected to come out a little flat after East,” he said. “But that doesn’t take anything away from Palmer, they showed up to play. They made it a game for a long time.”
Palmer coach Rod Christiansen, who coached against Soldotna back when Brantley Jr. was a player for the Stars, said the early decision to go for it was one of several mistakes the Moose made.
“Every game there’s five or six plays that (determine the outcome), and you don’t know which ones until it’s over,” Christiansen said. “We tried to go for it early, and we gave them a short field.”
Christiansen’s most recent visit to Justin Maile Field resulted in a win, coincidentally the last loss for the record-breaking Stars in Aug. 2012, back when the field featured natural grass, and Christiansen said every matchup with Brantley Jr. is a special one.
“I think it was more fun on dirt,” he said with a laugh.
After SoHi’s first touchdown of the evening, Palmer drove to the SoHi 13-yard line but turned the ball over on downs when a pass to the flats from Southwick to junior Matt Daniels did not reach the line of scrimmage. Daniels caught seven passes for 99 yards, and had an interception on defense.
SoHi gave the ball right back when a Crowder throw was tipped up into the air and brought down by Daniels, giving the Moose fresh life.
Again, Palmer couldn’t convert on fourth down, but like deja vu, it didn’t take long for the Moose to get it back. A flea-flicker that finished with a pass by Urban was picked off by Jared Oviok at midfield. From there, it took Palmer nine plays — including a big 24-yard scamper by Jeff Glynn that put the Moose in the red zone — to score on a pass from Southwick to Nick Johnson, tying the game at 7 apiece.
However, SoHi responded emphatically with two unanswered touchdown drives, starting with a 65-yard series that was punctuated with a 36-yard rumble by Furlong that brought SoHi to the red zone. From there, Schrader punched it up the gut for the go-ahead touchdown with 3:33 remaining in the half.
After a Palmer punt, SoHi scored again with 49 seconds left when Crowder connected with Urban on a long throw across the middle, giving the Stars a 21-7 halftime lead.
In the second half, the two teams traded touchdowns on four straight possessions. Southwick’s 9-yard air strike to Oviok with 7:10 left in the game cut SoHi’s lead to 35-21, and on Soldotna’s ensuing drive, the Stars stalled with a punt at midfield.
Starting from their own 19, the Moose began a serious drive that made it as far as the SoHi 38 before Southwick was sacked. A holding penalty backed the Moose up farther, and Southwick ended Palmer’s chances with his pick to West.
Stars 42, Moose 21
Palmer 0 7 7 7 —21
Soldotna 7 14 7 14 —42
Sol — Schrader 9 run (Jones kick), 5:18
Pal — Johnson 6 pass from Southwick (Cutsforth kick), 5:06
Sol — Schrader 9 run (Jones kick), 3:33
Sol — Urban 20 pass from Crowder (Jones kick), :49
Sol — Crowder 9 run (Jones kick), 7:11
Pal — DeBach 1 run (Cutsforth kick), 3:06
Sol — West 6 pass from Crowder (Jones kick), 9:49
Pal — Oviok 9 pass from Southwick (Cutsforth kick), 7:10
Sol — Urban 23 run (Wells kick), :59
First Downs 16 9
Rushing yds 45-331 39-151
Pass yds 26 131
Comp-Att-Int 2-11-2 10-21-1
Return yds 4-24 5-65
Punts 2-27.5 2-35
Fumbles 0-0 0-0
Penalties 5-42 5-40
Rushing — Soldotna: Furlong 13-110, Schrader 16-97, Urban 6-88, Crowder 7-26, Lefoa 3-10. Palmer: Glynn 9-49, Southwick 12-49, Cutsforth 8-35, Farris 1-10, DeBach 8-6, Hale 1-2.
Passing — Soldotna: Crowder 2-10—26-2. Urban 0-1—0-0. Palmer: Southwick 10-21—131-2.