In the course of their unprecedented run of success in Alaska prep football, the Soldotna Stars have been dealt blows that have endangered their state-record win streak, but living by their “Pound the Rock” motto, the Stars have rebounded in stellar fashion each and every time.
With the first round of the playoffs set to kick off this weekend, the Stars will get another opportunity to test that message.
Junior quarterback Brandon Crowder will be missing the playoffs after sustaining a broken foot in the team’s regular-season finale with Kenai Central.
SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. said senior Jace Urban will be taking snaps under center Saturday afternoon, when the Stars take on the North Pole Patriots in the medium-schools semifinals, 1 p.m. at Palmer High School.
“We’ve been lucky when we’ve had injuries along the way, we’ve come through,” Brantley Jr. said. “It’s kind of a theme for our program, to pound the rock. It has more to do with handling adversity, and that’s happening this week.”
Brantley Jr. said Crowder’s injury occurred late in the game against Kenai Central last weekend, and it was not until after the game that the diagnosis was made official.
So, can the mighty SoHi Stars keep their championship hopes alive without their season-long signal-caller? Coach certainly seems to think so.
“Jace is a good athlete, he has good speed, but we expect to get more carries out of that position,” Brantley Jr. said.
Urban has been one of several viable options out of SoHi’s backfield this year, rushing for 427 yards on 54 carries, almost 8 yards per handoff, and has fit in well at his cornerback position on defense.
Urban’s experience at quarterback is almost entirely at the JV level, where he has two years of experience under center. This season, Urban has taken exactly one shot downfield at the varsity level.
Still, Brantley Jr. wishes he had his top option available.
“He certainly doesn’t throw the ball like Brandon,” Brantley Jr. said. “I’m biased, but I think (Crowder) is the best quarterback in the state, and no one person can step in and fill those shoes.”
With so little time to prepare with a new leader, Brantley Jr. said SoHi’s offensive line will need a solid outing to preserve SoHi’s chance to win a fifth straight championship.
The other medium-schools semifinal pairs Palmer and Thunder Mountain Saturday at 4 p.m.
North Pole (3-5) vs. Soldotna (8-0), 1 p.m. Saturday at Palmer High School
The Patriots and Stars have made it a bit of a tradition playing against each other in the playoffs.
SoHi toppled North Pole 63-33 in the 2013 medium-school semis, then 57-28 in the 2014 title game, making this the third time in four years the two squads will have met in the postseason. Including the regular season, SoHi has beaten North Pole in its last five meetings.
Earlier this year, Soldotna once again came out on top in a 57-13 thrashing of the Pats.
“We’re feeling OK, we certainly know it’s a rematch,” Brantley Jr. said. “But they’re a team that has improved quite a bit over the course of the season.”
That Week 2 meeting between SoHi and North Pole saw a clash between the Patriots run game and SoHi’s passing game, which saw its most productive performance of the season. Crowder connected on 8 of 11 throws and had three touchdown strikes for a grand total of 203 passing yards. SoHi did not have a rusher eclipse 60 yards on the ground.
Now, with Urban under center, SoHi will have to decide which direction it wants to go.
Urban’s only pass to date this season was a halfback option play against Palmer in Week 5. Urban’s targeted throw to Levi Hensley was hauled in for an interception by the Moose.
North Pole amassed 227 rushing yards against SoHi in August, led by the 102 from Lafi Skipps. Brantley Jr. said Skipps will once again be the central focus of SoHi’s defensive effort. Stop Skipps, and the path to the championship will look clearer.
Brantley Jr. also conceded that North Pole’s offense has transitioned from an option style attack to more of a direct handoff system.
The good news is that SoHi now features a fully healthy line, which could spell trouble for the Patriots. The Stars offensive line consists of left tackle Kyle Marcuson, left guard Bryce Martin, center Alex Goodermote, right guard Wendell Tuisaula and right tackle Aseli Finau, as well as tight ends Levi Hensley and Andy West.
“We’re going to pick up that hammer and keep pounding,” he said.
Nikiski (4-4) at Eielson (7-1), 1 p.m. Saturday
Bulldogs coach Paul Nelson explicitly stated shortly after a 58-14 loss to Eielson on Sept. 24 that the last thing Nikiski wanted was a long playoff trip up the Parks Highway to face Eielson, champions in three of the last four years.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what the Bulldogs are getting. Nikiski’s 22-8 loss in last weekend’s regular-season finale in Seward left the team as the second seed out of the Peninsula Conference and with a tough semifinal matchup with the Ravens.
Eielson ran through Nikiski with 429 rushing yards in that Week 7 clash, the bulk of that being split between seniors Antonio Griffith (138 yards), Tobais Dobashi-Noa (119) and sophomore Jaydenn Manibusan (88). Dobashi-Noa floored Nikiski’s defense with four touchdown runs.
Meanwhile, the Nikiski offense could only scramble together 92 total yards. The only runner that was able to make any headway against the Ravens was Matthew Minium, who rushed for 77 yards on 10 carries.
After falling to Eielson two weeks ago, Nelson said if Nikiski wishes to beat Eielson for the first time in three years, the Ravens’ three-headed running attack will need to be contained.
Houston (6-2) at Seward (5-3), 2 p.m. Saturday
Seward’s surprising run to the Peninsula Conference championship has turned heads in the small town at the head of Resurrection Bay. Seahawks head coach Kelly Cinereski has guided Seward to the playoffs for the second time in three years, and said it has lit up the town with a buzz rarely seen, save for the July 4th holiday each year.
“People are talking about it,” Cinereski said. “There were people at the voting booths (Tuesday) talking about it.”
After an 0-3 start to the season, Seward captured the regular season crown with a five-game win streak, capped by a 22-8 victory at home over Nikiski last Saturday. It gave Seward its first football conference title since 2001, when the Seahawks were co-champions with Nikiski.
This year’s title is Seward’s first outright conference championship.
“It’s huge for Seward,” Cinereski said. “Five years ago, we didn’t know if we were gonna have a program.”
Neither side has ever been to a state championship game, so the winner will be breaking into new territory. Cinereski said he hopes its his squad.
“I guarantee you we’re gonna pull out the playbook,” he said.
The last time Houston visited the sleepy harbor town was Week 1 of the 2014 campaign, when the Seahawks delivered a 14-7 victory on home soil.
Last year, however, Seward was pummeled by Houston in a 45-12 road loss.
Getting the chance to sleep in their own beds will be a luxury for the Seward athletes, Cinereski said, and the added rest and relaxation will be needed to gear up for a monstrous Houston team that set a program record with six wins this year.
Houston’s only conference loss came against Eielson — who else? — but the Hawks played the Ravens tough, only giving up the lead late in the fourth quarter.
Behind a large offensive line, Houston features a pair of stealthy running backs, led by Ben Pelesasa, who has amassed 718 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns this season. Vanu Mose also hits hard with 650 yards this year.
“They’re big, and they have a couple kids that have the afterburners,” Cinereski said.
Cinereski said after losing seven kids to grade checks in the Nikiski game, he plans to have four of them back on the field.
Among those are quarterback Nik Pahno, who did not play during Seward’s three-game skid to begin the season, as well as tight end Rhett Seiverts. Cinereski said Saturday’s semifinal will be just the third time all year the Seahawks will have a full backfield at their disposal.
Riding a five-game win streak into the postseason certainly gives Seward momentum, a feeling that Cinereski joked is new to the team.
“We don’t know what momentum feels like,” he said. “The kids are playing well, we feel like we’re winning.”