By virtue of a 23-0 road victory over Kenai Central at Ed Hollier Field, the numbing numbers kept rolling up for the Soldotna football program: a state-record 37 straight wins, 10 straight Northern Lights Conference titles and 22 overall, plus a 25-16 record against the rival Kards that now includes 12 shutouts.
But the most important number in Saturday’s physical, mostly between-the-tackles battle was four, as in fourth down. The Stars were 3 of 4 on fourth-down conversions, while the Kardinals were 0 for 4.
Each of SoHi’s touchdown drives had a fourth-down conversion, while the Stars’ field goal also was set up by something that happened on fourth down — a Kenai punt that netted negative 3 yards.
Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr., whose team wraps the regular season at 4-0 in the NLC and 8-0 overall, said the Kardinals (3-1, 5-2) had flown under the radar this season due to a weak schedule, but he expected a tough test for his team.
“They surprised us a little bit,” SoHi senior lineman Sage Hill said. “I’m not saying we didn’t respect them coming in, but it wasn’t easy to move the ball. Props to Kenai for a great game. This is probably the toughest game we’ve had.”
In a game that featured no turnovers, SoHi was still the statistical victor, with 246 yards of total offense to Kenai’s 162. But the gashing running plays Stars fans have become accustomed to weren’t there, with three runs at 20 yards or more and a long of 23.
“We played with the No. 1 team in the state like no one else has all year,” Kenai coach John Marquez said. “They executed better than we did, but our effort was there. I’m proud of this team.
“We wanted to take away the big plays, and we did that.”
SoHi’s biggest fourth-down conversion came on the opening drive of the second half.
SoHi had taken a 7-0 lead after the first half by stopping the Kards on fourth-and-inches on the opening drive of the game, then converting a fourth-and-inches of their own en route to a Kristian Palaniuk 5-yard touchdown run. But the half was even, with SoHi getting 111 yards to Kenai’s 97.
So when the Stars faced fourth-and-7 on the Kenai 49-yard line early in the third quarter, Brantley Jr. decided to give his team a spark. Lining up in the punt formation, the ball was snapped to backup quarterback Brandon Crowder, who hit Jace Urban in stride for a gain of 29 yards — SoHi’s biggest gain all day.
“I was nervous I wasn’t going to catch it at first,” said Urban, who also rushed for 85 yards on 10 carries. “I didn’t think he was going to be able to see me running behind the linemen.”
The Stars promptly took advantage on the next play from scrimmage, with Mason Prior ripping off a 20-yard touchdown run for a 14-0 lead with 7:48 left in the third quarter.
Brantley Jr. said getting up by two scores settled the game down. He said there is a reason Crowder, who filled in for starter Dylan Simons at QB the last two weeks, is back in the punt formation. The coach added Kenai wasn’t lined up to defend a fake and the Stars took advantage.
“We were sputtering a bit and had a seven-point lead,” Brantley Jr. said. “I felt the momentum was maybe shifting their way and wanted to give us another opportunity.”
There are many ways SoHi’s steamrolling offense torments opponents, but the fake punt unearthed still another, as Marquez noted in taking responsibility for allowing the play.
“We didn’t practice the fake punt because we had never seen their punt team on film,” Marquez said. “That’s because SoHi doesn’t punt.”
On the next drive, Kenai had a potential first down called back by two penalties, then punter Marshall Vest drilled the ball straight into the chest of tight end Adrian Gomez-Dickson, who somehow fielded the ball cleanly on the Kenai 11 to set up Blake Jones’ field goal.
SoHi iced the game with a 13-play, 65-yard scoring drive to start the fourth quarter.
“I think we had a rough first half,” Hill said of the offensive line. “The offensive line got together at halftime and talked about it and we did better in the second half.”
A key play on that drive was fourth-and-4 with 6:50 left in the game when Kenai was drawn offsides with a hard count.
“We hadn’t used the hard count all day,” Brantley Jr. said. “We were keeping it in our back pocket for that type of situation.”
Palaniuk, who led all rushers with 16 carries for 86 yards, capped the drive with a 3-yard run for a 23-0 score with 4:56 to play.
The Stars defense, which Brantley Jr. said received a great effort from linebacker Wendell Tuisaula, then was able to keep Kenai out of the end zone to preserve the shutout. The Stars, who held the Kards to 147 rushing yards after the Kards came in averaging 332, also got a key effort from lineman Russell Yurcina, who played for Kyle Marcuson after Marcuson was injured in the first half. Brantley Jr. did not know how long Marcuson would be out with the injury.
Even in a season where the Stars have beaten four large schools, including South in the opening game of the season to set the new state mark for games won in a row, Saturday’s win still stood out.
“This was the biggest game for me,” Urban said. “I love playing Kenai.”
The teams now must refocus for the semifinals of the medium-schools playoffs next weekend in Anchorage. SoHi faces the winner of a Saturday night game between Juneau-Douglas and Thunder Mountain, while Kenai faces North Pole. The Kards topped the Patriots 45-8 in Week 7.
“One thing I love about these kids is their ability to focus,” Marquez said. “The goal all along is state. Come Monday, it’ll be all North Pole.”
Stars 23, Kardinals 0
Soldotna 7 0 10 6 —23
Kenai 0 0 0 0 —0
Sol — Palaniuk 5 run (Jones kick), 7:39.
Sol — Prior 33 run (Jones kick), 7:55.
Sol — Jones 27 field goal, 3:20.
Sol — Palaniuk 3 run (kick failed), 4:56
First downs 14 8
Rushes-yards 45-212 33-147
Passing yards 34 15
Comp-att-int 2-6-0 1-4-0
Return yards 0 17
Punts 2-34.0 4-21.3
Fumbles 1-0 0-0
Penalties 3-15 6-48
Rushing — Soldotna: Prior 13-35, Palaniuk 16-86, Urban 10-85, K. Finau 3-5, Martin 1-0, Simons 3-(-1), Furlong 1-2. Kenai: Tuttle 12-35, Welborn 15-60, Gillies 4-1, McMinn 11-52, Streiff 1-(-1).
Passing — Soldotna: Crowder 1-3-0—29, Palaniuk 0-1-0—0, Simons 1-2-0—5. Kenai: Gillies 1-4-0—15.