Nearly a year after everything went wrong for the Soldotna football program, nearly everything went right Friday night at Justin Maile Field in Soldotna.
The Stars (7-1 overall) rushed for 409 yards, caught three touchdown passes and got two turnovers on kickoffs in the first quarter in swamping the Patriots 73-20 in a Division II semifinal played on an overcast evening. Soldotna scored on 10 of 12 drives, with the two exceptions coming at the end of each half.
It was Oct. 13, 2020, when the Alaska School Activities Association announced that all fall sports championships would be canceled, stopping the Stars’ postseason run before it even began. To make matters worse, the Kenai Peninsula School District announced the same day the central peninsula schools would go to 100% remote learning due to rising COVID cases in the area.
COVID has still stamped its impact all over this season. SoHi is currently under a universal indoor mask mandate and players have been in and out of the lineup all season due to COVID issues. Due to COVID and weather issues, North Pole had played just four games entering the semifinal.
“Every moment of playing football this season is so difficult to come by,” North Pole coach Mike Hollett said after finishing 5-2, getting one win by forfeit. “It’s such a gift to even be able to slip on the field.
“Even losing by a bunch, you still realize the present that it is. We got to play. Last year, the playoffs were canceled.”
Soldotna, seeking its ninth straight state title, will face Lathrop for the championship at 4 p.m. on Oct. 16 at Service High School in Anchorage. Lathrop, which defeated Eagle River 14-12 on Saturday, topped Soldotna 27-21 in Week 2.
After piecing together a 42-41 victory over South in Week 8 while missing multiple players due to injury and COVID issues, Alaska finally got to see what the Stars look like at nearly full strength for the first time this season.
Missing just one starter on defense, Soldotna took a 30-0 lead with 1:03 left in the first quarter. To that point, North Pole had run just eight plays — one of those being a punt.
Senior Dylan Dahlgren got the party started by covering the opening kickoff at the North Pole 16 when the Patriots failed to handle the ball cleanly.
“It got bobbled and he always tells us to fly to the ball as fast as you can,” Dahlgren said of special teams coach Phil Leck. “I did that and it was lying there on the ground.”
From there, two plays put the Stars in the end zone on a run by Brayden Taylor. After a North Pole three-and-out, two more plays found SoHi with a 14-0 lead on a 58-yard run by Brock Wilson, who missed last week with a sprained ankle.
“We came out on fire,” Wilson said. “We knew that we wanted to go to state and create our own legacy.”
After the Patriots turned the ball over on downs, Wayne Mellon scored for a 22-0 lead. Jace O’Reagan then recovered an onside kick and SoHi had its 30-0 lead when Dahlgren caught a scoring pass from Taylor.
“They’re a great program,” Hollett said of the Stars. “It just felt like the moment causes a few mistakes that we don’t make in other moments. So we just gave them some opportunities, and they took advantage of every single one.”
The Stars turned in their most complete offensive performance of the season. In the second quarter, Wilson and Gehret Medcoff scored on runs, while Dahlgren scored on another pass from Taylor. In the third quarter, Medcoff, who led with 146 rushing yards, scored on a run and Aidan Gavalis scored on a pass from Zac Buckbee. In the fourth quarter, Collin Peck scored on a run.
SoHi showed the championship opponent a passing game to think about, but Dahlgren didn’t see it that way.
“I wouldn’t consider it an extra dimension, it’s part of football,” Dahlgren said of the pass. “It’s a little change-up for us because we’re run-heavy, but it’s just another play with everybody doing their jobs.”
Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. said a successful run game opens up the pass.
“This game definitely goes out to the offensive line,” Wilson said.
The starting line featured Dahlgren at right end, Logan Katzenberger at right tackle, Kaidan Spies at right guard, Harley Johnson at center, Joe Whittom at left guard, Hakoa Montoya at left tackle and Noah Harper at left end.
The Patriots were able to move the ball, with quarterback Devon Clark going 14 of 22 for 193 yards and touchdowns to Kaden Bostwick and Logen Bellmay. Josh Dutra also ran for a score.
Hollett said he loses about 10 seniors. He said when the seniors were freshmen, the Patriots were 0-8.
“I’m so proud of this senior group,” Hollett said. “I’m proud of them for leaving something behind for the others to build off of.”
Meanwhile, Brantley Jr. and the Stars have a game that serves as a perfect building block to another potential state title.
“I think one of the most important things we got out of this is we are healthy,” the coach said. “Now if we can avoid the land mines of COVID throughout the week, and show up with everything, we feel like we have a great chance.”
Stars 73, Patriots 20
Soldotna 30 22 15 6 —73
North Pole 0 6 14 0 —20
Sol — Taylor 10 run (kick failed), 11:14.
Sol — Wilson 58 run (Medcoff run), 8:48.
Sol — Mellon 10 run (conversion failed), 1:55.
Sol — Dahlgren 14 pass from Taylor (Mellon pass from Taylor), 1:03.
NP — Bostwick 19 pass from Clark (conversion failed), 10:40.
Sol — Wilson 29 run (conversion failed), 10:03.
Sol — Medcoff 46 run (Buckbee run), 5:42.
Sol — Dahlgren 32 pass from Taylor (Taylor run), 1:25.
Sol — Medcoff 63 run (Buckbee kick), 11:42.
NP — Dutra 2 run (conversion failed), 4:28.
Sol — A. Gavalis 25 pass from Buckbee (Michael run), 1:17.
NP — Bellmay 55 pass from Clark (Skipps run), 1:02.
Sol — Peck 23 run (conversion failed), 6:54.
First downs 9 5
Rushes-yards 37-407 27-109
Passing yards 99 193
Comp-att-int 5-6-0 14-22-0
Punts 0-0 2-33.0
Fumbles 0-0 2-2
Penalties 1-10 7-75
Rushing — Soldotna: Medcoff 8-146, Wilson 4-97, Faircloth 5-54, Mellon 4-29, Peck 2-24, Buckbee 3-22, O’Reagan 2-19, Michael 3-9, Kemp 1-5, Taylor 2-2, Arthur 3-0. North Pole: Bostwick 1-36, Hyson 3-29, C. Clark 8-22, Skipps 8-19, N. Clark 3-6, Dutra 1-2, Walters 1-1, Lipari 2-(-6).
Passing — Soldotna: Taylor 4-5-0—72, Buckbee 1-1-0—25. North Pole D. Clark 14-22-0—193.