The Soldotna football team is strongly represented on the Alaska Football Coaches Association Medium Schools All-State Team, released Sunday but individual awards are not an adequate way to sum up this year’s edition of the Stars.
SoHi swept the three Player of the Year awards and put five players on both first-team offense and defense. The Players of the Year were senior Kyle Marcuson on the line, junior Brenner Furlong on offense and junior Wendell Tuisaula on defense.
But that’s not the reason the Stars were able to finish undefeated, win a fifth consecutive state title and defeat large-schools finalists East and West during the regular season.
“I think that the team with the most talent or the most athletes doesn’t always win,” Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. said. “The best team always wins.
“We were the best team not because we had the most athletes, but because we played well as a team.”
After all, one of SoHi’s three Players of the Year missed time with injury. Of the 10 first-team slots, six of those players missed time due to injury due to a tough schedule filled with top-flight large schools.
“One thing we realized when we were playing 200-pounders against 300-pounders was that we were going to get dinged up,” Brantley Jr. said. “We had that next-man-up mentality.”
The coach said that in every game, some players had to step up and fill roles they had never filled before. And yet SoHi’s state-record win streak is still running at 49.
“When I think back on this group, two things made it a special year,” Brantley Jr. said. “They proved they could play with anybody and they proved they could handle any type of adversity thrown at them.”
Marcuson is a team captain who missed about two games but was still able to make the first team at offensive tackle and interior defensive line. Marcuson was first-team all-state at offensive tackle last season, too.
“He’s a tough guy,” Brantley Jr. said. “He’s an old-school football player that battled through some injuries to make sure he was on the field with teammates.
“He was tremendous leader on both sides of the line for us.”
Brantley Jr. said the Stars definitely had a tendency to run to Marcuson’s right side because the coach said Marcuson is one of the best line players at the state at any level. He said the 6-foot-0, 267-pounder is definitely cut out for college ball.
Furlong, the first-team fullback, broke out in the regular season with 1,116 yards and nine rushing touchdowns on 139 attempts. In the state final against Palmer, Furlong had five rushing touchdowns and 270 yards rushing.
“In the state title game, he showed what he’s capable of if he’s given any seam,” Brantley Jr. said. “He’s a track guy that can run fast, but he combines that with real physical toughness.”
The coach added that Furlong is a self-made player through hard work.
“When he was in ninth grade, he wasn’t a guy we were saying was going to be the Offensive Player of the Year in a few years,” Brantley Jr. said.
Tuisaula continues to build on his reputation as a ball-hawking inside linebacker, where he is first team for the second year in a row.
Brantley Jr. said Tuisaula once again led the Stars in defensive points, an accumulation of various defensive statistics.
“He’s athletic and very talented, but he also has very good instincts as a linebacker,” Brantley Jr. said. “He has an ability to read keys and get to the right spot.
“When he gets there, he’s a player who arrives with a nasty disposition.”
The coach added Tuisaula, who is 5-8, worked hard to get in shape this season and dropped 20 pounds to 210 so he could start both ways.
Senior Andy West joined Marcuson as the only SoHi player to make first team on both sides of the ball, getting the nod at tight end and outside linebacker.
In the regular season, the 6-4, 185-pounder caught 12 balls for 277 yards and seven touchdowns.
“He’s a very talented player physically with his height and speed,” Brantley Jr. said. “He’s got great hands and certainly that added dimension at the tight end position that made us a lot harder to defend.”
At outside linebacker, the coach said West did a great job all season of turning plays back inside so players like Tuisaula could make the tackle.
The biggest injury the Stars had to overcome was to junior quarterback Brandon Crowder, who broke his foot in the final week of the regular season against Kenai and was still named first-team quarterback.
The next week, Soldotna put the ball on the ground seven times in nipping North Pole 25-21 in the state semifinals.
“The complexity of what we do, he makes it look really simple,” Brantley Jr. said. “The person we put at the center is the hub for all the fakes and movement and timing.
“If something is off there, you’ll see us struggle like we did against North Pole.”
Crowder pulled off all the fakes, ballhandling and passing so well that Brantley Jr. said Crowder is the best quarterback in the state. He finished 34 for 69 for 646 yards and 15 touchdowns. His only two interceptions were tipped by teammates.
The coach said the broken foot also showed Crowder’s toughness. He kept playing in that Kenai game before the extent of the injury was known.
“The diagnosis on the sideline was they thought he sprained it,” Brantley Jr. said. “They found out it was broken later with the MRI.
“But he wanted to play through that sprained ankle. That alone shows toughness and grit.”
The coach added that Furlong, Tuisaula and Crowder will be great player to build not only next season around, but this offseason around.
The final three first-teamers are seniors, with Bryce Martin making it at offensive guard, Jace Urban making it at defensive back and Aseli Finau getting honored at defensive interior line.
Martin teamed with Marcuson on the dominant right side. He’s a two-year starter that would have started for three years if not for an injury. Brantley Jr. said Martin made a huge improvement this year and showcased that at state.
Urban also is a two-year starter at defensive back. Brantley Jr. said with schools like East and West on the schedule, Urban had to match up with dynamic athletes.
“He was always on the wide side of the field so he always had the most space to cover and the most potential for running plays coming at him,” Brantley Jr. said. “He didn’t disappoint.”
Finau joined the Stars after his sophomore year and improved to the point where he was a two-year starter who missed a couple of games due to injury this season.
Brantley Jr. said Finau was always willing to sacrifice for the team. In the week before the season opener, an injury forced Finau to move from tight end to offensive tackle.
“He had to slide down and never get a chance to see the ball again,” Brantley Jr. said. “But he did what he had to do to give his teammates a chance to be successful.”
Kenai had four first-teamers. Junior Zack Tuttle made it at receiver, where during the regular season he had 27 catches for 580 yards and four scores.
Jon Delgado was honored at offensive tackle, while Rykker Riddall was at defensive back and Chase Gillies was honored at return specialist.
Brantley Jr. said the good mix of players from medium-schools squads shows the good football that is being played in the division right now.
“It’s a good level of football, it really is,” Brantley Jr. said. “The fact that we were able to beat a couple of Cook (Inlet Conference) teams hopefully let’s everybody know that we play pretty good ball.”
2016 Alaska Football Coaches Association Medium Schools All-State Team
Lineman of the Year — Kyle Marcuson, Soldotna.
Offensive Player of the Year — Brenner Furlong, Soldotna.
Defensive Player of the Year — Wendell Tuisaula, Soldotna.
Coach of the Year — Randy Quinto, Thunder Mountain.
Assistant Coach of the Year — Tim Popowski, Palmer.
Quarterback — Brandon Crowder, Soldotna.
Running Back — Nick DeBach, Palmer; Roy Tupou, Thunder Mountain.
Fullback — Brenner Furlong, Soldotna.
Wide Receiver — Jaime Johnson, North Pole; Zack Tuttle, Kenai.
Tight End — Andy West, Soldotna.
Tackle — Jon Delgado, Kenai; Kyle Marcuson, Soldotna.
Guard — Bryce Martin, Soldotna; Travis Wheeler, Palmer.
Center — Stephen Chase, North Pole.
Outside Linebacker — Aaron Christiansen, Palmer; Andy West, Soldotna.
Inside Linebacker — Lafi Skips, North Pole; Wendell Tuisaula, Soldotna; Garth Tupou, Thunder Mountain.
Defensive Backs — Zach Murrah, North Pole; Rykker Riddall, Kenai; Jake Tapia, Thunder Mountain; Jace Urban, Soldotna.
Interior Lineman — Austin Farris, Palmer; Aseli Finau, Soldotna; Kyle Marcuson, Soldotna; Ivan Williams, Thunder Mountain.
Punter — Shaun Walton, Kodiak.
Kicker — Franco Vidal, Thunder Mountain.
Return Specialist — Chase Gillies, Kenai.
Long Snapper — Ivan Williams, Thunder Mountain.
Utility Player — Donavin McCurly, Juneau.
Quarterback — Craig Borba, North Pole.
Running Back — James Bartley, North Pole; Lance Fiagatusa, Juneau; Austin Schrader, Soldotna.
Fullback — Lafi Skips, North Pole.
Wide Receiver — Cody Malouf, Ketchikan; Trey Witz, Palmer.
Tight End — Mahina Toutaiolepo, Thunder Mountain.
Tackle — Jacob Breazealle, North Pole; Ivan Williams, Thunder Mountain.
Guard — Garth Tupou, Thunder Mountain; Dominic Watt, Juneau.
Center — Dayton Denter, Eagle River.
Outside Linebacker — Denis Rosa, North Pole; Steven Rosales, Thunder Mountain.
Inside Linebacker — Nick Beeson, Kenai; Nate Van Sickle, Juneau.
Defensive Back — John Hamrick, Juneau; Dominique Maua, Thunder Mountain; Jared Oviok, Palmer; Shaun Walton, Kodiak.
Interior Lineman — Jordan Baeza, Eagle River; Stevie Byron, Ketchikan; Jon Delgado, Kenai; Vinny Fontana, North Pole.
Punter — Riley Olsen, Thunder Mountain.
Kicker — Zack Tuttle, Kenai.
Return Specialist — Donovan McCurley, Juneau.
Long Snapper — Alex Goodermote, Soldotna.
Utility Player — Avery Hieber, Kenai.