Saturday’s thrilling title clash between Soldotna and Kenai Central for the Alaska medium-schools football crown featured big plays, crushing hits, dramatic moments and spirited performances.
Yet, perhaps the biggest play of the night came on two kneeldowns in the final minute of the contest.
After watching from the sidelines all season long due to a ligament tear in his knee in SoHi’s season opener, senior running back Drew Gibbs got one last opportunity to suit up and take a snap with the Stars to wrap up a season filled with emotion and memories.
With Gibbs in the backfield on the final snap of the night, the Soldotna Stars recorded a 33-18 victory over Kenai to claim their fourth consecutive medium-schools championship and eighth in 10 years.
“It’s amazing to play out with the kids you’ve been playing with since we were 9 years old,” Gibbs said amid the postgame congratulatory scrum. “It’s an honor to play for SoHi, and I couldn’t imagine a better way to go out, even with the injury.
“I’m proud to be a SoHi football player.”
In Soldotna’s first game of the season against South Anchorage, Gibbs made it five carries before falling to the sidelines with an anterior cruciate ligament tear, forcing him out for the rest of his senior season. Since then, Gibbs has provided assistance to his teammates, taking on the persona of “coach Gibbs” while the Stars continued to rack up wins. 2015 was the third straight undefeated season for the Stars, who ended 10-0.
“I don’t even know what to say,” Gibbs said his four-year prep career. “The linemen we’ve had throughout the years, the coaching staff, the quarterbacks. The biggest thing has been being a family.”
SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. praised the Kardinals for allowing the Stars to celebrate the occasion once it was clear the game would go to Soldotna, and added that the respect the two fierce rivals hold for each other is immense.
“Coach (John) Marquez was gracious enough to make sure his kids understood the gravity of the situation and allowed us to do that,” he said. “My hat’s off to Kenai for letting us do that.”
The Stars charged to the win with 260 rushing yards, while Kenai had 136. SoHi senior Kristian Palaniuk led SoHi’s rushing attack with 25 carries for 126 yards and three touchdowns.
The Kards, however, produced an aggressive aerial attack, as quarterback Chase Gillies finished with 103 yards on 5-for-10 passing and a touchdown. On the ground, senior running back Andrew Welborn pushed his way to 69 yards on 19 carries.
“It’s all for the kids,” Marquez said. “SoHi did a great job, and I feel for my boys. They work so hard to get that championship, and it didn’t work out.”
The win also gave Soldotna its state-record 39th straight win in a game that saw SoHi score 20 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to break open a tight, one-point contest.
After SoHi went up by a score of 13-0 on two short Palaniuk touchdown runs in the second quarter (the second of which pushed Soldotna over the 1,000-point scoring mark in the 35-year history between the two football teams), Kenai quickly seized momentum by rolling out an 80-yard, 11-play drive that was capped by a spectacular 15-yard airborne strike from Gillies to Zack Tuttle, who brought down the ball amid double coverage in the end zone, closing the lead to 13-6 with 31 seconds left in the half.
Then, on the second-half kickoff, Kenai junior Nick Beeson stripped SoHi kick returner Jesse Littrell of the ball, which set the Kards up on the SoHi 22.
“We had some self-inflicted wounds, no doubt,” Brantley Jr. said. “It’s the way it goes, and we weren’t going to cry over it.”
The mistake resulted in Kenai scoring on a quarterback sneak by Gillies from a yard out on the sixth play of the possession, closing SoHi’s lead to 13-12 after a failed two-point pass by Gillies went sailing over the head of his receiver.
After a long kick return left SoHi on the Kenai 37, the Stars moved the ball to the 15-yard line, but fumbled a fourth-and-3 attempt on a pitch to Palaniuk, leading to a recovery by Tuttle and momentum clearly in Kenai’s favor.
“We did exactly what we needed to do,” coach Marquez said. “We scored and were within one of tying it up, and a botched snap hurt us. I think if we don’t miss those two PATs, that shifts the dynamics of someone calling their offense.”
Kenai couldn’t keep up the surge and was forced to punt on a three-and-out possession. SoHi capitalized by driving 69 yards on 10 plays and scoring on a well-executed 23-yard catch by Palaniuk from Dylan Simons that saw Palaniuk bowl his way through several Kenai defenders and pushed the Stars’ lead to 20-12 with 11:15 remaining in the game.
“It was all just so amazing,” Palaniuk said. “After that (touchdown), it sparked us, we just went crazy.”
On Kenai’s ensuing possession, Gillies failed to connect with Beeson and Tuttle on consecutive pass attempts at midfield, turning the ball back over to SoHi on downs. Following a big 35-yard gain by Jace Urban, Simons carried a bootleg to the left for 6 yards to score for SoHi and push the lead to 27-12 with 5:43 left, effectively icing the game.
“We felt it was there along the boundary, and took a chance, and our kids made plays,” Brantley Jr. said. “(Palaniuk) is really the guy from a backup standpoint that picked up the slack when Drew left us.”
Following a 40-yard touchdown dash up the middle by Palaniuk with 57 seconds left, both Marquez and Brantley Jr. met on the field to agree on allowing Gibbs take part in a snap. Brantley Jr. said the difficulty of SoHi’s season schedule — which included four large-school matchups — and losing Gibbs early only motivated the Stars to work harder to achieve another state championship.
“It just shows the resiliency of this team, to go through that much adversity and to still never let up,” Brantley Jr. said. “I couldn’t be more blessed to be a part of this group.”
Gibbs said his injury, along with that of Trevor Walden, who also suffered a back injury of his own last February, made the moment all the more special.
“To watch your brothers grow, it’s almost better than playing,” Gibbs said. “Just to watch your teammates grow and go out and compete every day.”
As for Kenai, Marquez left the field with the idea in mind that Kenai proved its worth against one of the state’s top football programs, no matter the size or division.
“I’m proud of my kids and what they did this year, and the character they showed,” he said. “I would step on the football field with those kids any time, any day, against anybody in the state.”
Stars 33, Kardinals 18
Kenai Central 0 6 6 6 —18
Soldotna 0 13 0 20 —33
Sol — Palaniuk 4 run (kick blocked), 9:06
Sol — Palaniuk 5 run (Jones kick), 4:17
Ken — Tuttle 15 pass from Gillies (kick blocked), :31
Ken — Gillies 1 run (pass failed), 8:49
Sol — Palaniuk 23 pass from Simons (Jones kick), 11:15
Sol — Simons 6 run (Jones kick), 5:43
Sol — Palaniuk 40 run (kneel), :57
Ken — McMinn 22 run (kick failed), :13
Rushes-yds 36-136 51-260
Pass yds 103 34
Comp-att-int 5-10-1 2-4-0
Return yds 64 61
Punts 3 0
Fumbles-lost 2-2 1-1
Penalties-yds 7-39 4-40
Rushing — Kenai: Welborn 19-69, McMinn 11-51, Tuttle 4-13, Gilies 2-3. Soldotna: Palaniuk 25-126, Prior 13-49, Urban 7-49, Simons 5-35, no. 59 1-1.
Passing — Kenai: Gillies 5-10-1—103. Soldotna: Simons 2-4-1—34.