The fourth week of the prep football season has finally returned a sense of normalcy to the schedule, which has been beaten up over the past two weeks with rescheduled games and cancellations due to the Swan Lake Fire.
But now, as the fire still smolders, it has slowed its roll enough to relieve some pressure on the Sterling Highway corridor through Cooper Landing, allowing traveling teams to make the trip. The air quality has also dramatically improved, meaning close to no concerns for game cancellations.
For now, football is back. And teams are breathing a cautionary sigh of relief that they’ll see action.
“Oh my goodness, to be outside, it’s been so nice,” said Homer head coach Justin Zank. “With an off schedule, the guys are off their routine, they’re stuck in the gym, and that gets the guys squirrelly.”
All central peninsula football teams had their Week 2 contests canceled, and last week, games had to be revised as the wildfire continued to press. Soldotna made the trip from its home field to play South Anchorage on its home field.
The Stars stayed up in Anchorage last weekend to catch a flight to San Diego, where they will play a tested team in Christian High School. SoHi head coach Galen Brantley Jr. said the warm summer has actually helped the Stars prepare for the California heat, which he said reached 97 degrees Tuesday.
“This August in Alaska certainly helped prepare us to a degree,” Brantley Jr. said. “But there’s nothing like 97-degree weather. Our kids are acclimating, we’re making sure to hydrate them and keep their core temperature down during the game.”
Kenai Central was able to quickly put together a plane ride last Saturday to Juneau to play the Division I Huskies, who were originally scheduled to host the Dimond Lynx. When that game was canceled due to air quality conditions in Anchorage, Juneau invited Kenai to come play in Juneau.
“It all took place Friday morning,” said Kenai coach Dustin Akana. “We weren’t planning on it but something fell through and we were able to get down to Juneau. When the (Kenai athletic director) asked me, I said of course we want to play. We don’t want to sit at home for another week.”
Nikiski and Homer had games with other opponents canceled and had to put together a last-minute game with each other in Nikiski. It’s made for a pleasant experience this week in practice.
“It was really nice to get some rain,” said Nikiski coach Paul Nelson. “It helped the firefighters out with that, and out in Nikiski, we haven’t smelled smoke all week. It’s nice to know that the games will go on.
“There’s no question about who we’re preparing for this week.”
With the halfway point of the regular season already in focus, the attention is, for now, squarely back on the gridiron:
Soldotna (2-0) at Christian HS (1-1), 6 p.m. Friday (AKDT)
The Stars make their biannual trip outside of the state for a Friday night showdown against one of California’s toughest teams. Christian High School is a 10-time California Interscholastic Federation champion program, including titles in five of the last six years.
Brantley Jr. said SoHi, the defending seven-time Division II Alaska state champions, will face their toughest test in years.
“They’re the San Diego version of us,” Brantley Jr. said.
The last time SoHi went out of state in 2017, the Stars came home 20-7 victors over the Crater (Oregon) Comets.
However, the Patriots are a bigger program that flaunt a deep roster which has competed with some of California’s best programs. Brantley Jr. said that gives SoHi the rare role of David versus the monstrous Goliath.
“We’ve got nothing to lose,” he said. “We’re supposed to lose the game, so we’re going in trying to play the best football we can. If we win, it’s a feather in our cap.”
Game time is 7 p.m. local time in El Cajon (6 p.m. AKDT), where the Patriots play just outside of San Diego. Brantley Jr. said the Stars have gotten three practices in this week at the school’s $31 million facility, which he said goes to show the caliber of program Christian High School is.
“When I said it’s not a normal program, it’s not a normal program,” he said.
The Stars’ ability to contain a Patriots offense led by junior QB Gabriel Krug will be key, Brantley Jr. said, as no one position stands out as a must-stop role. Krug’s passing is complemented by a backfield that has averaged 127.5 yards per game, headlined by seniors Christian Salacup and Nate Stine. This year, Krug’s top passing target has been Carson Stroman.
Brantley Jr. said if SoHi can continue to get big plays out of key playmakers such as defensive back Wyatt Medcoff (who has snagged five interceptions in two games this year) and quarterback Jersey Truesdell (who has run for five touchdowns through two games), the Stars could leave Cali with a win.
“(Christian) is a program that always seems to do more with less,” he said. “They’ve been the team that always goes up and beats teams they shouldn’t. They’re just balanced. There’s no holes and they’re good on special teams, they’re good defensively and good offensively.”
Houston (3-0) at Homer (1-1), 6 p.m. Friday
The Mariners return home to host their first Peninsula Conference game of 2019, one week after picking up a big nonconference road win over Nikiski. The win gave first-year head coach Justin Zank his first with the Mariners.
Five days after beating Nikiski, Zank is feeling confident about his squad.
“It was good, any time you get that first win on the board, it’s definitely a positive,” he said. “I think we played a half of pretty good football against Nikiski, I think the guys saw what we can do when we’re rolling. We were sloppy, we put the ball on the turf seven times, so we’ve got to clean that stuff up. But when we play clean and disciplined, when the offense gets rolling, I think we can do good things.”
Homer QB Anthony Kalugin has been a difference maker for the Mariners this year, having racked up 461 yards of offense through two games. Zank said Kalugin will continue to get a heavy load against Houston.
Houston slugged Homer 59-0 last year on the way to winning the Peninsula Conference title, and appears to have its sights set on a repeat this year. In 2019, Houston has outscored its opponents 97-20, including a 19-14 win over Eagle River, the Division II runner-up last season.
Zank said the Mariners will need to cut down on the penalties and fumbles if they wish to keep up with the Hawks. Last week, Homer dropped the ball seven times and was backed up 101 yards on 10 penalties.
“Houston’s tough, I’ll tell you that much right now,” he said. “We’re going to have to play clean, disciplined ball. We can’t afford any mistakes against them because they’re a power running team, they have a solid defense and they’re a little bigger.
“Their quarterback is a fast little guy, and they have some pretty solid tailbacks. They’re going to be tough.”
Kenai (1-1) at North Pole (0-4), 1 p.m. Saturday
Dustin Akana broke the news that starting senior quarterback Kayden Daniels will not be playing at North Pole this weekend due to disciplinary reasons. Daniels did not play against Juneau, but Akana said Daniels will eventually make a return to the team, although he did not target a return date.
“Kayden was suspended for breaking team rules,” Akana said. “We’re now working with our backup quarterbacks to get ready for North Pole.”
With Daniels sitting out, Akana said the team is deciding whether to start sophomore Isaiah Daniels, who got the QB job last week, or freshman Bridger Beck, who has not taken a single varsity rep at QB.
Akana said Beck has experience as signal-caller in middle school, and could complement Daniels as the two share the spotlight.
“Obviously he’s young and he’s rough around the edges, but one thing about Bridger is he’s super coachable and he listens,” Akana said. “He will do what he’s taught and coached to do. He’s athletic, with a good arm, he’s smart, he has everything. He just needs experience and reps.”
Daniels spent 2018 as Kenai’s JV quarterback, and while Akana said Daniels’ play in Juneau wasn’t perfect, he didn’t expect an offensive explosion with so little time to prepare.
“Was everything fine and dandy in the Juneau game? No it wasn’t, it was pretty rough,” he said. “But we appreciate him stepping up and playing hard. He has a lot of good plays.”
In preparation for the winless North Pole Patriots, a Division II opponent from the Railbelt Conference, Akana said Kenai is keeping an eye on their sizable front line. Kenai beat North Pole 64-18 last year, but Akana cautioned that the Patriots are looking faster.
“Watching the film, they have the athletes, they’re big on the line,” he said. “It looks like they’ve given each team they’ve played a run for their money.”
With the QB position uncertain, Akana said the team will be relying more than ever on ballcarriers Tucker Vann and Zach Burnett, who have combined to turn heads on offense this season, along with Braedon Pitsch in the backfield.
“They’re hard-nosed runners,” Akana said.
Barrow (1-1) at Nikiski (0-2), 2 p.m. Saturday
Still searching for that first win of 2019, the Bulldogs will stay home for a big Division III clash with the Barrow Whalers.
Last last week’s 50-18 loss to Homer was a humbling experience for the Bulldogs, who led 12-0 in the first quarter, only to allow the next 50 points to the Mariners, thanks to Homer QB Anthony Kalugin’s arm and quick feet.
Nelson said getting a good look at the Homer playbook will hopefully serve the Bulldogs well for the two teams’ Sept. 28 matchup.
“We learned a little more about them, and it was a competitive game for a lot of the game,” Nelson said. “At least in the first half. They took it to us in second half.”
The last time Nikiski met with Barrow was Week 1 last year, when the Whaler’s pummeled the Bulldogs 40-8. However, being the first week of the 2018 season, the team’s struggles could partly be attributed to lack of chemistry.
This season, the Whalers have dusted Ketchikan in Week 1 before falling 31-6 last week to Houston. Nelson said the Whalers feature a slew of big players on the offensive and defensive lines, but added he thinks they can beat them with improved technique.
“They’re always big, always physical,” he said. “We’ve got to be ready for that style of play.”
Nelson added that it’s nice to host Barrow at home, unlike the past two seasons that have seen Nikiski make the long trip up north to play on the bright blue “Smurf Turf” that the Whalers are known for.
Ketchikan (0-2) at Seward (0-3), 2 p.m. Saturday
Last year’s Peninsula Conference runner-up will pay a visit to Seward for a Saturday afternoon clash of winless teams.
In 2018, Ketchikan defeated Seward 50-40, setting the stage for a tight matchup this year as the Kings are still searching for a victory. Last year, Ketchikan went 6-1 in its first year in the Peninsula Conference following a drop from Division II competition. The Kings ended up losing 55-0 in their first playoff game to Eielson, which went on to win the Division III state title.
This season, Ketchikan has dropped clunkers to Division III opponents Barrow and Eielson, both of which reside in the Aurora Conference.
Seward, meanwhile, lost its season opener in overtime to Monroe, then dropped blowouts to Valdez and Redington.