After his first game as a head coach against Soldotna — a 54-27 loss Saturday at Justin Maile Field in Soldotna — Kenai Central head coach Davis Lowery pinpointed the reason for SoHi’s greatness as well as anyone.
“We did well offensively, but hats off to Soldotna,” Lowery said after ending his first season 3-5. “They did what they do best — execute.
“Their offensive line played extremely well.”
There are going to be days when the opposition is bigger and faster, days when the calls and bounces don’t go your way, and days when injuries bite at the worst times and positions.
The only fail-safe is execution, and the Stars showed again Saturday they do that better than any program in the state. To wit:
• At 8-0, the Stars celebrated senior day by wrapping up their fourth straight undefeated regular season.
• Soldotna has now won 11 straight Northern Lights Conference titles, setting up a playoff battle Saturday with North Pole at 1 p.m. in Palmer. Palmer is the No. 2 seed from the NLC and hosts Thunder Mountain at 4 p.m., while the Kards are eliminated from postseason contention.
• The Stars have now won 47 games in a row.
• Soldotna moved to 27-16 against its proud rival Kenai Central, and the Kards haven’t beaten the Stars since the 2011 playoff semifinals.
Kenai quarterback Chase Gillies was able to create havoc with his legs and arm, running for 35 yards and passing for 165 yards and two scores. Cat-quick Zack Tuttle was able to haul in two long scoring strikes.
But in the end, those flashes of brilliance couldn’t stand up to the ruthless efficiency of SoHi’s ground game.
“Our offensive line was able to keep control of the game,” Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. said.
The Stars rushed 53 times for 443 yards, an average of 8.4 yards per carry.
Brenner Furlong rushed 20 times for 212 yards and two scores, Austin Schrader ran 11 times for 101 yards and three scores, and Jace Urban ran 10 times for 87 yards and two scores.
Hensley added another score on a pass from Brandon Crowder.
“Coach Brantley put his trust in us,” said junior guard and middle linebacker Wendell Tuisaula. “We are family. We trusted each other and got it done tonight.”
Brantley Jr. said one of the most important battles for his offensive line was tackle Kyle Marcuson against Kenai’s Jonathan Delgado.
Brantley said the two are among the top linemen in the state, and he said Marcuson won the battle enough to give the Stars the rushing edge.
Even though the Kardinals came in under .500 and the Stars came in atop the football landscape, Brantley Jr., a 1993 SoHi grad, knew the rivalry well enough to know that Saturday was no sure thing.
“With this rivalry, you can always throw out the records,” the coach said. “It’s always close, so we were expecting that.
“They still have kids on that team that were part of a state runner-up last year.”
After neither team scored on its first drive, Kenai got on the board first when Tuttle caught the 66-yard pass from Gillies.
SoHi answered by using six rushing plays to cover the 63 yards to the end zone, but Gillies and Tuttle answered again with a 53-yard strike to begin the second quarter for a 13-7 advantage.
The Stars drove again, but on a fourth-and-one from the Kenai 10, Brantley Jr. said his squad was late checking into a play and Kenai stuffed it to regain possession with 9:41 to play until half. A slight smell of an upset wafted through the overcast autumn air.
But on the next play, Urban intercepted Gillies and returned it to the Kenai 9. Urban got the carry on the next play and scored for a 14-13 lead SoHi would not relinquish.
The rest of the second quarter put a chill in Kenai’s upset attempt. Tuisaula would intercept Gillies, Tuttle would go out of the game with an injury, and the Stars would score three more times for a 34-13 lead at the half.
“You just can’t turn the ball over four times against a team like SoHi,” Lowery said.
Brantley Jr. said Kenai’s offense definitely gave his team some problems, and has improved during the year as the players have learned Lowery’s system.
“If Tuttle doesn’t get injured, things might have been a little different,” Brantley Jr. said. “I think he’s one of the best players in the state.”
Most teams probably call it a day down 34-13 at half to SoHi, but the Kards started the second half by recovering an onside kick and driving to cut the gap to 34-20 on the first of two touchdown runs by Nick Beeson.
But, again, the momentum shift didn’t take hold because it took SoHi just five rushing plays to complete a 66-yard scoring drive to go up 40-20 with 7:49 left in the third quarter.
“They played really hard and they played with a lot of heart,” Lowery said of his team. “I can’t say enough about what that says about them, their parents and the community.”
Stars 54, Kardinals 27
Soldotna 7 27 6 14 —54
Kenai 7 6 7 7 —27
Ken — Tuttle 66 pass from Gillies (Tuttle kick), 4:02.
Sol — Furlong 13 run (Jones kick), 2:00.
Ken — Tuttle 53 pass from Gillies (kick failed), 11:49.
Sol — Urban 9 run (Jones kick), 9:37.
Sol — Schrader 33 run (Jones kick), 7:01.
Sol — Schrader 12 run (Jones kick), 2:36.
Sol — Hensley 12 pass from Crowder (kick failed), 0:38.
Ken — Beeson 1 run (McKibben kick), 9:52.
Sol — Furlong 39 run (kick failed), 7:49.
Sol — Schrader 3 run (Wells kick), 11:37.
Ken — Beeson 3 run (McKibben kick), 6:24.
Sol — Urban 6 run (Wells kick), 3:51.
First downs 20 7
Rushing yards 53-443 35-111
Passing yards 67 165
Comp-att-int 6-12-0 6-17-2
Punts-avg 0-0 3-31
Fum-lost 1-0 2-2
Penalties 8-60 7-51
Rushing — Soldotna: Furlong 20-212, Schrader 11-101, Urban 10-87, Lefao 1-20, Crowder 6-16, Quelland 2-7, Van Hout 1-0, Truesdell 2-0. Kenai: Beeson 5-49, Gillies 11-35, Riddall 13-23, Heiber 4-3, Tuttle 2-1.
Passing — SoHi: Crowder 5-11-0—58. Kenai: Gillies 6-16-2—165, Heiber 0-1-0—0.
Receiving — SoHi: West 1-28, Trammell 2-13, Hensley 1-12, Sproul 1-9, Furlong 1-5. Kenai: Tuttle 2-119, Landry 1-34, Heiber 1-5, Beeson 3-5, Riddall 2-2.