As fast and frantic as the early-season action has been on the Alaskan prep football scene, it may only intensify from here.
Week 3 dawns bright and early with a pair of 10 a.m. games; Kenai travels to Kodiak for a Northern Lights Conference clash and Seward road trips to Homer to play tiny Voznesenka in a Peninsula Conference matchup.
In the afternoon, the stakes will be raised in the NLC when the Service Cougars host Soldotna in a third straight heavyweight clash for the Stars, and Homer gets its first taste of Peninsula Conference action with a home date with Nikiski.
Kenai at Kodiak, 10 a.m. Saturday
After a rare bye week — which came earlier than expected in week 2 — the Kardinals return to the turf searching for their first win of 2015, following a 47-6 home loss to Bartlett in week 1.
The near 24-hour ferry ride from the Peninsula to the Kodiak mainland can take a toll on any sports team, but coach John Marquez made sure to have his squad ready with the extra days of practice.
“(The bye) was a good thing, wasn’t needed, but still good for us,” Marquez said. “It served more of a morale booster than anything.”
Marquez said the object the the Kards worked to improve the most over their bye was tidying up mistakes on the offensive and defensive lines.
“It’s mainly been looking for consistency on the offensive side of the ball,” Marquez said. “Everyone has to be doing their job, and correctly blocking the right person.”
The time off also gave Marquez more time to see how other Northern Lights Conference teams have got this season. With Soldotna’s Drew Gibbs out of the season, and with the Palmer Moose picking up wins over large-school opponents Chugiak and Lathrop in the first two weeks, Marquez believes the balance in power is closing up.
“Holy cow, that looks like a team that’s legit,” he said about Palmer.
In the loss against Bartlett on Aug. 15, Kenai opened the scoring with a touchdown run by Andrew Welborn, a powerful senior running back that was sidelined for most of the rest of the game with an injury. The loss of Welborn on defense was felt as Bartlett rallied to score 47 unanswered points to seal the win.
Marquez said Welborn will continue to sit out this weekend against Kodiak in order to fully recover from a deep thigh bruise.
“This is a playoff implication game, but with numbers we have and guys we have, we’re confident we can do it,” Marquez said.
Another positional change that Marquez made over the bye week was announcing senior Corbin Streiff as Kenai’s quarterback. Marquez tested both Streiff and junior Nick Beeson at the position in Kenai’s season opener, with Beeson throwing 1 for 2 and Streiff 1 for 8. Neither player recorded an interception or touchdown.
Kodiak, winners over Nikiski and Eagle River in the first two weeks, features a spread offense, a new wrinkle for the Bears that the Kards will hope to contain. Marquez said the key will be to put as much pressure on Kodiak quarterback Andreas Carros as they can muster.
A speed matchup could unfold Saturday, as sophomore Zach Tuttle and Chase Gillies have combined to form one of Kenai’s fastest backfields.
Of course, after seeing how Kodiak rallied from behind to score 13 points in the final 35 seconds in their win over Nikiski in week 1, Marquez knows the challenge of containing the Bears potent offense will keep Kenai busy all game long.
“It rained all day against Nikiski and they stayed together,” Marquez said.
Soldotna at Service, 4 p.m. Saturday
After beginning the season with tough wins over South Anchorage (the defending large-school champs) and Colony, the road only gets steeper for the Stars to maintain their state record win streak, which is now at 31 games.
While most other schools have gotten down to business within their respective conferences, SoHi has yet to play a team within its own medium-schools division, and the trend will continue another week. A third straight week of drawing a large-schools opponent will no doubt keep SoHi on its toes, especially without senior running back Drew Gibbs, who was lost this season with an anterior cruciate ligament tear in week 1 against South.
The good news is SoHi has the ability to reload and dig deep to find quality backfield players. Against Colony, senior Kristian Palaniuk pulled out a Gibbs-esque performance with 183 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
Overall, the Stars backfield racked up 484 ground yards with carries from eight different players.
“Systematically, we run a system that spreads the ball between a few different players,” explained SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. “As long as we share the load and the burden, we’ll be fine.”
Saturday’s nonconference game against Service features a clash of styles, as the ground-and-pound offense of the Stars will try to beat out the high-flying aerial attack of the Cougars.
“I don’t know (what to expect),” Brantley Jr. said. “They’re athletically a talented football team.
Brantley Jr. said the matchup could shape up to be similar to South Anchorage, a squad he believes to be more physical than Service.
“But Service has a larger collection of dynamic athletes,” Brantley Jr. pointed out.
The matchup is also one that hasn’t been rekindled since the pre-Brantley years. He said he has never faced the Cougars in his years as a head or assistant coach at SoHi, and the last time the two teams battled on the gridiron in the postseason was a quarterfinal matchup in the fall of 1999. Service trounced Soldotna that day to the tune of a 54-20 win, and went on to claim the large-schools title.
The following year saw the introduction of a small-schools division, which SoHi eventually became dominant in.
This season, Service opened with a 57-10 thrashing of Wasilla, before suffering a difficult 48-6 defeat to West last week.
Brantley Jr. said he hopes the contest to be another grind-it-out victory, which is a trend that the Stars have combatted this year, the exception to the norm for a team accustomed to putting out their JV squad after halftime.
“Certainly, we like challenges like anyone else,” he said. “We don’t practice our tails off like we do to beat people up.”
Nikiski at Homer, 4 p.m. Saturday
The Bulldogs and the Mariners will get a look at each other for the first time as conference opponents, a meeting that has not had that level of importance before Homer dropped down into small-schools football this year.
“This one’s pretty important,” said Nikiski coach Ted Riddall. “It puts the winner into the drivers seat to that number one spot.”
Nikiski is the only Peninsula Conference team with a win thus far in the season, a 42-12 dropping of Barrow last week.
Homer fell victim to drawing the defending state champions and state runner-ups in back to back weeks.
Homer coach Josh Fraley, whose Mariners squad is still licking its wounds after a 61-18 drubbing at the hands of defending small-schools champs Eielson, said he believes his team will find a better contest against Nikiski, particularly following a week of improvement on tying up loose ends at the line of scrimmage.
“I think we match up better against Nikiski, I don’t think they’re as fast as Eielson,” Fraley said. “We had a lot of missed assignments against Eielson, just a lot of boneheaded mistakes.”
The last time the two teams met was 2010, when Homer — then a medium-schools contender — edged Nikiski 14-6.
Since then, Nikiski has been to four straight small-schools title games, winning two of them, and Homer found its way to the 2012 medium-schools championship finale, where the Mariners ultimately lost to a rising Soldotna powerhouse.
Now, sorted into the same division, sparks are sure to fly in the inaugural conference meeting.
Using its traditional Wing-T offense, Nikiski has continued to add in bits of a potent passing attack. Last week in Barrow, Bulldogs quarterback Cade Anderson connected on 9 of 12 passing attempts, including four scoring strikes.
“He’s always been accurate,” Riddall said. “The Wing-T utilized running more than throwing, so it keeps teams off balance, and he’s taken a step forward this year.”
Barrow scored first on a blocked punt last week, but Nikiski rallied back for a halftime lead and continued the momentum with 21 points in the third quarter to ice the game.
Now, Riddall and company are awaiting a matchup that they expect to be physical.
“They’ve got some fast guys, so this thing isn’t in the bag for us,” Riddall said. “We’ve just got to make more positive plays than negative plays.”
Homer also has a crafty QB in Teddy Croft, and a strong running back in Josh Fisk. Croft completed 10 of 18 passes last week for 152 yards and two touchdowns, and has combined with Fisk for 386 yards between passing and rushing gains. It has coach Fraley feeling good about the double-headed attack.
“(Croft) was still able to pass even though they knew it was coming,” Fraley said. “Our O line was ineffective, so we decided to open up the offense, and see what we can do.
“He made some fantastic throws in tight windows, some college caliber throws.”
Seward vs. Voznesenka at Homer, 10 a.m. Saturday
Voznesenka will be the first team to take the field at Homer High School on Saturday, just hours before the Mariners face the Nikiski Bulldogs. The Cougars will line up against the Seward Seahawks in their first Peninsula Conference matchup of the year.
Voz opened its season last week with a 52-0 loss to Monroe, but with only 13 players suited up, the Cougars were doing everything they could to keep up in the second half on tired legs.
Of those 13 players, Voznesenka coach Justin Zank said only four had ever seen a football field before this year. Zank had 30 guys on the roster at the end of last year.
With an all-freshman receiving core, Zank said he will be relying on sophomore tailback David Sanarov and sophomore quarterback Nikit Anufriev to pick up much of the load on offense.
“It’s difficult (as coach),” Zank said. “Every other school has some form of Pop Warner or even camps in the offseason, and these guys, they haven’t been exposed to that.
Seward defeated Voz last year 42-6 in a game that clinched the Seahawks first postseason berth in a decade. With the end-of-season pressures further away this time around, Zank said he’s expecting a closer score.
“We know they’re a little bigger than us, with a pretty talented QB,” Zank said, referring to Seward quarterback Rhett Sieverts. “The kid can throw downfield on the run, so we’ve just got to contain those guys.”