It takes one to know one, and for 48 minutes on a sun-splashed fall afternoon at Machetanz Field in Palmer, the North Pole Patriots were threatening to end the Soldotna football team’s state-record, 48-game win streak in the most brutal fashion of all.
North Pole controlled play for much of the day and came up short on two late drives thanks to Patriots head coach Dennis Diviney — who spent last year as the Soldotna linebackers coach — and his intimate knowledge of the SoHi system.
“They have tremendous kids playing with such heart and dedication, and that coaching staff is unrivaled,” Diviney said of his old team. “I’m so proud of all 45 of our kids, they played their hearts out.”
Ultimately, Soldotna survived to pull off a wild 25-21 medium-schools semifinal victory at Palmer High School, punching its ticket to a fifth straight championship game appearance.
SoHi will meet Palmer in the medium-schools state title game next Saturday at 12:30 p.m. at Palmer’s home field. The Moose defeated Thunder Mountain 28-26 in the day’s other semifinal.
In the second week of this season, SoHi defeated North Pole 57-13 in convincing fashion at home.
Saturday, the Patriots were ready to rumble in the rematch, and The Streak nearly came to a shocking end.
“They were not the same team we saw in Week 2,” said Soldotna head coach Galen Brantley Jr. “Their kids just came out with energy and passion, they showed up ready to play.”
In his true varsity debut, playing backup to injured starter Brandon Crowder, who is out for the playoffs with a broken foot, senior Jace Urban had difficulty finding chemistry under center. Urban fumbled the ball away three times and recovered two other drops.
Amidst his struggles, however, Urban also came through with several big plays when it counted most.
Urban ran the ball in on two touchdown runs, finishing with 89 rushing yards, then hauled in a decisive interception of North Pole quarterback Craig Borbas with just three minutes remaining.
“I’m a little numb,” Urban said after the bruising game that saw him come up limping several times. “I was nervous, shaking, and the coaches helped me to get through the emotions.”
Urban’s lone completed pass was a crucial fourth-down conversion to tight end Andy West early in the game, but other than that, the Stars stuck to their usual persistent running game. SoHi ended with 240 ground yards on 53 carries.
“Coach gave me the green light to run it, if I didn’t see a pass,” Urban explained.
In a contest chock full of momentum swings, perhaps the biggest one played out just before the halftime horn. After a gashing 34-yard touchdown run by Easton Kirven and an ensuing two-point pass from Borba to Jeremiah Howe put North Pole up 15-0, the Stars were in need of something to avoid a scoreless first half.
Brenner Furlong answered the bell for SoHi. On the ensuing kickoff, the ball shot between Furlong’s legs and almost into the end zone, but Furlong tracked it down and picked it up for the return. Miraculously, the junior fullback found a hole right up the middle of the field and, with blocker Aseli Finau paving the way, streaked home for a massive 94-yard score.
“When it went through my legs, I thought, ‘Oh god,’” Furlong said. “Somehow I found a crease up the middle and Aseli made a huge block.”
Furlong finished with 43 yards on 16 carries, and senior Austin Schrader had 75 yards.
Borba, a junior quarterback whose stature resembles a young Ben Roethlisberger, completed 5 of 11 passes for 132 yards and two picks.
After trailing by as much as 15-0 in the first half, SoHi began finding its rhythm in the second half. The Stars took their first lead of the day on a 20-yard field goal kick by Blake Jones with 44 seconds left in the third quarter, putting SoHi up 18-15.
Soldotna went ahead for the final time with 7:54 left in the fourth quarter when Urban capped a 12-play drive with a 2-yard shove up the middle.
In the final minutes, North Pole twice came up empty on potential game-winning drives. A fumble by Urban deep in SoHi territory left the Patriots with a prime opportunity to score from 29 yards out, but Borba was picked off by Urban with 3:05 left, and Urban returned the ball to midfield.
In attempts to drain the clock, SoHi ran the ball to the Patriots 16, but Urban fumbled it away again with 57 seconds to go. Borbas made up 23 yards on a pass to Howe, putting North Pole near midfield, but a third-down shot to the sideline was hauled in by SoHi sophomore Cy Updike with just seconds remaining on the clock, icing the victory.
“I call that survival,” Brantley Jr. exclaimed just minutes after the win.
SoHi finished with a paltry 62 yards of offense in the first half, while North Pole ran up the score to 15-0, led by the passing attack of Borbas.
On the game’s opening drive, Borbas found junior wideout Jamie Johnson behind his defender for a 49-yard strike that put the Patriots into the red zone, but a recovered fumble forced North Pole to punt.
On Soldotna’s first possession, Urban lost the ball on consecutive snaps, leading the Stars to punt.
James Bartley scored the first points of the game on a 54-yard scramble up the sideline, putting North Pole up 7-0.
SoHi ate up the clock with a long drive on its next possession, but fumbled it away at the Patriots 2-yard line. However, North Pole’s ensuing drive ended on downs with an incomplete pass into the end zone.
North Pole extended the lead to 15-0 with a 34-yard run by Kirven, plus a two-point pass, with 42 seconds left before halftime, but Furlong finally got the Stars going with his momentum-shifting kicking return.
Facing a Palmer squad that lost 42-21 to SoHi earlier in the season, Brantley Jr. said his squad will be sure to pack the next seven days with ways of cleaning up mistakes.
“Am I concerned about the turnovers? Absolutely,” Brantley Jr. said. “If we do that next week, it won’t turn out pretty for us.”
STARS 25, PATRIOTS 21
North Pole 7 8 6 0 —21
Soldotna 0 8 10 7 —25
NP — Bartley 54 run (Orear kick), 4:16
NP — Kirven 34 run (Borba pass to Howe), :42
Sol — Furlong 94 kick return (Schrader run), :35
Sol — Schrader 23 run (Jones kick), 7:26
Sol — Jones 20 FG, :44
NP — Skipps 60 run (run failed), :32
Sol — Urban 2 run (Jones kick), 7:54
First downs 10 14
Rush yds 32-223 53-240
Pass yds 132 21
Comp-att-int 5-11-2 1-2-0
Return yds 0 60
Punts 2 2
Fumbles-rec 3-2 6-3
Penalties 3-20 2-20
Rushing — Soldotna: Urban 20-89, Schrader 9-75, Furlong 16-43, Lefao 8-33. North Pole: Skipps 17-100, Kirven 4-53, Bartley 7-66, Windham 3-2, Antesberger 1-2.
Passing — Soldotna: Urban 1-2-0—21. North Pole: Borba 5-11-2—132.
Receiving — Soldotna: West 1-21. North Pole: Johnson 2-84, Howe 2-39, Kirven 1-9.