Week 4 football preview: SoHi returns from the land of the giants

Welcome back from the big pond, SoHi Stars.

As week 4 of the prep football season approaches, the Soldotna Stars finally get down to business in the medium-schools Northern Lights Conference when they host Kodiak on Saturday afternoon at Justin Maile Field.

With a home win over South and two road victories over Colony and Service under their belts, the Stars have shut down the notion that they can’t compete with the big dogs of the state.

SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. said he was confident that his Stars could pull off the feat, even when senior running back Drew Gibbs was lost to the season due to injury.

“It was a chance for us to regroup and figure out what to do next,” Brantley Jr. said. “I think our kids have responded pretty well and picked up the slack.”

Since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament against South Anchorage in week 1, Gibbs has taken up a coaching role on the sideline, shouting out encouragement to his teammates in the game.

“He’s a young guy that has been in the program as a four year starter, and he’s been a big asset for us even off the field,” Brantley Jr. said.

Because SoHi has been playing out of its division in the early weeks, the NLC has been open to other teams taking the reigns.

With their 46-18 win Saturday over Kodiak, the Kardinals took over the No. 1 spot in the NLC standings, as SoHi and Palmer have yet to play a NLC game.

In the small-schools Peninsula Conference, Nikiski did the same, jumping to the top of the standings with a 50-18 undoing of Homer. Seward joined Nikiski at the top with a 42-6 win over Voznesenka on Saturday, which gave Seward its first win of the year.

Houston at Kenai, 6:30 p.m. Friday

The Kardinals endured a rough ferry ride over to the island of Kodiak last weekend but still picked up a needed NLC win over the Bears. Sophomore running back Zach Tuttle did the most damage on offense with three touchdowns, including a momentum-shifting 80-yard return in the third quarter that came just 12 seconds after Kodiak has cut the Kardinals lead to eight points.

“It was a huge momentum swing for our kids, going out to Kodiak, doing our thing and executing the way we executed in the second half,” said Kenai coach John Marquez. “Our kids are fired up, and they can see it in themselves.”

Marquez said Tuttle breaking out against Kodiak proved that he is ready to take on the burden of carrying the ball for the Kards. A season ago, Marquez held Tuttle back and played him strictly on the JV team, instead of rushing him up to varsity as a freshman.

The experience paid off with 92 rushing yards on five carries and three endzone trips, including the kick return.

“You know, those are X-factor things, especially in close games,” Marquez said. “We always knew he’d be something special.”

The Kardinals aren’t the only ones taking notice. SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. grouped Kenai into the mix of schools he sees as real threats in the conference.

“I think Kenai is flying under the radar,” Brantley Jr. said. “They played Bartlett for a half and then lost one of their big defensive backs.”

That defensive back proved to be a crucial hole for Kenai against Bartlett in week 1, as Andrew Welborn was lost to a deep thigh bruise. Welborn sat out last week against Kodiak, but coach Marquez said he will return this week.

Kenai last faced Houston in 2013, when the Kards battered the Hawks in a 44-0 shutout win at home.

Friday night against a revitalized Houston team that currently sits at 2-1 overall this year, Kenai’s task is to not give up a game that they are seemingly favored in.

“They’re a solid team, very scrappy, there’s no quit in them,” Marquez said about Houston. “But the way we’re coming off the win over Kodiak, I feel confident with what we have.”

Kodiak at Soldotna, 2 p.m. Saturday

On the very first play of last Saturday’s bout between Soldotna and Service, a large-medium schools matchup, Cougars quarterback Mark Hogan immediately found Nathan Fromm in stride to connect on a 69-yard scoring strike that put Service up 7-0 only seconds into the contest.

After another long pass late in the first quarter put Service ahead 15-10, SoHi finally found its feet — or rather, Kristian Palaniuk’s feet — and wrapped up the game early with a running clock. The Stars scored 35 unanswered points to grab a 52-21 halftime lead.

It caused Service to take to the air even more in hopes of making up the deficit.

“They totally abandoned the run game and threw on every play,” Brantley Jr. said. “It was the longest game in the history of mankind.”

At the end of the day, SoHi had conquered its third straight large-schools opponent to open 2015 with a 3-0 record and extend its record winning streak to 32 straight games.

Now, coach Brantley Jr. and the Stars are finally ready to play a conference game.

“It’s weird we’re halfway through the season and haven’t played a conference game yet,” Brantley Jr. mused.

SoHi’s battle against Service proved to be a nice warmup. Against Kodiak, the Stars will be facing another passing threat in quarterback Andreas Carros, who completed 9 of 25 passing attempts on Kenai last week.

But, if SoHi can handle the Cougars, then theory says they can take care of business against the Bears.

Their lack of depth compared to some Kodiak teams in the past hurts them to some degree, but we can’t take them lightly by any means,” Brantley Jr. said. “They can throw the football, but you’re certainly used to that after playing Service.”

Brantley Jr. added that Kodiak lineman Kordell Pillians will also be a primary focus.

Nikiski at Voznesenka, 2 p.m. Saturday

A week after dismantling Homer by a score of 50-18, the Bulldogs will be headed right back to the Mariners turf to take on Voznesenka in a Peninsula Conference bout.

Nikiski coach Ted Riddall said the big win over Homer came somewhat as a surprise to him, as he previously had concerns about the Nikiski offensive line.

“I just didn’t know we could be that dominant up front,” Riddall said, adding that the senior duo of Luke Johnson and Jon McCormick

“Those seniors on our ‘O’ line have experience and it showed. I’m kind of excited that it’s coming together.”

Containing the Homer offense was another concern, and Riddall said his team passed the grade.

“(Croft’s) a good athlete, he’s able to control it and run it,” Riddall said. “They have a couple good backs, so it’s kind of like pick your poison. We paid more attention to the running backs, because once they get to the outside (edge of the line), they’re gone.”

After a crushing 42-6 loss to Seward (coincidentally the identical score in the two teams’ last matchup in 2014), Voznesenka is looking to right the ship.

Riddall said he hopes the Bulldogs continue to make strides against Voznesenka in an always-important conference matchup.

“We’re looking at continuing the run part of our offense, sustaining blocks and plays,” he said. “We challenge the kids to not necessarily look at who their opponent is but to block longer and keeping the running back in their tracks.

“If you’re getting tackled and don’t have the ball, then it’s a good play fake.”

Homer at Seward, 5 p.m. Friday

The Mariners took a beating from Nikiski at home last Saturday, and a road trip against Seward could likely test them again.

Homer needs a win to jumpstart its first season in small-schools play. The Mariners currently occupy the basement of the Peninsula Conference with an 0-3 overall record, with losses against Houston, Eielson and Nikiski.

Fortunately, the good news is that the remainder of Homer’s schedule is lighter than the first three weeks, which included back to back games against the two championship teams from last year’s small-schools title bout.

Homer quarterback Teddy Croft has helped to lift Homer from a strict ground-and-pound team to one that can air the ball out every now and then. The sophomore connected with Josh Fisk and Michael Swoboda for two passing touchdowns against the Bulldogs, then added a scoring scamper on the ground for himself.

Among Peninsula squads overall, Croft leads the way with 352 passing yards and five touchdowns this season. Homer has managed to gain more yardage through the air than on the ground this year, thanks to the dual threat offense they have mustered up.

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