Week 4 football preview: Stars make change of plans down south

In the world of Soldotna football, things move fast.

That includes travel plans, which were changed at the last minute Thursday.

The Stars were scheduled to play their first out-of-state opponent today with a date against the Crater High School Comets in Central Point, Oregon, but wildfire smoke blowing into the area forced a venue change to avoid health hazards.

The game will instead be played at Del Norte County High School in Crescent City, California, about a 2 1/2 hour drive southwest of the original game site, and has been rescheduled for 4 p.m. ADT tonight.

With their state-record 52-game win streak hanging in the balance, the Stars will have to move even faster.

“I honestly don’t know what to think,” said Soldotna head coach Galen Brantley Jr. before the change was confirmed. “We’re here ready to play a football game.”

According to Brantley Jr., the smoke from the 128,000-acre Chetco Bar blaze west of Central Point caused concern when the Stars arrived Tuesday, as air quality near Medford was ranked fourth-worst in the nation, according to a post by the Environmental Protection Agency.

A shift in wind direction helped clear out some of the smoke Wednesday as the Stars practiced in 90-degree heat, but the crimson haze returned Thursday. It was enough to convince district officials to move the game from Crater’s home field, where the Comets planned to kick off their season. The scene will shift over 100 miles south to the picturesque town of Crescent City, California, just over the state border.

While disappointed to see the venue change to a neutral site, Crater head coach Randy Waite said he understood the logistics of bringing Soldotna in for the event.

“We’d much rather play at home,” Waite said. “We’re not sure how (the fans) will travel, it’ll be 5 p.m and most parents are still at work, but we want to get the game in, and they came a long ways and wanted to play.”

Brantley Jr. can sympathize. As the SoHi offensive coordinator from 2002 to 2006, he recalls a game against Lathrop in 2004 that had to be moved five hours south to Wasilla to avoid dangerous air quality levels in Fairbanks.

This year, the 3-0 Stars are off to another superlative start, having shown no signs of slowing down as they continue their romp over the state’s best football teams. SoHi has outscored three Division I Anchorage teams 137-13 this year and are averaging 461 yards of offense per game.

SoHi originally scheduled the game as a way to get the players some experience playing under the big lights in a different state, as Brantley Jr. — who became the sixth Alaska football coach to join the 100-win club with a win over South last weekend — finds more ways to tune up their level of play.

“Over the course of the last three years, people have shown up in numbers for the big games,” Brantley Jr. said. “But later in the year when we play our conference games, we’re heavy favorites and our kids play in games that are like ghost towns.”

Even before the season started, the Week 4 matchup against its first Outside opponent seemed to present SoHi its greatest opportunity to see The Streak die.

Crater certainly hopes to be the team to do that.

“For our players, this is a great opportunity,” Waite said. “We wanted to play somebody that knows how to win. Their kids are used to winning, they do what they do.”

At least the Stars will be playing in weather comparable to their home state. Friday evening game time temperatures in Central Point were forecasted to be in the upper 90s, while Crescent City, located on the Pacific coast where the ocean regulates temperatures, was forecasted for the mid-70s, a much more pleasant experience.

“Looks like Alaska weather,” Brantley Jr. said with a chuckle.

The game can be streamed live at portal.stretchinternet.com/tablerock/#live.

Soldotna (3-0) at Crater (0-0), 4 p.m. ADT Friday

Crater is a Class 5A school — Oregon features six total divisions — that competes in the Midwestern League, where it went 5-5 last year to finish fourth. Crater houses a student population of about 1,600, more than twice as much as SoHi.

With a nine-week season that almost reaches into November, the Comets are just beginning a long journey to make the Class 5A playoffs, which they missed last season.

SoHi, meanwhile, will reach the midpoint of its eight-game season after tonight’s clash.

“Honestly, it’s a game that could go either way, which is what we came looking for down here,” Brantley Jr. said. “We’ve just got to be ourselves. We want to come in and establish our running game, and if we do that, it’ll open the play-action passes.”

The big task at hand for Soldotna is likely not on the football field, but off it. As any coach will admit to, spending several days on a long trip presents a host of distractions, but Brantley Jr. said his team is there for one reason. Play hard and compete.

“In some ways, it gives us a higher level of focus because we have more of their time,” Brantley Jr. said. “It’s a long trip with two long bus rides and a flight in the middle, but we have more of their time with film sessions with them.

“If we’re on a short trip or at home, sometimes there are even more distractions.”

Waite has 25 years of coaching experience at the high school level, but is in his first year with the Comets. The veteran has a prep coaching record of 113-73 at five different high schools, but was charged with restructuring a team that lost an all-conference running back and receiver, and one which does not have particular depth on the offensive line.

A 3-5 defensive scheme by Crater should free up the Stars offensive line for blocking and could allow SoHi’s relentless run game to pound out yards and first downs.

Brantley Jr. said the experience of playing the bigger Anchorage schools in the early weeks of the Alaska season will hopefully pay off for the Stars.

“(Crater) could be the best team we’ve seen all year,” he said.

Waite said the Comets are full of young players and a stout sophomore class that includes the starting quarterback, so the challenge will be to stay disciplined against the Stars.

“We know the history and the way Soldotna plays, we’ve seen them on tape, so it’ll be a matter of being able to throw the ball,” Waite said.

Waite said Crater likes to go with a spread offense that features a no-huddle approach, and hopes that will be enough to keep up with SoHi’s offense, which likes to throw opposing defenses out of whack with a variety of misdirection plays.

“For SoHi, it’s about making sure you account for everybody,” Waite said about SoHi’s offensive attack. “That’s one of their strengths and they do a heck of a job.”

Kenai (2-1) at Eagle River (2-1), 2 p.m. Saturday

Normally, a date with Eagle River wouldn’t incite much fear in opponents. The Wolves entered 2017 with a combined 2-22 record over the previous three seasons.

However, the Wolves have pulled themselves out of the Northern Lights Conference basement this year with a 2-1 start to the season and are seemingly on track to challenge for a playoff spot, which has made Kenai head coach Ted Riddall quite wary.

“I told the kids, when you’ve lost a bunch of games, and all of a sudden you’re having success, you’re a dangerous team,” Riddall said.

Last year, Kenai prevailed 25-7 in its Northern Lights Conference matchup over Eagle River.

This year, quarterback Ryan Adkins is a central piece in the Eagle River offense. Adkins led his team in passing and rushing yards against Dimond, and showed the kind of versatility that could befuddle the Kards.

In studying game tape of Eagle River’s style, Riddall pointed out the Wolves’ team discipline that has helped to turn around their program.

“I let the kids know, that’s not the same program that everyone has beaten them all the time.” he said.

Riddall praised the game plan set forth last week by Kenai defensive coordinator Dustin Akana, which helped blank Juneau 27-0. Thanks to Akana, the Crimson Bears finished with 4r yards of rushing and 55 total yards of offense.

Riddall said with the defense swarming Juneau, it allowed for the Kards to flourish on offense as a potent running game helped open the passing game, led by junior quarterback Connor Felchle. Felchle posted 136 passing yards and a touchdown pass while staying out of trouble under duress.

“Juneau had to readjust its game because of that,” Riddall said. “That’s the fun part of coaching, seeing if you can outcoach the other team.”

In a 13-12 win over Dimond last weekend, Eagle River forced five turnovers that helped overcome a yardage deficit on offense to the Lynx.

Eagle River’s opportunistic defense is likely to give Kenai fits, especially a Kardinals offense that has failed to score on seven combined red zone opportunities the past two weeks.

In an 8-6 loss to North Pole, the Kardinals fell flat on five different drives past the opponent’s 20-yard line, and in a win over Juneau last week, Kenai saw improvements but still came away with two scoreless drives into Juneau’s 20-yard zone, not including a missed field goal kick.

“Turnovers are going to be the thing that gives you the outcome,” Riddall said. “Usually you’re on the losing end based on turnovers.”

Seward (1-2) at Redington (2-1), 7 p.m. Friday

Like Eagle River at the Division II level, the Division III Redington Huskies are on track to snatch up a playoff spot after recording the first two wins in program history last month.

A 40-8 loss to Utqiagvik (formerly known as Barrow) last week slowed Redington’s early season roll, and the Seward Seahawks will arrive in Wasilla hoping to keep Redington down in a Peninsula Conference showdown. Tonight will be Seward’s conference opener.

After prevailing over Valdez 32-12 in Week 1, the Seahawks have been in a tailspin, having failed to score a point in consecutive shutouts with a 56-0 loss to Eielson and a 34-0 loss to Houston.

Last year, Seward escaped with a 36-34 victory over Redington, a victory that sparked a five-game win streak that netted the Seahawks the Peninsula Conference crown and a playoff spot.

Homer (2-1) at Ketchikan (0-3), 6 p.m. Friday

Coming off a 66-0 thrashing of Valdez, the Mariners are red hot entering tonight’s nonconference meeting with Ketchikan.

“We’re definitely coming to play,” said Homer head coach Walter Love. “We’re looking forward to going there and playing the best game we can play.”

Against Valdez, the Mariners outgained their opponents 336-6 in offensive yards, while utilizing nine different players to carry the ball.

The Homer special teams unit also had three return touchdowns against Valdez — two punt returns and an 81-yard kickoff return by Felde to start the second half.

“I work them hard, and their reward is to show their effort to the people that come out and watch, sit in the stands and watch their sons play,” Love said. “You spend the whole week writing checks, and they cash them in on game day.”

The Homer passing game was on point last week with four touchdown passes and 224 passing yards, the bulk of that coming from senior quarterback Teddy Croft, who tallied 159 passing yards.

Love said he unleashed Croft in the passing game after his signal-caller noticed Valdez playing a press man coverage, which opened up space on the field for receivers to catch balls.

“I was shocked to see the coverage in the second half,” Love said. “That’s why Teddy threw those passes. He came up and said, ‘Coach, they’re like two steps off, and I can hit them’ and he hit them.”

Love said Ketchikan’s season-opener against Eagle River, a 55-13 loss, showed him more than the final linescore indicated. Love said with running back Dawson Felde out this week for precautionary measures, he will be relying on the defensive line, led by Levi King and Kyle Wells, to take care of business.

“They’ve got a pretty decent quarterback, and we’re going to be looking to take away that pass game,” he said. We’ll be locking down their best receivers, and bringing pressure against the quarterback, trying to bring him down to the turf.”

Nikiski (1-2) at Voznesenka (0-1), 1 p.m. Saturday

Nikiski’s first Peninsula Conference contest will see the Bulldogs travel down to Homer High School, where the Voznesenka Cougars await.

Nikiski is coming off its first win of the year, a 24-6 triumph over Ketchikan, while Voz is fresh off a 26-9 loss to Monroe Catholic.

The Bulldogs throttled Voz 33-0 last year in a Week 4 clash that was part of a four-game midseason win streak for Nikiski.

This year, Nikiski has been led by senior quarterback-turned-running back Ian Johnson, who banged out 156 yards while dealing with an illness in a loss to Monroe two weeks ago and scored two touchdowns in Nikiski’s win over Ketchikan last week.

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