The Soldotna Stars football team does not endure many uneasy moments, but when they do, their ability to shake off the nerves is uncanny.
The Stars survived an early scare Saturday against Thunder Mountain to secure a 49-13 victory in the medium-schools state semifinals at Dimond Alumni Field in Anchorage.
The win pushed SoHi to its fourth straight state football title game appearance.
“It’s one of the greatest goals we could have,” said senior running back Mason Prior. “It’s pretty great to get back there one more time my senior year.”
Prior scored four times with 177 rushing yards Saturday to lead the Stars.
“I just gave it all,” Prior said. “My last year, it’s my last two games, I’m going all out.”
SoHi forced Thunder Mountain to punt on the game’s opening possession, then drove 70 yards in five plays to score on a three-yard pass over the middle from SoHi quarterback Dylan Simons to tight end Trevor Walden before the first three minutes were up. Simons ended the day completing 8 of 14 throws for 83 yards.
After forcing the Falcons to punt again, that’s when trouble struck.
Punt returner Jesse Littrell caught the ball on a bad bounce and was quickly mobbed by Thunder Mountain special team players and gave up the fumble. The error left the Falcons on SoHi’s doorstep, only eight yards away from the endzone.
“It was just a mistake, we didn’t get on Jesse,” Prior said. “We were just going to keep pushing like we always do.”
On fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line, Thunder Mountain converted with a pass from Falcons quarterback Cale Jenkins that found receiver Sam Bluett on a wide-open fade route. The touchdown tied the game at 7-7 barely six minutes in.
“It is what it is,” said SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. “We weren’t going to panic, that’s not what we do. We made a mistake on special teams, and we were able to overcome it.”
From that point on, however, SoHi rebounded by racking up 412 team rushing yards and pulling away with their usual style to claim the win.
“I’d rather win ugly than lose nicely,” Brantley Jr. quipped. “We didn’t play our best game, I thought emotionally, we were kind of flat.”
The Stars drove 58 yards on the their next possession to score on a four-yard scamper by Jace Urban, then recovered a Thunder Mountain fumble at midfield, getting the ball back on a recovery by Austin Crowder.
From there, SoHi moved 58 yards again — including a fourth-down conversion at the Falcons 39 — and capped off the 14-play drive with a 10-yard dash through the middle by Prior to take a 21-7 lead early in the second quarter.
The Stars forced Thunder Mountain into four more punts, an interception and two fumbles in the remainder of the game. At halftime, SoHi led 28-7. Prior added touchdown runs of 28, 1 and 9 in the second and third quarters, and Urban scored his second of the day on a 30-yard romp, adding to his four-yard run in the first quarter.
“The thing I’m most happy with is we are healthy going into next week,” Brantley Jr. said.
The Stars will have a chance to win a fourth-straight medium-schools championship and an eighth in school history next Saturday against old rival Kenai Central, which beat North Pole 74-6 earlier in the day’s other semifinal.
“We don’t get excited about being able to blow away a team,” Brantley Jr. said. “We get excited to play a team and go blow for blow in a heavyweight bout.”
Stars 49, Falcons 13
Soldotna 14 14 21 0 —49
Thunder Mountain 7 0 0 6 —13
Sol — Walden 3 pass from Simons (Jones kick), 9:28
ThM — Bluett 2 pass from Jenkins (Olsen kick), 6:05
Sol — Urban 4 run (Jones kick), 3:47
Sol — Prior 10 run (Jones kick), 9:22
Sol — Prior 28 run (Jones kick), 6:36
Sol — Prior 1 run (Jones kick), 9:38
Sol — Prior 9 run (Jones kick), 3:56
Sol — Urban 30 run (Jones kick), :28
ThM — Bear-Clark 11 run (pass failed), 3:08
Rushes-yds 60-412 28-142
Pass yds 83 31
Comp-att-int 8-14-1 4-10-2
Return yds 42 92
Punts 3 5
Fumbles-lost 3-1 2-2
Penalties 6-41 9-80
Rushing — Soldotna: Prior 18-177, Palaniuk 6-37, Simons 7-61, Urban 10-61, Furlong 10-60, No. 27 1-3, Crowder 1-4, Trammell 2-1, No. 13 4-8. Thunder Mountain: Bear-Clark 27-139, Olmstead 1-3.
Passing — Soldotna: Simons 8-14-1—83. Thunder Mountain: Jenkins 4-10-1—31.
Receiving — Soldotna: Urban 2-12, Gomez-Dickson 2-23, T. Smithwick 1-22, Prior 1-12, Walden 1-3, Palaniuk 1-11. Thunder Mountain: Bluett 2-7, Olsen 1-8, Crawford 1-5.