A dreadful 0-5 combined start to the football season among Kenai Peninsula schools turned much rosier last week, as local teams returned to the turf to post a combined 4-1 record.
Soldotna, Kenai Central, Nikiski and Seward all won Week 2 contests after dropping their season openers. The Homer Mariners were the lone peninsula school to stay winless on the year, but their 58-6 loss allowed Kenai its first win.
“It’s a huge relief,” said Kenai head coach Dustin Akana, who picked up his first career head coaching win. “It’s good for the boys to get a ‘W’ and get some positivity flowing through the team.”
With the turn in fortune comes a turn in expectations, as teams now have a solid base of experience to work with and determine weaknesses and strengths.
SoHi’s first win of the season, a 66-19 thrashing of North Pole, gave the Stars coaching staff more ideas to pick at, and while head coach Galen Brantley Jr. was pleased to see improvements over Week 1, he believes the Stars are far from operating at full capacity just yet.
“It was an important game to win, another chance to kind of test ourselves and see if we’ve improved,” Brantley Jr. said. “I don’t put a lot of stock in our win-loss record, I just want to see if we improved.
“We found plenty of stuff to improve on in the film.”
Nikiski head coach Paul Nelson left the field last Saturday feeling good about the Bulldogs’ victory over Division III opponent Valdez.
“It’s definitely nice to get the win,” he said. “The kids feel good about it and they get a taste for some winning ways. It leads to a good week of practice.”
Peninsula squads have yet to play a conference game, and that trend continues in Week 3:
Palmer (1-1) at Kenai (1-1), 6:30 p.m. Friday
The last meeting between the Kards and Moose resulted in an historic moment in Alaska high school football, albeit at Kenai’s expense, when a 35-8 Palmer victory pushed head coach Rod Christiansen ahead of interior coaching legend Buck Nystrom in the all-time Alaska football wins list. Christiansen picked up his 151st career win — all with Palmer — that day to become the winningest head coach in the state.
Akana, who watched from the sideline that day as an assistant, expects a tighter game this time around.
“They rolled us,” he said. “I told the boys, we’ve got to have pride this week.”
Akana has just two games under his belt as official head coach at Kenai, while Christiansen’s 27-year career is made up of 255 total games with Palmer.
With such a disparity in coaching experience, Akana said his job is to soak in as much knowledge as possible and hope to have his boys working together as best as possible.
“I’m striving to learn from each coach I come in contact with,” he said. “Every team we play, I get to speak with the head coaches, and I learn from there. Yeah, we’re on opposite ends fighting for that ‘W,” but you’re always trying to learn something.”
Akana said he already feels confident about his team, which followed up a 49-21 loss to Lathropm with a 58-6 pounding over Homer.
“I’m proud of the boys because they took their mistakes from the Lathrop game and worked on it throughout the week,” Akana said. “We challenged them after the game, are they going to sit at a standstill and continue to play like the Lathrop game, or take on the challenge of improving and getting better?”
Palmer is coming off a 21-7 loss to Valley rival Colony, a game the Moose led until the fourth quarter as the Knights staged a late comeback.
Akana said he and the team is aching to get their home schedule started.
“You’re always happy when you get to play at home,” he said. “Your family’s coming, your cheering section is there, we’re excited to play at home.”
Redington (0-2) at Nikiski (1-1), 5 p.m. Friday
Nikiski had a successful home opener last Saturday with a convincing win over Valdez, a nonconference Division III foe.
However, it came at a cost as senior Cody Handley went down twice in the first half and missed the second half with an ice bag on his knee. The Bulldogs will have to make do without Handley, who represents almost a third of Nikiski’s offense through two games, but Nelson said he is holding the big man out this weekend for precautionary reasons.
“He’s been a big, hard runner for us,” Nelson said. “We’ve had to find another person at halfback for him, we need somebody that replicates the aggression and intensity he has, someone needs to step up and be a leader.”
Luckily, Nelson is getting a boost at the right time. Several players are returning this week after missing the first two games to eligibility requirements.
Among those returning that should add a spark is Michael Eiter, who will take over Handley’s role this week, and receiver Mason Payne, who combined with starting fullback Sam Berry and wing back Dylan Harris will create a formidable Bulldogs offensive attack.
Defensive back Justin Harris will also be making his first start of the season this weekend.
“It definitely helps us out,” Nelson said. “If not for them contributing themselves, we’ll be able to rest a guy here and there, they can take a breath.
“When you’ve only got 26 on the roster and three can’t play, that’s big.”
Redington is coming off a 22-6 loss to Seward, and although the Huskies haven’t found that first win yet, Nelson isn’t overlooking them, particularly because of the dynamic play-making abilities that Redington quarterback Kyler Rumfelt brings to the table. Last week against Seward, Rumfelt led the Huskies with over 100 yards on his feet.
“(Rumfelt) is a phenomenal athlete, he’s definitely one to watch out for and he’ll hurt you if you let him,” Nelson said. “We don’t pay attention to records because the last two years we’ve been 0-2 and we’ve won that third game.
“They’re out looking for a win.”
Soldotna (1-1) at Lathrop (2-0), 8 p.m. Friday
The Stars face their biggest test since the West Eagles in Week 1, and get to do it in proper Friday Night Lights style with a late start time.
Brantley Jr. called the Malamutes one of the most talented teams in the state from a skills standpoint.
“They have one of the best running backs in the state and a couple of gifted receivers,” he said. “From a skill standpoint, it’s better than what we’ve seen. Their skill players are better than what we saw with West.”
It also stands as SoHi’s first Division II test of the season against a team that dropped down from Division I after many years fighting the biggest schools in the state. Lathrop has held its own at times against the Alaska powerhouses, but a few division changes this offseason dropped the Malamutes and fellow Fairbanks team West Valley into the Railbelt Conference that formerly housed Division I schools such as Chugiak and Wasilla.
The Stars are coming off a dominant 66-19 win over North Pole, which included a 42-point first quarter, but Lathrop also brings momentum with them following a 53-16 demolition of Division I school Dimond.
Like many coaches, Brantley Jr. is not one to put a lot of stock into the weekly poll rankings of Alaska football teams, but still believes the Stars are the underdogs this week.
“This is not going to be an easy game,” Brantley Jr. cautioned. “Like I said, they’re the No. 1 team and we’re No. 4, which means a win would be an upset.”
If there is anyone that can attest to the strength of Lathrop, it’s Kenai Central, which fell 49-21 to the Malamutes two weeks ago. Brendyn “Bubba” Maschmeier gutted the Kards defense that day with 214 rush yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries, and also added an 80-yard kickoff return to his game.
Lathrop QB Jaden Littell also has shown an ability to find receivers, and was efficient against Kenai with 13 of 17 passing for 142 yards. Brantley Jr. pointed to receivers Juan Mendez and Jhon Rones as two Lathrop receivers that can shred a defensive secondary.
While Lathrop tend to run a handful of spread plays, including a run-pass option attack, Brantley Jr. said the utmost importance still lies in containing Maschmeier.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to slow down their running back,” Brantley Jr. said. “If we can stop him and force them to throw the ball, we have a better chance.”
Monroe (1-1) at Homer (0-2), 2 p.m. Saturday
Searching for their first win of the season, the Mariners will likely have their best shot yet Saturday afternoon at home.
A pair of nondivision pummelings by Kodiak and Kenai have seen Homer outscored a combined 114-21, but Monroe is the team’s first Division III matchup of the season, which has head coach Walter Love feeling optimistic.
“We’ve been playing at a different speed, and many of these kids haven’t played the game before,” Love explained. “They’re starting to come to that spot in life when they’re acknowledging gaps in their knowledge and where they are failing to perform.”
Monroe lost to Houston last week 27-20.
Love said he still has a handful of starters that will miss this week due to ineligibility, but expects them back next week against Houston.
“At the end of the day, it is the challenge that we all face,” Love said. “Monroe keeps coming and coming, and they get better every year. From my perspective, I know where my kids are.”
Love said Noah Fisk, one of Homer’s most dangerous ballcarriers, may not play after sustaining an injury early in the season. Fisk will suit up but will only go if he “feels 100 percent.”
With Fisk questionable to play, Love said it leaves the door open for others to step up, including senior Yri Golich and sophomore Joshua Bradshaw.
Another starter that could miss this week to injury is center Jadin Mann. Love said Mann’s potential replacement would be Shawn Pilant.
Entering the mix for the first time, Love said, are a handful of stealthy receivers from Voznesenka, a list that includes Prokohpy Konev and Nikola Reutov. Love said both will complement senior QB Anthony Kalugin, whom Love said is improving each week in the pocket.
Eielson (1-1) at Seward (1-1), 1 p.m. Saturday
The Seahawks took down Redington with a 22-6 road win, but the Ravens, who have won three of the last four Division III state crowns, are a whole different challenge.
Last year, Eielson pummeled Seward 56-0 in an early season matchup.
Another scary thought for Seward is the motivation that Eielson may have after going down in a 41-20 loss to West Valley, a Division II Interior rival, last weekend.
Seward got in the winning column last week thanks to a gritty defensive effort. The Seahawks hauled in five interceptions on Redington, including three by Collin Mulally, who made his season debut for Seward.
Shane Saulivan and Gabe Schrock both scored with help from Seward’s offensive line, which head coach Kelly Cinereski praised after the game due to three freshman making up the group. Schrock’s pounding run game was also complemented by QB Gunnar Davis’ passing attack.