Kenai Central had a few things go right, but not everything, and that’s what it would have taken to stage an audacious upset of the monolithic victory machine that is Soldotna on Saturday at sunny Ed Hollier Field in Kenai.
The Stars, now winners of 57 straight, capped a fifth-straight undefeated regular season by running away from the Kardinals (3-5 overall) late for a 43-14 victory.
Since SoHi head coach Galen Brantley Jr. returned to his alma mater in 2002 as offensive coordinator, something, whether it be a playoff spot or playoff seeding, has always been on the line in the final week of the regular season against Kenai.
This season, the Stars wrapped up a 12th straight Northern Lights Conference crown in Week 7, while Kenai also was eliminated from the playoff hunt last week.
“It felt like a trap game, but they were able to work their way through their mistakes and take control,” Brantley Jr. said of his squad, which won its seventh straight contest against Kenai to increase the lead in the series to 28-16.
Kenai stayed within one score of Soldotna until deep into the third quarter, but Brantley Jr., while crediting Kenai with a valiant effort, said he did not feel uncomfortable.
“You only have so many trick plays,” Brantley Jr. said. “Even in the first half when we were struggling, I felt like it was only a matter of time.”
A coach doesn’t move to 105-5 overall and 13-2 against his biggest rival without a tried-and-true recipe for victory. Middle linebacker and guard Wendell Tuisaula, returning after two weeks off due to a knee injury, summed up the formula.
“It’s hard on a defense when they can’t stop the run,” Tuisaula said. “We felt that to be the case and took advantage.”
Led by 211 yards and four touchdowns on 20 carries from Brenner Furlong and 150 yards and a score on 13 carries from Aaron Faletoi, the Stars rolled up 411 yards on 48 carries.
Kenai, meanwhile, rushed 36 times for 57 yards. After yielding 14 points in the second quarter, Soldotna’s defense was especially stingy in the second half, keeping Kenai off the board while allowing just 29 rushing yards and 20 receiving yards.
“We just needed to calm down, execute plays and pick up our defense,” Tuisaula said. “We were struggling on defense, but we came back in the third quarter and locked them down on D.”
The Kardinals honored 10 seniors before the game, including Zack Tuttle. A string of big plays by seniors Tuttle and Furlong kept the packed bleachers buzzing in the second quarter.
After Furlong gave the Stars a 7-0 lead with a 76-yard scoring run with 11 minutes, 49 seconds, left in the half, Tuttle answered by catching a 52-yard fade route from Connor Felchle to set the Kards up at the Soldotna 7, where Rykker Riddall would plunge in for the score.
Just two plays from scrimmage later, Furlong was off on a 66-yard run. Kenai coach Ted Riddall would point to two of those long Furlong runs as reasons the upset didn’t happen.
“Brenner did what Brenner does,” Brantley Jr. said. “When he gets out into the open field, he’s dangerous.”
But on Kenai’s next possession, Riddall took a handoff and threw it up the sideline to Tuttle, who broke between two defenders for a 41-yard score to tie the game at 14.
SoHi then drove to Kenai’s 20, but Tuttle intercepted a pass intended for Galen Brantley III at the goal line. Kenai’s next drive went three-and-out and Faletoi would give SoHi a 21-14 lead with 1:43 left until half on a 34-yard scoring run.
After another Kenai drive stalled, SoHi got the ball back with 24 seconds left. On the first play, Tuttle intercepted another ball and tore off for the end zone. SoHi quarterback Brandon Crowder made a big tackle on the sideline to keep SoHi ahead headed to the half.
Brantley Jr. said the Kenai defense kept Tuttle over his son the whole game, while SoHi’s defense also keyed on Tuttle. The Stars held Tuttle without a catch in the second half. He finished with three catches for 99 yards.
“You know they were keying on him,” coach Riddall said. “For him to do that when they’re keying on him says a lot.”
In the second half, SoHi’s defense, two scoring runs from Furlong, a scoring run from Crowder, a strip sack and fumble recovery from Faletoi, and interceptions from Crowder and Cy Updike were enough to restore order for the Stars.
“Nobody gave us a chance,” coach Riddall said. “In that aspect, I’m proud of the guys. They showed up to play, especially in the first half.”
Riddall is Kenai’s third coach in three years, and he said the Kards got off to a quick start learning the Wing-T offense, but that stalled with a Week 5 loss at Kodiak. Then came a Week 7 loss to Palmer where the Kardinals walked off the field with their heads down.
“I hoped as a coach I would see them rebound,” Riddall said. “It was nice to see the team I saw at the beginning of the season.
“This week, we didn’t want to walk off the field the same way.”
SoHi, meanwhile is loaded up for a sixth straight Division II title. Unlike last year, when Crowder broke his foot in this Kenai game to add to SoHi’s injury problems, Brantley Jr. said he’s happy his squad is fully healthy headed to the postseason.
Stars 43, Kardinals 14
Soldotna 0 21 7 15 — 43
Kenai 0 14 0 0 — 14
Sol — Furlong 76 run (Sheridan kick), 11:49.
Ken — R. Riddall 7 run (run failed), 10:38.
Sol — Furlong 66 run (Sheridan kick), 9:42.
Ken — Tuttle 41 pass from R. Riddall (McEnerney run), 7:43.
Sol — Faletoi 34 run (Sheridan kick), 1:43.
Sol — Furlong 6 run (Sheridan kick), 1:17.
Sol — Crowder 1 run (Sheridan kick), 7:07.
Sol — Furlong 11 run (Sheridan run), 2:55.
First downs 12 11
Rushes-yards 48-411 36-57
Passing yards 36 166
Comp-att-int 2-6-2 11-18-2
Return yards 31 49
Punts 2-32.0 4-37.0
Fumbles 0-0 2-1
Rushing — Soldotna: Furlong 20-211, Quelland 8-36, Faletoi 13-150, Crowder 5-16, Rich 2-(-2). Kenai: Burnett 1-13, R. Riddall 14-39, McEnerney 6-30, Felchle 6-(-45), Kruse 1-2, Siamani 1-3, O’Brien 4-20, Tuttle 1-5, T. Riddall 2-(-10).
Passing — Soldotna: Crowder: 2-6-2—36. Kenai: O’Brien 1-1-0—6, Felchle 8-15-2—109, R. Riddall 2-2-0—51.