In the fall sports season, there is a clear hierarchy in the schedule. Friday nights are for high school football, Saturdays are for college and Sundays belong to the pros.
That’s why this weekend’s slate of prep pigskin contests should feel right at home.
Of the five games peninsula teams are competing in this weekend, all five kick off tonight under the fading late summer sun, and all will end under the lights. For local coaches, the excitement and electricity in the air will hopefully spark any team that needs a boost.
One of those teams in need of a jump-start are the Kenai Central Kardinals, who have opened 0-2 for the second time in three years.
“The kids love it, they’re fired up,” said Kenai head coach Davis Lowery. “They’re liking the opportunity to go to Juneau and play Friday night.”
The Soldotna Stars haven’t needed any help in the early weeks this year. They have continued to stretch their state-record win streak to 42 in a row, but SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. isn’t finicky about game times.
“I think the cool thing is we played a few Friday night games but not under the lights,” Brantley Jr. said. “You get that atmosphere of Friday night football games, with a big crowd, and schools with lights are lucky. This is our chance to play one of those games.”
Two weeks into the season and the Stars are one of two clear contenders to have emerged in the medium-schools Northern Lights Conference. The reigning conference champions and Kodiak have both opened their 2016 campaigns with consecutive wins and stand together among the undefeated.
Apart from that, every other team in the NLC is winless, and time is running out before the bulk of the conference schedule begins to pick up a victory.
In the small-schools Peninsula Conference, all five teams are winless, a combined 0-9. Meanwhile, in the Aurora Conference, the only other small-schools conference, the five teams have combined to start 7-2, with both losses coming to larger, nonconference opponents.
Homer (0-2) at Kodiak (2-0), 6 p.m. Friday
The Mariners’ come face to face with their first out-of-division matchup of the season. Kodiak hails from the Northern Lights Conference in the medium-schools division.
After a brutal 47-6 loss to fellow small-schools opponent Barrow, Homer is in dire need of something to go its way.
The good news, however, is that junior quarterback Teddy Croft is back this week to lead the team, after missing the last game and a half to concussion symptoms. In Week 1 against Eielson, Croft accounted for 332 offensive yards himself, most of that in the first half. It wasn’t until early in the second half that Croft was pulled.
Last week against Barrow, Homer’s offensive unit mustered up just 110 total yards.
“We really missed having him last week,” said Homer coach Josh Fraley. “We had a hard time moving the ball, and that definitely is going to make for a long game.”
Fraley said that freshman receiver Noah Fisk could possibly make his return to the turf after sitting out last week with a hamstring strain. With both in the lineup, Fraley said the Bears may have a tough job on their hands.
“(Croft) is an all or nothing kid,” Fraley said. “Getting him to go down in situations when he’s wrapped up by two or three (defensive) guys is something we’re getting him to do.”
Last week, the Whalers made good on three onside kicks, something that the Mariners need to sharpen up on, Fraley said.
Homer is making the trip to the island via Whittier, where the Mariners will then board the 20-hour ferry ride to Kodiak.
With a new coach in place in Kodiak, Fraley said the Mariners are expecting a few changes, but will prepare for a team similarly built like Homer. Both schools have the talent to throw the ball and spread the field.
Fraley said another similarity that the two teams share is the addition of players late in the season that are fresh off the fishing boats. With both squads adding numbers with kids that spend the last summer season working, the lineup could look very different between Week 1 and Week 4.
“Right now we’ve got a bunch of tough kids that are really inexperienced,” Fraley said. “But by next week we hope to have everyone back.”
It could make for a tight game, which would be nothing new. The most recent meeting between Kodiak and Homer resulted in a 22-20 Bears win in 2014. The game came down to a two-point conversion that Kodiak scored, something that Homer was unable to do on two attempts of its own.
Soldotna (2-0) at Wasilla (1-1), 7 p.m. Friday
The Stars are searching for win No. 42 in The Streak, and will go up against a large-schools opponent from the Railbelt Conference.
Theoretically, the task shouldn’t be too tough a challenge. The Warriors went winless last year, and only busted their slump this year with a 29-14 win over Eagle River, a school on a current 24-game slide.
However, coach Brantley Jr. is a realist, and he never looks past an opponent.
“Our kids are feeling pretty good about what they’ve accomplished, but we know there’s still a lot ahead,” he said. “We’re just fortunate enough to get to Week 2 and not have any injuries.”
The Warriors opened their season with a win over the Wolves, but then lost to Dimond 28-10 last week.
On the other hand, SoHi has opened its season with consecutive wins by a combined score of 106-43. Brantley Jr. believes Wasilla is playing at a higher level than the 0-8 Warriors squad from a year ago, hinting that perhaps the reason is due to the program’s new head coach from Texas, Will Stout.
Not only is Wasilla rumored to be an improved unit, but Colony, which was ranked tops among large schools in the Week 1 Alaska Sports Broadcasting Network poll, is another state powerhouse and Chugiak has now joined the Railbelt Conference, one year after playing in the large-schools state title game.
“I believe before the season is over that (Wasilla) might snake-bite a team,” Brantley Jr. said.
As long as it’s not the Stars, he added.
Brantley Jr. said the recent week of practice has been beneficial in helping to clean up some mistakes that SoHi had against North Pole last Friday.
“The name of the game is making corrections,” he said. “This week was certainly one of our better weeks and the coaching staff feels we have that level of focus.”
Kenai (0-2) at Thunder Mountain (2-0),
7 p.m. Friday
Following a wet week of practice in the rain, coach Davis Lowery said the Kardinals are ready to show off their improved passing game.
For a coach accustomed to the foul weather in Kodiak last year, the practice week felt right at home.
“This week has been sharper,” Lowery said. “There are some definite things we’ve corrected.”
Last year, Kenai posted 70 total yards of offense through the air, easily ranked last among peninsula schools. Through two games this season, the Kards are at 330 passing yards, highest among local squads.
Lowery said the Kardinals are ready for the Thunder Mountain Falcons after two straight matchups with Anchorage schools that have tested the Kards to the max.
“We went into the week knowing specifically what to do, and after Service, we’re still a little beat up, but we’re getting there,” he said. “I think the one benefit out of facing the Anchorage schools is we’ve been playing against their size and their speed.”
Thunder Mountain, the No. 2 team in the state among medium- and small-schools according to the Alaska Sports Broadcasting Network poll released this week, are fresh off a 52-0 beatdown on Nikiski, so Lowery isn’t looking past the Falcons.
The Falcons rolled by the Bulldogs last Saturday with a persistent ground game that featured a few big passing plays mixed in. Thunder Mountain used the power of running back Roy Tupou and the arms of both Cale Jenkins and Owen Mendoza, the latter of whom completed just two passes, but both went for touchdowns.
Lowery listed lineman Riley Atwood and linebacker Tyrone McEnerney as likely out for this week after sustaining injuries against Kenai’s 46-13 loss to Service.
The winless Kardinals are looking to get off the schneid, and Lowery is predicting a much better showing this weekend.
“There’s a couple of combinations you look for (in practice),” Lowery said. “And this week’s preparation and where are we at in the program development are both coming together.”
The game will also be streamed live on the Juneau Empire website at juneauempire.com, in partnership with Archipelago Webcasting and the University of Alaska Southeast.
Nikiski (0-2) at Monroe (2-0), 7 p.m. Friday
The last time the Bulldogs and Rams met resulted in a 40-0 shutout victory for Nikiski, which in itself was a rematch of the 2013 small-schools state championship, a crown that Nikiski won 36-28.
But two years ago seems like a distant memory, and this Nikiski contingent is a much different collection of athletes. The Bulldogs are off to their first 0-2 start since 2013, when Nikiski won it all.
After getting handed a shutout loss to Thunder Mountain in their home opener last Saturday, the Bulldogs are raring to get back in the win column.
“After you go 0-and-2, you’re definitely hungry for the first win,” said Nikiski coach Paul Nelson. “But if they want a winning season, go to playoffs, they’re not going to have it handed to them.”
Nelson attributed a great week of practice to the positive vibes flowing through Nikiski, but also said it is important to maintain the effort.
“We’re a younger group now, and I think we’re used to having to not do so much to have success,” Nelson said. “Monroe is not an easy team.”
Monroe’s biggest threat comes in the form of senior Caleb Thomas, who enters this week averaging over 10 yards a carry. Nikiski’s offense has the potential to be just as effective, Nelson said, but the execution needs to happen on every play.
“All these little things on film that we see, there’s moments of brilliance, but we have to put it together on a consistent basis to get it done,” Nelson said. “But it really encourages them.”
Houston (1-1) vs. Voznesenka (0-1), 7 p.m. Friday
A 49-0 thrashing from Monroe left Voznesenka with a loss in their season opener last weekend. The Cougars will try to get back on track tonight with a nonconference small-schools clash with Houston, 34-0 winners over Eagle River last week.