Anyone holding the belief that a football team has a clear path to the state championship only needs to look at Saturday’s regular season finale at Justin Maile Field in Soldotna.
With playoff seeding on the line, a Kenai Kardinals squad sitting at .500 on the season gave the mighty Soldotna Stars the biggest challenge they have seen all year, scrapping their way to a 14-6 lead by halftime.
Ultimately, the Stars finished on top in a thrilling 21-14 game to preserve their perfect season and their growing 27-game winning streak.
“I think it was a surprise for everybody but us and Kenai,” said SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. “We got about what we thought we would get out of our players and coaches.
“We did about everything you could do wrong and they almost got us.”
Against their Northern Lights Conference rivals, Kenai Central took advantage with a successful game management plan and nearly knocked off one of the top teams in the state.
“It was phenomenal,” said Kenai coach John Marquez. “I couldn’t ask for any more effort of my kids and what they did.”
The mindset that every coach at this time of year will take on in the next two weeks makes the postseason a mess to predict. From now on, a team’s regular season record means nothing, and any superlative stats that players have accumulated are just asterisks on a page.
In the small town of Seward, a similar battle played out. Nikiski and the hometown Seward Seahawks entered the final week with identical 4-1 records in the Greatland Conference, and the second seed up for grabs.
The Bulldogs took firm hold in a 69-14 victory and won the game and the right to host this weekend’s playoff semifinal game.
The time to crown a champion has arrived. It’s time to get down to business.
Soldotna (NLC No. 1) vs. Juneau (SEC No. 2), 1 p.m. Saturday
If this medium-schools semifinal matchup sounds familiar, it’s because these two schools produced a championship battle for the ages last October.
After trailing the Crimson Bears 28-6 at one point in the first half, SoHi clawed back and made a game of it, as each team traded big play after big play. In the end, Soldotna claimed the title with a 56-49 win.
“This is a different group of kids,” coach Brantley said about Juneau. “We haven’t given last year a whole lot of thought until now, but they’re a different team.”
At halftime in the game against Kenai, Brantley Jr. said the halftime analysis was broken down into the good and the bad.
“The bad was that we didn’t play very well,” he said. “But the good was we were only down by a touchdown and a conversion.”
The Stars were also missing two tackles — Adam O’Guinn and Matt Trammell — that surely didn’t help SoHi’s effort in containing the explosive Kenai backfield. Brantley Jr. said O’Guinn is scheduled to be back in action this weekend and Trammell will be a game time decision.
Juneau finished 2-1 in the Southeast Conference (4-4 overall) in 2014, but finished the season off with a surge of momentum. Juneau crushed Southeast rival Thunder Mountain 43-6 Saturday to end its regular season, and preceded that with a 64-13 romp over Ketchikan.
SoHi and Juneau shared three common opponents this season — Kenai, West Valley and Thunder Mountain. The Stars, of course, swept those games while Juneau went 2-1. The Crimson Bears’ point differential was plus-39, while SoHi’s was plus-106.
Still, Brantley Jr. said nothing that Juneau does is going to change the game plan.
“It’s a systematic process,” Brantley Jr. said. “We remove not being prepared out of the equation, so it comes down to who wants it more.”
Interestingly, this year’s two semifinal matchups are a swap of last year’s semis. Soldotna beat North Pole last year to gain the final, and Juneau topped Kenai to complete the final matchup.
The good news for the Stars is that Juneau’s star running back in 2013 — Demetrius Campos — is graduated. Campos proved to be a terror for opponents last year with his blazing speed, and racked up 217 rushing yards against Soldotna in the medium-schools title game.
The bad news is that quarterback Dorian Isaak is back and is better.
“The biggest challenge is defensively,” Brantley Jr. said. “It’s like the reverse of what we had with Kenai, we have to be the ones to limit their possessions.”
Since losing Campos, Juneau has reverted back to pounding the ball up the middle, rather than using speed to make gains on the outside. Brady Mallinger has been a big part of that ground-and-pound mentality. With linebacker Hunter Hickok getting increases receiving yards as well, the Juneau offense has been able to stay level with what they left off with last year.
North Pole edged Juneau 50-47 in Week 5 of the season, which ultimately decided the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds in the conference, and who SoHi and Kenai matched up with in the playoffs.
Brantley Jr. said. either team would have given his squad a test, but the Juneau defense is where the differences lie.
“This is a really huge challenge for us,” Brantley Jr. said. “The biggest difference is that they both have crazy offenses and can score a lot of points, but Juneau can stop the run and North Pole can’t.”
Kenai (NLC No. 2) vs. North Pole (SEC No. 1), 4 p.m. Saturday
After showing that the Soldotna football team is not invincible, Kenai coach Marquez said he believed that to be a statement game.
“We said don’t look at our record, don’t count us out,” Marquez said. “We had tough a challenge issued, and we showed that we can play with anyone on any given day.”
The Kardinals will get another chance to show that they are capable of competing with any team in the medium-schools division.
North Pole finished 3-0 in the Southeast Conference (5-3 overall) to grab the division title and top seed. Coming off a 20-19 win over Colony — a team that finished 4-4 overall this year — in the final week of the regular season, the Patriots are riding a head of steam into the playoffs.
Marquez is hoping the newly found confidence of both squads will lend to a battle of heavyweights Saturday.
“I think right now, our team turned a page on this season,” he said. “We went from not sure of how good we were, to believing we were that good. They believe they can compete with anyone.”
North Pole and Kenai played four common opponents this year — Juneau, Lathrop, Wasilla and Palmer — all large-schools teams from the Railbelt Conference, and both teams went 1-3.
However, Kenai also finished up with a point differential of plus-13 in those four games, while the Patriots were minus-51.
Of course, the Kards know better than to size a team up by common opponents, so Marquez is giving his team an advantage he thinks they can work with — play like you are an underdog.
“It’s another similar matchup like the one with SoHi, we’re the underdog,” Marquez said. “They’re big up front, they have a quarterback that can throw and a multitude of receivers that run and catch.
“It’ll be a big challenge but a different challenge. SoHi runs in between the tackles, but North Pole is outside the tackles, they like to spread you out.”
Marquez said the return of linebacker Zach Koziczkowski proved to be a big obstacle for SoHi, and he will be teaming up once again with defensive backs such as Kyle Foree and Chase Gillies to slow down a fierce North Pole offense.
The Patriots are led by running back DeAundre Campbell and quarterback Garrett Sommer, a duo that Marquez said will have to be limited if the Kards wish to return to their first championship game since 2011, when they won it all.
“We have to limit their chances on the field and offensively we need to control the clock,” Marquez said. “It’ll be about getting 4 yards a down for us. If we can put together twelve- to fifteen-play drives, and score, we can get it done.”
Seward (GLC No. 3)
at Nikiski (GLC No. 2), 4:30 p.m. Friday
After Nikiski secured a home playoff game with a blowout win over Seward in the final week of the regular season, the Bulldogs and Seahawks get to do it all over again, albeit with a change in scenery.
From the shadows of Mount Marathon to the “Dawg Pound,” Seward will get another crack at Nikiski but in a much more hostile atmosphere. And with the hometown coach on the sidelines.
Nikiski coach Ted Riddall wasn’t in Seward on Saturday. Instead, he was busy getting inducted into the Pacific Lutheran University football hall of fame, at the school that he played football at from 1991 through 1994.
Nevertheless, Nikiski showed up with former head coach and current assistant Scott Anderson leading the team, and the Bulldogs stopped the Seahawks in their tracks, literally. Nikiski pushed back the Seahawks with negative 36 rushing yards while racking up 410 themselves.
Under rainy skies, Seward also committed five turnovers to Nikiski’s zero.
Nikiski senior Christian Riddall rushed for 231 yards on 10 carries against Seward last Saturday, scoring five rushing touchdowns in addition to a receiving touchdown. If Seward can slow down Riddall, that will stem a sizable portion of the Nikiski offense right there. The key word, however, is “if.”
Riddall averaged 14.8 yards per carry this year, which translated to 1,134 yards in seven games, tied with Kenai’s Chase Logan for rushing yards among Kenai Peninsula players.
Guided by its lethal Wing-T running game, the Bulldogs also deviated a bit with an improved passing game. Nikiski’s Cade Anderson topped all Peninsula quarterbacks with 1,069 passing yards and 12 touchdowns with only one interception.
With the usual suspects of Riddall, Dylan Broussard, Nico Castro and Hunter Holloway getting carries and passes from Anderson, Nikiski has slowly added additional players to the offense with Corin Cooper and Larry Cutsforth getting increased touches on the ball as well.