Week 1 prep football preview: Getting back to normal

The five high school football teams from the Kenai Peninsula begin the season with games today and Saturday.

Coaches are hoping for a more normal season after the coronavirus pandemic had a big impact on the 2020 and 2021 seasons.

In 2020, peninsula teams were limited to games on the peninsula and there was no postseason. In 2021, teams tried to play normal conference schedules, but none of the peninsula teams were able to pull off an eight-game regular season. Each week was an adventure as players with COVID, or players who had been in close contact with a COVID case, were not allowed to play.

“I think our numbers, now that we’re not shackled by COVID, are back to 80 kids for the first time in a long time,” Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. said. “The whole COVID scare cut down numbers pretty well, but now everything has kind of ballooned.”

Nikiski’s Matt Trammell, who is now head coach after serving two years as an assistant, said the Bulldogs have 33 out after being just under 30 in 2021 and at about 25 in 2020.

“I think the biggest impact of COVID was having games canceled the week of and losing players the day of the game due to COVID close contacts and different policies the schools had,” Trammell said. “We’re looking forward to not having those surprises every week.”

At Seward, Tyler Mallory is in his sixth year with the program and second as head coach. The Seahawks have 27 players out, which Mallory said is by far the most since he’s been there.

At Kenai Central, Jake Brand takes over as head coach after serving as an assistant for four years. He said there are 60 players in the program this year. In past years, he said the number started in the 50s and dropped, but this year he said numbers are holding steady.

At Homer, Justin Zank enters his fourth season as head coach. He said he has just under 40 players in the program, compared to 18 the year before he took over.

“Since I took over we haven’t had a full season yet,” Zank said. “The first year, we lost games to the wildfire, the next two years we lost games to COVID. I would like to play an eight-game regular season. That would be great.”

Soldotna at North Pole, 7 p.m. Friday

Of course, for the Stars, a big part of getting back to normal is being a state champion. Brantley Jr. has won 11 of the program’s 12 state titles since taking over in 2007, but the Stars didn’t get a postseason in 2020 and lost in the Division II state final to Lathrop last season as the Stars finished 7-2 overall.

With COVID not as much of a factor, Brantley Jr. said the program has been able to get back to the year-round work that makes it successful. He said there were 50 after-school workouts between the end of football and beginning of track, then 25 workouts over the summer plus two weeks of camp. At summer workouts, Brantley Jr. said it’s not uncommon to have 50 kids.

“It’s kind of the culture that’s been established,” he said. “Year after year, it seems like there’s really good turnout. The kids expect it of each other.”

The coach said the team will rely on a small class of seniors in the title hunt this season. Brayden Taylor was the Division II Defensive Player of the Year last season, as well as second team at quarterback. Logan Katzenberger was second team all-state at tackle. Brantley Jr. also said Joe Whittom, at guard and linebacker, and Aidan Gavalis, at outside linebacker and tight end, will be the key seniors.

The Stars will get plenty of help from other classes. Junior Gehret Medcoff was first-team all-state at fullback last season after getting the second-most rushing yards in a season in program history, behind Anthony Griglione. Brantley Jr. also said junior Collin Peck and sophomore Wyatt Faircloth should be good running the ball.

The coach added junior tight end Andrew Pieh to the experienced group that will block up front. Also, Brantley Jr. said junior Zac Buckbee had a great offseason. Buckbee will start at cornerback and can play multiple positions on offense as needed.

The Stars have won 15 straight Northern Lights Conference titles, but Brantley Jr. said winning the league has gotten much tougher after a realignment that went into effect last season. The coach said that Eagle River, runner-up last season, returns the most talent in the league. The top two in the five-team league make the playoffs.

As for tonight’s matchup against Division II and nonconference foe North Pole, Brantley Jr. said the game should be a big test because the Patriots have a lot of talent coming back. The coach said North Pole also will have incentive after losing to SoHi 73-20 in the playoffs last season.

Nikiski at Barrow, 1 p.m. Saturday

The Bulldogs finished 3-1 in the Denali Conference and 3-4 overall last season. Only one team from the Denali Conference makes the Division III playoffs, so Nikiski lost out to Monroe Catholic, which will not field a team this season.

Trammell said the team got a lot better over the second half of the season. He is looking to carry that momentum into this season. After losing to Seward 28-26 in Week 5, Trammell said the Bulldogs made adjustments and defeated the Seahawks 42-26 in Week 8. Nikiski lost three seniors off that team.

“Hopefully, we get to midseason or the end-of-the-season form we had last year by Week 1 or Week 2,” Trammell said.

The coach said a big senior class gives the Bulldogs the most experience they’ve had since Trammell started coaching.

Senior Charlie Chamberlain was second-team Division III all-state at guard and interior lineman last season. Senior Braeden Porter will take over at quarterback after playing tackle as a freshman.

Trammell also is looking for big things from seniors Dwyght Mullins at safety and fullback, Jesse Colton on the line and Corbin Reichert on the line.

Junior Truit McCaughey was second-team all-state last season at halfback and inside linebacker. Trammell also said junior Robby Isabell will make an impact on the line.

Trammell said he doesn’t have a great idea of what other teams in the conference have, but he does believe his team has a great shot at the playoffs.

The Bulldogs open with Barrow, a Division III nonconference opponent. Trammell said the Whalers have played two games in the last two years, so scouting has been difficult, but Barrow has had a lot of success in the past. He did say temperatures are expected to be in the upper 30s and lower 40s with some possible precipitation in Barrow.

Kenai at Eielson, 6 p.m. Friday

Brand said there are about 20 seniors on the program and he will be leaning heavily on them this season.

“Our strength definitely will be the number of players in the program who have played four years and been around the program for four years,” Brand said. “This will be my fifth year, they all started out freshmen with me, and that will be an incredible strength of ours.”

Seniors Wade James was first-team all-state as kicker last season. Brand also expects him to make a big impact at wide receiver.

Senior Bridger Beck made second-team all-state at defensive back, while senior Roc Riggle was second team at long snapper. Brand said Riggle will excel at a number of positions for the Kards.

Brand said he was not named head coach until the weekend before practice started on July 27. While he said that is not ideal, he said players and coaches stuck together this summer to do fundraising and work out, so Kenai can overcome learning the head coach at a late date.

“Thanks to all the players, assistant coaches and everyone for being extremely loyal and sticking by me,” Brand said. “Anything we accomplish this season will be on the players’ hard work and the trust they have placed in me.”

The top three teams out of the five-team Mid Alaska Conference make the Division III playoffs. Brand said Redington and Houston set the tone in the league last year. The coach assumes those two schools will be good again this year, but Kenai does have momentum after making the playoffs last season for the first time since 2015.

“Anytime you make a change it can bring hardship, but anytime you make a change it can also bring optimism,” Brand said. “The school, coaches and city are ready for a fresh start. I think there is optimism surrounding the program.”

The Kardinals face Eielson in a nonconference Division III game tonight. Brand said the Ravens have a tradition of success as a disciplined, hard-hitting team, but the coach added he doesn’t know what Eielson will be like this season.

Houston at Seward, noon Saturday

Mallory is hoping a solid offseason will lead to a solid season even though the Seahawks have just one senior.

“We’ve been in the weight room since April with all the kids four days a week getting bigger, faster and stronger,” the coach said.

Mallory said the same thing happened before last season, but less than 10 kids were showing up. This year, the number was more like 20.

“It’s fun to watch,” the coach said. “The intensity has gone up and the kids want to be there. They’re there pushing each other. The other coach and I can just sit back.”

Sophomore Brett Gilmore was a second-team all-state receiver last season and he moves into the quarterback position this season. As good as Gilmore is, Mallory said it will be hard to replace graduated quarterback Tommy Cronin.

“Offensively, we’ve got a lot of kids with speed who are able to run the ball,” the coach said. “They’ll be sharing the load we lost with Tommy, who carried the team.”

Junior Kupono Albino will be one of those runners, while sophomore Noah Price will be another one.

Junior Landon DeRoos will be the middle linebacker and heart and soul of the defense, while junior John Van Buskirk will anchor the line. Van Buskirk, at 6-foot-5, 275 pounds, got over 1,000 pounds on his combined best bench press, squat and deadlift in the offseason.

In forecasting the Denali Conference, Mallory said he knows Nikiski will be really good, but that the Seahawks will have to be ready to go in every conference game.

In hosting a Division III nonconference game against Houston on Saturday, Mallory said Seward will get a great chance to see how it stacks up and needs to improve.

Kodiak at Homer, 3 p.m. Saturday

Zank said the Mariners are taking it one step at a time after going 1-5 last season.

“The goal going into the season isn’t wins and losses and it’s not playoffs,” he said. “We want to be better than last year. The team’s culture is starting to come together and we’re growing and moving in a positive direction.”

Homer senior Carter Tennison made first-team all-state at punter last year and also was a standout at quarterback. The Mariners got a scare at the season-opening jamboree when Tennison sustained a knee injury.

“We’ve got to see how the knee progresses,” Zank said. “We’re hoping to have him back sooner rather than later.”

Zank is hoping the offensive skill positions are better than last season. He said junior Jake Tappan is ready for a breakout season at running back and linebacker and junior Jonah Martin is working hard at slot receiver. Senior Mo Techie also has made a lot of progress at wide receiver.

The Mariners are a Division III school and open with a nonconference game against the Division II Bears. Zank said the goal is to shake off rust and play much better than at the jamboree. The coach also said the goal is always to get through games healthy.

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