The Soldotna Stars got the challenge that they wanted on the football turf Saturday for homecoming.
It looked to be the makings of a great game. The opening drive ended in a goal line stand by West Valley, which proceeded to quickly drive downfield.
But in the end, the Stars wrapped it up with their traditional style — a running clock.
Soldotna took down the Wolfpack with a 67-30 victory to move its season record to 6-0 and extend the winning streak to 26 games.
“Told ya they had some athletes,” said Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. after the game.
The win sets up a winner-take-all matchup with longtime rival Kenai Central next Saturday for the Northern Lights Conference crown.
Three touchdowns in less than six minutes proved to be the difference, as the Stars managed to turn a one-score game midway through the second quarter to a four-score game by halftime.
“It was just play hard, come out hot, smack them in the mouth,” said junior Drew Gibbs. “They’ve been playing spread teams all year and they’re not used to downhill football teams.”
In a clash of styles, Soldotna’s running game outclassed West Valley’s aerial attack. Sophomore quarterback Zach Lester completed 18 of 28 pass attempts for 244 yards and two touchdowns, 136 of those yards going to Dv’nn Cooks (69) and Xavier Jones (67). SoHi was led on the ground by junior Drew Gibbs with 176 yards and four touchdowns.
“It was just momentum,” Gibbs said. “We knew if we kept running hard and got a few stops on ‘D,’ this is how it’d be. I gotta thank that O-line.”
SoHi senior Ty Fenton added 158 rushing yards as well. The Stars amassed 505 total ground yards.
West Valley coach Kyle Allison said the previous two games his team played — a pair of wins over Juneau and Palmer — went a long way in boosting the Wolfpack’s energy.
“We came out to play,” Allison said. “We traveled all this way, we’re gonna come down here and play with the same style we’ve been playing all season.”
Just to illustrate that the game was closer than the scoreboard showed, West Valley recorded more first downs (20) than Soldotna (14).
“Some of the things I think that came easier with other teams wasn’t there,” Allison said. “I think our O-line wasn’t getting to that next level, and they did a couple things to confuse them up front.”
After Soldotna took the ball down to the West Valley 3-yard line on the opening drive of the game, the Wolfpack pulled off a rarity in stopping the Stars in their tracks.
“It was frustrating to move the ball down the field, and then have a couple mental breakdowns,” Brantley Jr. said. “It’s not real characteristic of us. If you give us three tries in a short-yardage situation, you know, we’re designed for that.”
From there, Cummings and Lester helped to move the ball with a few big gains, eventually putting West Valley at the Soldotna 22.
But the momentum quickly shifted when senior Jared Chavez jumped the offensive route and picked Lester off at the Soldotna 13-yard line. From there, it took SoHi eight plays to go 87 yards for the first points of the game, a 7-yard run on a pitch to Drew Gibbs.
“That was a huge momentum change early in the game,” Brantley Jr. said. “We stalled, they were rifling down the field, picking up huge chunks, and getting that second chance early was huge.”
Another big moment came early in the second quarter, after a nine-play, 81-yard West Valley drive resulted in a short Cummings touchdown run, and a five-play, 53-yard Soldotna drive ended in a short Gibbs touchdown.
The Wolfpack used a mix of running and passing plays to get out to midfield, where they eventually found themselves with a fourth-and-1 situation on the SoHi 49-yard line. Cummings was handed the ball, moved right into seemingly open space, but instead found a suffocating wall of Soldotna defenders. The defensive play gave SoHi the ball with half a field to work with.
“You know how hard it is to get those stops, and to stop a team like that with that offensive firepower was big,” Brantley Jr. said.
From midfield, SoHi used big runs from Fenton and Gibbs to find the red zone, where quarterback Brooks Furlong took the ball on a wide route to score from 8 yards out, pushing the lead to 21-7.
Brantley Jr. said the biggest adjustment SoHi had to make was with West Valley’s speed. With state track sprinters like Cooks and Cummings, the SoHi defense had its hands full all day long.
“Those guys are phenomenal and we had to change some of our angles to catch them,” Brantley Jr. said.
“(Cummings) is the hardest runner I’ve seen,” Gibbs added. “He’s gonna be one of the best backs in the next couple years.”
On the ensuing possession, West Valley took the ball 63 yards to the end zone, ending with a spectacular catch from 17 yards out by Brandon Joyner, who grabbed the ball while sandwiched between two SoHi defenders. The touchdown left the Wolfpack trailing 21-14 with 6:36 left in the half.
However, Soldotna answered by moving the ball 80 yards in three plays that took all of 33 seconds, ending with a Mason Prior plunge from 5 yards out.
West Valley punted on its next possession, and Furlong found Drew Fowler on a 52-yard pass on the next Soldotna play that went down to the 1-yard line. Gibbs followed the big play up with his third score of the game.
“I thought the second quarter was really what decided the outcome of the game,” Brantley Jr. said.
Just minutes later, Soldotna got the ball back after Dylan Ackerman caught an interception with West Valley in the red zone, which ultimately resulted in a 24-yard scoring catch by senior Bailey Blumentritt from Furlong with 23 seconds left in the half. Blumentritt compiled 104 offensive yards for SoHi, adding a rushing touchdown for good measure.
“We just knew on homecoming week that we had to get this win, and without a win I doubt any of us would go to the dance,” Gibbs said. “We just had to do it for our fans.”
On the same drive, Tim Duke was injured as he leapt up for an acrobatic catch near midfield, falling with a West Valley defender on his leg. Coach Brantley Jr. said the early indication is that he suffered a strain, and was held out of the rest of the game for precautionary measures.
Stars 67, Wolfpack 30
Soldotna 14 28 17 8 —67
West Valley 7 7 0 16 —30
Sol — Gibbs 7 run (Jones kick), 5:41
WV — Cummings (Marshall kick), 2:14
Sol — Gibbs 3 run (Ackerman), :27
Sol — Furlong 8 run (Jones kick), 8:52
WV — Joyner 22 pass from Lester (Marshall kick), 6:36
Sol — Prior 5 run (Ackerman kick), 6:03
Sol — Gibbs 1 run (Jones kick), 4:34
Sol — Blumentritt 24 pass from Furlong (Ackerman kick), :23
Sol — Gibbs 1 run (Jones kick), 5:48
Sol — Blumentritt 3 run (Ackerman kick), 2:58
Sol — Ackerman 41 field goal, 1:19
WV — Cummings 22 run (Lester run), 11:40
WV — Cook 39 pass from Lester (Cummings run), 5:30
Sol — Chavez 49 run (Prior run), 1:25
First Downs 14 20
Rushing yds 45-505 28-175
Pass yds 107 244
Comp-Att-Int 5-10-0 18-28-2
Return yds 6-61 11-183
Punts 1-28—28.0 1-10—10.0
Fumbles 1-1 2-2
Penalties 8-65 4-38
Rushing — Soldotna: Gibbs 17-176, Fenton 12-158, Blumentritt 4-76, Chavez 4-66, Furlong 4-21, Prior 2-9, Jones 1-1, Urban 1-(-1). West Valley: Cummings 16-174, Lester 12-1.
Passing — Soldotna: Furlong 5-8-107-1, Gibbs 0-1-0—0. West Valley: Lester 18-28-244-2.