While the Soldotna football team continued to wow the rest of the state with their record-extending 50th straight win last Friday night in the rain, head coach Galen Brantley Jr. had one big takeaway.
“From a defensive standpoint, we couldn’t have asked for a better performance,” said the 11th-year coach.
The Stars’ 21-0 win over West Anchorage came courtesy of their typical relentless offense that pounded out 50 running plays on the Eagles over the course of the rainy game, but it also fell on the defense to outshine West’s multiheaded attack.
Wendell Tuisuala and Aaron Faletoi both recorded sacks to help swing the momentum SoHi’s way, and cornerback Cy Updike came up with a game-changing fingertip pass deflection on the first play of the fourth quarter to keep six points off the board.
All in all, the Stars contained the Eagles to just 40 yards of offense in the shutout, just one year after giving up 380 yards and 30 points to the same team, one that has been to the Division I championship game the past four years.
Brantley Jr. gave credit where credit was due — praising the Stars defense but also the coaching staff, including the trio of assistant coordinators Eric Pomerleau, Phil Leck and Sarge Truesdell.
“Those three guys have put a ton of time in,” Brantley Jr. said. “To have less than 40 yards of offense to me is unfathomable. From the beginning stages of preparation, getting our guys ready and calling it out on game day, they deserve a lot of credit.”
Elsewhere, another two teams were meeting for a nonconference rematch, but it was the previous year’s loser getting the better of its rival.
After losing to Valdez 26-14 last year, Seward did well to open its Peninsula Conference title defense with a 32-12 victory at home last Saturday, prompting Seward head coach Kelly Cinereski to compliment his voracious offense, which finished with almost 500 yards against the Buccaneers.
“We worked hard on that last week,” Cinereski said.
Cinereski was particularly impressed with his young offensive line, a group that includes five members with no previous football experience.
On their home turf within spitting distance of Kachemak Bay, the Homer football team did not find a cure for their problems in a 21-8 loss to nonconference opponent Kodiak in Walter Love’s head-coaching debut with the Mariners.
A 40-yard pick six by cornerback Teddy Croft got Homer’s season off on the right foot, but the Bears scored 21 unanswered points to defeat Homer.
In Kenai, there was no official game played at Ed Hollier Field, but Kenai Central and Nikiski still came away with a lot of questions answered after a 60-minute scrimmage.
“You get that opportunity to get in the arena to see where your improvement is,” said first-year Kenai head coach Ted Riddall. “Some things we did pretty well and others not so well.”
While Kenai moved the ball the best during the scrimmage, Nikiski head coach Paul Nelson said he was happy his young Bulldogs squad kept the Kardinals from making any big plays.
“Kenai had long drives, but not giving up any big plays for us was huge,” Nelson said. “If they’re going to score on 12 plays, at least they earned it. When we’ve given up big, 60-yard plays, it just takes so much momentum from you.”
On deck for Week 2 of the season is a variety of juicy matchups:
Dimond at Soldotna, 6 p.m. Friday
SoHi’s big defensive performance against Division I opponent West had Brantley Jr. feeling good, and the Stars open their home slate tonight at Justin Maile Field with another Division I opponent in the Dimond Lynx.
The matchup is long overdue. SoHi and Dimond haven’t met on the football field since the late ’90s, according to Brantley Jr, who noted that the most recent clash between the Stars and Lynx featured all-state defensive back Wilbur Hooks, who went on to play for the University of Washington Huskies as a wideout and defensive back.
It puts tonight’s game right at about the 20-year anniversary of the last meeting.
“These kids weren’t even born yet the last time we met,” Brantley Jr. said with a chuckle.
The Lynx opened their season last weekend with a statement win over a powerhouse Lathrop team, beating the Malamutes 34-23.
Brantley Jr. said taking into consideration that Lathrop was a Division I playoff team last year, he expects the Lynx to be just as tough to handle as the Eagles last week.
“(Dimond) coach (Nick) Winkler has had them in rebuilding mode, they’ve been getting better the last couple years,” he said. “This is a tough matchup for us.”
After committing four turnovers against West, Brantley Jr. said the Stars must keep their hold on the ball this week if they plan to win No. 51 of The Streak.
Utilizing a spread offense, Dimond can attack from all different sides. Quarterback Paris Motuga operates the offense with speedy running backs Kekoa Tufaga and Mike Levu by his side.
“They’re all dynamic athletes who can take the football to the end zone at a single moment,” Brantley Jr. said. “The challenge is in some ways similar to West, in the fact they really want to spread you across field. Dimond really wants to run it, they have a zone read scheme, and it puts pressure on the defense to play assignment football.
“Tackling in space (will be) huge for us.”
Kenai at North Pole, 7 p.m. Friday
With a scrimmage against Nikiski acting as a forfeit victory, the Kenai Kardinals are officially 1-0 to begin the year.
Coach Riddall had mostly good things to say about the first week’s contest against his old squad, noting that it’s evident that many of the Kenai players attended a pair of football camps this summer where they sharpened up their craft.
“The kids are executing at a pretty high level,” he said. “It looks like they’ve been running (the offense) for quite a long time.”
“It’s cool because the bar is set pretty high, so if we can improve, we’ll be sitting pretty good.”
As sharp as the play was last week, the Kardinals have a much bigger task ahead of them in Week 2.
The rivalry between Kenai and North Pole has been brewing for several years now, starting with a 2014 state semifinal loss that saw the Patriots steamroll the Kards 47-14.
Kenai avenged that loss with a pair of lopsided wins in 2015, beating North Pole 45-8 in the regular season and 74-6 in the state semifinals.
Riddall said the Kards are entering Friday’s game with a short window to break down game film of North Pole, putting game preparations behind schedule, but added that the excitement of making the long trip into Interior Alaska to play a bigger school will be a great way to get a better snapshot of the team’s depth.
“Eleven hours into the Interior means we’re not there to sightsee, but to play football,” he said. “We’ve got to be making less mental mistakes, and executing higher. Winning or losing the game is part of it, but if you take a step from last week, you’re going to like the outcome.”
Monroe at Nikiski, 2 p.m. Saturday
Forfeiting the team’s first game of the season did not sit well with Nikiski head coach Paul Nelson, but with the limited roster numbers the Bulldogs are dealing with, it was the right thing to do.
“We learned that we had a lot of work to do,” Nelson said. “We’re a young team, and we might’ve thought they were further ahead than they were.
“We came back to practice this week ready to go, and have had some really good practices.”
Nelson said he hopes starting the year officially 0-1 will spark the Bulldogs to some victories, and hosting the Monroe Rams could be the best way to get winning.
The Bulldogs have glorious memories of playing Monroe, including a 36-28 win in the 2013 Division III state championship game.
In their last meeting in Week 3 of 2016, Nikiski was the 43-34 victor over Monroe.
As a division opponent, Nelson said winning is crucial in the event that the season comes down to a playoff tiebreaker.
“The main point in practice this week has been energy and intensity,” he said. “The kids are coming out with lots of energy, working hard and pushing hard. They’ll be ready to go that first play.”
Nelson said the key to beating their nonconference opponents this time will be to limit their passing advantage. In a 54-40 loss to Redington last weekend, Monroe threw the ball 42 times, which means the Nikiski secondary is going to be getting a workout. Nelson pointed to star cornerbacks Tyler Olsen and Sam Barry, as well as safety Mike Eiter, as crucial pieces to holding back the Rams.
Seward at Eielson, 1 p.m. Saturday
A season-opening victory over Valdez gives Seward six straight regular-season wins, dating back to last year.
However, the real test for Seward begins this week when the Seahawks travel 10 hours up to Fairbanks to face the three-time defending Division III state champion Eielson Ravens on the road. In the lone meeting last year, Eielson trounced Seward 54-2 in Week 3.
Coach Kelly Cinereski said he has been stressing to his team to manage the small tasks on the field when playing a behemoth like Eielson.
“The reality is, we’re coaching our kids to control the little things, and letting the scoreboard take care of itself,” Cinereski said. “If we can stop (Eielson), that would be huge.”
Even after graduating their quarterback and fastest running back, the Ravens have been able to restock quickly, and the depth of the team showed last week when they played up to Division I opponent West Valley and lost only by a 17-15 margin.
“Their playbook is huge,” Cinereski said. “They’re ahead of everybody.”
Cinereski said he expects Seward will need to get big plays from senior Beau Freiberg, who last week had two touchdown runs and 241 yards against Valdez, and Brandon Lynch, who finished with a scoring run and 135 yards against the Bucs.
Homer at Utqiagvik, 1 p.m. Saturday
After starting the 2016 season 0-6, the Homer Mariners and first-year head coach Walter Love were looking to get off on the right foot this time.
However, a pick six by Teddy Croft late in the first quarter was not enough to hold up against Kodiak in Week 1. The Homer offense sputtered in a shutout display by the Kodiak defense, and the Bears offense went on to score 21 unanswered points to grab the win from the Mariners.
Kodiak cut Homer’s gap to 8-7 with seven seconds left in the first half on a short scoring pass, then opened the third quarter with consecutive scoring drives in the first three minutes.
The Homer offense ran up 171 rushing yards on Kodiak, led by Noah Fisk’s 73 yards on 19 carries and Croft’s 68 on 14 carries, but the passing game struggled. Croft and Dawson Felde combined to go 0-for-7 through the air and were picked off twice.
A long trip up to Utqiagvik, formerly known as Barrow, does not make things easier for Homer. Last year, the Whalers drubbed the Mariners 47-6, and Utqiagvik has traditionally featured a multidimensional offense that has given Homer fits.