Drew Gibbs made plays with his feet the entire game.
He made a play with his hands to end the game.
The Soldotna junior intercepted a Kyle Foree pass in the end zone on the final play of a 21-14 victory over rival Kenai Central on Saturday at Justin Maile Field, lifting SoHi to its 27th-consective victory and a ninth-straight Northern Lights Conference championship. The Stars finish 7-0 overall and 3-0 in conference play, while Kenai Central goes to 3-4 and 2-1.
“Right place at the right time,” Gibbs said of the final play. “Luckily I was able to make the catch.”
After forcing a Stars three-and-out and getting a 22-yard return from Chase Gillies on a short punt, the Kardinals took over at the SoHi 11-yard line with 23 seconds remaining.
A 2-yard run on first down and a spike to stop the clock on second gave the Kards a final play with five seconds to play at the Stars’ 9-yard-line.
Foree, who replaced starting quarterback Jace Baker after Baker left with an injury in the second half, took the final snap from shotgun with an empty backfield and slung the ball toward the end zone, where Gibbs was the first to it.
“We knew they were going to pass,” said Gibbs, who finished with 82 yards on 22 carries and a touchdown. “I just dropped back and there it was.”
The final drive wasn’t the Kards’ only chance to tie the game in the fourth.
On their previous possession, they drove 79 yards on 14 plays — all runs — only to turn the ball over on downs at the Stars’ 1-yard line after Foree was stuffed on a fourth-down quarterback keeper from the 1.
For the Stars, the two-time medium-schools state champions, it was the biggest test of the season. Kenai Central held the ball for more than 50 plays and led much of the way.
It was the ninth straight regular-season victory for SoHi over Kenai Central.
“I couldn’t be happier with their effort,” SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. said of his players. “They battled all game and kept working, and found a way to pull it out.”
Kenai Central, a physical team with a run-first attitude, set the tone on the opening drive when it marched 65 yards on 16 plays to take a 7-0 lead on a 2-yard plunge by Foree.
It wasn’t until the nine-minute mark of the second quarter when the Stars struck, using a 3-yard Ty Fenton run to pull within 7-6.
The Kards took a 14-6 lead into halftime after Baker hit Gillies in stride over the middle for a 31-yard touchdown pass inside the final minute of the second.
Although that proved to be the Kards’ final points, coach John Marquez praised his team’s performance.
“That’s the type of game made for the movies,” he said. “It’s wonderful for the fans, it’s wonderful for the kids — our guys fought the whole way.”
The Stars tied it at 14 with 4:21 to play in the third on a 5-yard Fenton run before taking the lead for good early in the fourth on a 7-yard Gibbs run.
Brantley Jr. praised the effort of his offensive line, especially junior Sage Hill and senior Dylan Schultz, both of whom stepped in for injured players.
Hill, Schultz and Co. helped the Stars eclipse 200 yards rushing led by Gibbs’ 82, 67 from Fenton and another 52 from Bailey Blumentritt.
For the Kards, Chase Logan led the way with 93 yards on 22 carries. Foree finished with 25, while Andrew Welborn added 39 on nine attempts.
Now it’s on to the playoffs for both teams. SoHi enters as a No. 1 seed and will face Juneau-Douglas. Kenai Central enters as a No. 2 seed and faces North Pole. Both games are Saturday in Anchorage.
Marquez likes his team’s chances.
“Don’t let our record fool you,” he said. “We are a legitimate threat. The guys turned the page today, and I think we are a force to be reckoned with.”
Stars 21, Kardinals 14
Kenai 7 7 0 0 –14
Soldotna 0 6 8 7 –21
Ken – Foree 2 run (kick good), 3:34
Sol – Fenton 3 run (run failed), 9:13
Ken – Gillies 31 pass from Baker (kick good), :55
Sol – Fenton 5 run (run good), 2:28
Sol – Gibbs 5 run (kick good), 10:48
First downs 8 10
Rushes-yards 43-175 47-212
Passing yards 51 45
Comp-att-int 3-9-1 4-6-0
Return yards 72 34
Punts 4 2
Fumbles-lost 0-0 3-2
Penalties-yards 6-31 3-20
Rushing – Kenai: Welborn 9-39, Logan 21-93, Foree 8-25, Baker 5-18. Soldotna: Fenton 14-67, Gibbs 22-82, Blumentritt 9-52, Furlong 2-11.
Passing – Kenai: Baker 3-8-0-51, Foree 0-1-1-0. Soldotna: Furlong 4-6-0-45.