For a school that is known for its magic tricks on the football field, the Soldotna Stars proved that they can win games with sound fundamentals as well.
The Stars worked the basics to near-perfection Saturday afternoon at a rainy Alumni Field at Dimond High School in Anchorage, routing Juneau-Douglas 44-6 to advance to the school’s third straight medium-schools championship game.
The Stars will face North Pole in Saturday’s title game, a rematch of last year’s state semifinals that SoHi won. North Pole topped Kenai Central in the day’s other semifinal 47-14.
It also gives Soldotna a chance to win its seventh state football title in a nine-year span.
“We’re really excited to be here,” said Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. “Couldn’t be happier for the kids, coaches, parents, the administration, just the whole football family.”
Like ever other important accomplishment the Stars have claimed, the team managed to surprise Brantley Jr. with another Gatorade shower after the game, which felt especially shocking on a cold, rainy day.
“I think I caught that one down my back,” Brantley Jr. said.
Saturday’s win also boosted Soldotna’s current winning streak to 28 straight games, giving the Stars a chance to tie the school record next weekend against North Pole.
Brantley Jr., notorious for not putting much emphasis on statistics, admitted that that will be on his mind a little more this week.
“I guess I’m gonna have to start talking about it,” said Brantley Jr.
Leading the SoHi offense was senior Ty Fenton with 97 rushing yards, while junior teammate Drew Gibbs scored three touchdowns with 84 rushing yards. Overall, the Stars amassed 297 yards on the ground.
Brantley Jr. mentioned in the days leading up to the semifinal that his group needed to control the clock and manage the game in order to win.
On SoHi’s opening possession, the Stars went 89 yards on a 17-play drive that gobbled up over eight minutes of the clock and ended with a Drew Gibbs 4-yard plunge into the end zone for an early six-point lead.
“We’d like to get bigger chunks of yardage,” Brantley Jr. said. “We don’t sit up all night figuring out how to get 3 yards, but (Juneau) did a good job defensively, filling the box up. They were prepared.”
After Juneau’s second punt in as many tries, Soldotna went 54 yards in 10 plays that ended with Gibbs scoring from 3 yards out. Gibbs also caught the two-point conversion pass from Furlong.
It was at that point that senior defensive back Drew Fowler left his mark on the game.
After trapping the Crimson Bears on their own 1-yard line due to a bobbled kick return catch, Fowler broke through the Juneau line on the next play and sacked Juneau quarterback Dorian Isaak in the end zone for a safety.
“Our kicker (Marshall Vest) did a good job of pinning them down there,” Fowler said. “We wanted to be aggressive, and I just found a seam in the defense and I just filled it and made a play.”
Later on, midway through the third quarter, Fowler rattled off another crucial defensive masterpiece.
After Gibbs scored on a 14-yard burst to put SoHi up by 30 points, Juneau took over on its own 14-yard line. After getting the snap, Isaak looked right for his receiver, but Fowler read Isaak like a book, grabbing the pass out of midair and returning it 15 yards for the touchdown.
The pick-six was nearly identical to the play that Fowler made in last year’s state championship game, when he picked off Isaak late in the fourth quarter that resulted in Soldotna’s go-ahead touchdown.
“It was the same type of play,” Fowler said. “I knew that their big guy was going to run a seam, and I just tried to get back in my zone and read his eyes, and try to make a play for my team.”
Isaak threw for 95 yards with an interception, while receiver Adam Empson stepped in after Isaak was taken out of the game after a hard hit to score a touchdown on 83 passing yards.
Isaak and Soldotna defensive back Tim Duke collided in a vicious impact with 4:27 left in the third quarter after Isaak took off on a quarterback keeper. The two came together as they ran out of bounds on the SoHi sideline, and while Isaak eventually was able to ride a golf cart off to get checked out, Duke had to be strapped to a backboard and take an ambulance off to the hospital.
After getting a report of Duke’s initial MRI, coach Brantley Jr. said Duke should be fine after the jarring hit.
Brady Mallinger had 61 yards on 11 carries to lead the Juneau rushing attack.
“He was hard to bring down,” Fowler said about Mallinger. “He was short and strong and always kept his feet moving, so we had to hit low and rally the defense to bring him down.”
Jarrett Urban added a rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter for SoHi. Urban ended the day with 39 rushing yards.
Stars 44, Crimson Bears 6
Soldotna 6 17 13 8 —44
Juneau 0 0 0 6 —6
Sol — Gibbs 4 run (kick failed), 1:38
Sol — Gibbs 3 run (Gibbs pass from Furlong), 8:16
Sol — Fowler safety, 8:04
Sol — Furlong 28 run (Jones kick), 5:46
Sol — Gibbs 14 run (Jones kick), 5:39
Sol — Fowler 15 interception return (kick blocked), 5:26
Sol — Urban 21 run (Fielding pass from Jones), 5:48
Jun — Hickok 9 pass from Empson (pass failed), :21
First downs 26 20
Rushes-yds 46-297 24-92
Passing yds 57 178
Comp-att-int 7-11-0 11-20-1
Return yds 26 52
Penalties-yds 3-20 9-66
Punts 1 2
Rushing — Soldotna: Fenton 11-97, Gibbs 14-84, Blumentritt 6-22, Furlong 6-37, Prior 2-1, Chavez 1-6, Jones 1-0, Winter 3-11, Urban 2-39. Juneau: Mallinger 11-61, Isaak 7-30, Tupou 2-3, Maake 1-6, Empson 3-(-8).
Passing — Soldotna: Furlong 7-11-0—57. Juneau: Isaak 7-12-1—95, Empson 4-7-0—83, Mallinger 0-1-0—0.
Receiving — Soldotna: Blumentritt 2-27, Fenton 2-16, Walden 2-9, Duke 1-5. Juneau: Hickok 6-107, Empson 5-71.