After losing Week 1 due to games canceled by positive COVID-19 tests, Soldotna and Kenai Central will play their first games of the 2021 season this weekend.
Both dip their toes in the water of the season with nonconference games. Soldotna plays at Division II rival Lathrop tonight at 8 p.m., while Division III Kenai Central plays at Division II foe North Pole at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Nikiski already got its Week 2 game out of the way, dropping a 52-14 Denali Conference game to Monroe Catholic on Tuesday.
COVID did claim one Kenai Peninsula football game this weekend. Al Plan, Seward athletic director, said Seward’s football and volleyball teams will not travel this weekend due to COVID issues. Football was to play at Eielson, while volleyball was at Homer.
Also on the schedule, Division II Chugiak travels to Division III Homer for a 6 p.m. game tonight.
Soldotna at Lathrop
The Stars were supposed to host West Valley to open the season, but West Valley didn’t make the trip down due to COVID-19.
That creates a compelling opener against Lathrop, especially if we pretend that 2020 never happened (and wouldn’t we all like to do that).
In the 2019 Division II state title game, the Stars topped Lathrop 69-13 to win an eighth-straight state title and 12th in the last 14 tries.
“When we played them a couple years ago for the state title, half of their starters were sophomores,” Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. said. “They have a lot of kids who have acquired a lot of experience the last couple of years. We go into this game and we don’t have a kid that’s ever really started a varsity game.”
All the starters on SoHi’s 2019 title team were seniors. Last season, due to the pandemic, SoHi only got to play Homer twice and Kenai Central twice. None of the four SoHi victories were remotely close.
“It feels like we have very inexperienced group going against a veteran group with a lot of really talented, skilled athletes,” Brantley Jr. said.
That’s why the coach with the 129-6 overall record and current, 22-game winning streak issued this notable statement: “It’s the first time in a long time we feel like an underdog to someone at our own level.”
While the Stars were idle in Week 1, the Malemutes were toppling Palmer 50-7. Senior Jarren Littell threw two touchdowns, ran for another and had over 250 yards of total offense. Littell is the first Lathrop player to throw a varsity touchdown in all four of his seasons.
“He’s pretty talented, but he’s kind of a distributor surrounded by talent,” Brantley Jr. said.
At running back, Brantley Jr. said junior Peyton George is an impressive speed back while Tyler Clooten, who had 106 yards rushing and two touchdowns against Palmer, changes the pace with a more physical style.
At wide receiver, Brantley Jr. said Dean Silva, at 6-foot-4, causes problems. Same with Elijah Deans, a talented athlete Brantley Jr. said moved in from Alabama.
Brantley Jr. also was impressed with the physical play of Keegan Laughlin, a senior tight end and linebacker.
Soldotna did get in its famed summer lifting and camp attendance this season. This wouldn’t be the first time SoHi used a deceptive rushing attack and swarming, smart team defense to knock off a team with very skilled players to start the season.
“We don’t have a super star, standout player,” Brantley Jr. said. “For us, it’s going to be a team effort each week.”
Kenai Central at North Pole
A positive test in the Kardinals program canceled the Week 1 trip to Barrow and put the majority of the offensive and defensive line into quarantine, according to Kenai coach Dustin Akana.
The coach said that meant Kenai had just Wednesday and Thursday to practice as a full team and get ready for North Pole, which spent Week 1 rolling up a 30-6 victory on Chugiak.
“We’re definitely super excited,” Akana said. “To be honest, it was a letdown last week for the boys, especially for the varsity boys. They didn’t get a chance to play, but they’re all super excited to play this week.”
Akana said the Patriots have the advantage of one game played and a full two weeks of practice with the full team.
“They’ve got a solid team of big boys and fast players,” Akana said. “We’re just going to focus on our strengths.”
One positive is this is a nonconference game, so Akana said it provides a chance to learn in a game without massive playoff implications. That includes lessons off the field, as well.
“We’ve made a bunch of changes this week because of the new COVID outbreak,” Akana said. “We’re trying to do our part to make it a full season.”
Chugiak at Homer
Both teams will search for their first wins of the season, with the Mariners having lost 57-0 to Eagle River to open the season.
Homer coach Justin Zank said his team is young and inexperienced, but even taking that into account, Zank was not pleased with how his squad played.
“We didn’t execute well in the game and didn’t align correctly most of the game,” Zank said.
With a few starters back from quarantine and a couple more players back from fishing, Zank is looking forward to his Division III club taking on Division II competition for the second straight week.
“We want to go up against bigger and better teams,” he said. “I’m really proud of how guys responded this week to losing the way we did.”
Zank said the Mariners had a great week of practice.
“I’m hoping this week we can align properly, execute properly and put ourselves in position to have some success toward the end,” Zank said.