Every other prep football game will take a backseat this weekend when the Soldotna Stars arrive in Anchorage to take on the East Thunderbirds.
There may not be a more anticipated matchup in the regular season than Saturday’s heavyweight clash between the two unbeaten, top-ranked teams, and this comes in a season that began with a bout between two reigning state champs. The Thunderbirds are the defending Cook Inlet Conference champions, while the Stars have a 42-game state record win streak on their hands.
This one has epic written all over it.
Soldotna (3-0) at East (3-0), 4 p.m. Saturday
With victories over West, North Pole and Wasilla this year, SoHi has had its share of tough opponents, but every Stars player knows this is the one that could cement Soldotna’s status as top team in the state, regardless of division.
“This is the best team we’ll have played during the streak,” said SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. without a hint of doubt. “It’s like playing against a small college team, their linemen average 300 pounds.”
That is where The Streak could meet its demise. The East line on both sides of the ball is full of big players that hold a significant size advantage over the Stars.
The question lies in whether Soldotna can find a way around the bulk. SoHi brings one of the state’s most feared rushing attacks, one that is made possible by a mix of misdirection plays designed to confuse the defense. On more than one occasion, the scheme has confused a referee or two into thinking the play is dead, before realizing the ball carrier is halfway down the field to the end zone. Brenner Furlong currently leads all peninsula running backs with 359 rushing yards through three games, averaging 8.1 per carry.
Against the top-ranked Thunderbirds? It remains to be seen how effective the SoHi line can be.
“They are extremely talented in a lot of places, and we’re gonna have to be perfect to win,” Brantley Jr. said.
In its chase of perfection, Brantley Jr. said SoHi will be sticking to its usual game plan — establish a run game, then use it to flash a few play-action passing plays that suit quarterback Brandon Crowder and Andy West. West has caught six passes this year, five of them for touchdowns.
East enters as the top-ranked team in the large-schools division. The Thunderbirds have rolled off three wins to start the year; a 33-0 shutout over Palmer, a 22-7 win over Colony and a 40-20 triumph over Dimond.
Brantley Jr. said his SoHi unit has its eyes on several speedy backs, including seniors Josh Malnoske and Johnny Afuvai, a duo that Brantley Jr. likened to the “Thunder and Lightning” team of Reggie Bush and LenDale White on fearsome USC Trojans football team of more than a decade ago.
Another lethal player is East senior Sam Logoleo, a receiver and safety that could trip up the Stars, not to mention 6-foot-4 senior quarterback Carson Washburn.
Following a 44-0 victory over a physical Wasilla team, Brantley Jr. said the Stars spent the week trying to rest up for the Thunderbirds, a school of roughly 2,000. Soldotna currently stands at about 770 students, but Brantley Jr. said he has told his players that the roster advantage doesn’t mean anything for 11-man football.
“The only thing we have to beat is the number of kids on the field at the time,” he said. “We’ve got to get off the ball and use what we have.”
Ultimately, Brantley Jr. said it will come down to who wants it more.
“The kids don’t need to be told how big this is,” he said. “They’re focused.”
Eagle River (1-2) at Kenai (1-2), 6 p.m. Friday
Back in the win column for the first time since last year’s state semifinals, the Kardinals are trending upward. A 23-12 comeback win has Kenai Central feeling optimistic as the conference schedule approaches.
“It feels great,” said Kenai coach Davis Lowery, who picked up his first win as coach at Kenai Central. “I thought the timing was also great against a great football team. We did it by running the ball and playing good defense.”
The win also has Kenai finally back into the top five this week in the Alaska Sports Broadcasting Network poll rankings.
The win over the Falcons also saw the Kardinals move back in the direction from which they came. After transitioning to a more pass-heavy spread offense this year, Kenai used a brutal ground game to defeat Thunder Mountain in Week 3.
In their first two losses of the year to South and Service, respectively, Kenai carried the ball an average of 18 times for 34 yards. Quarterback Chase Gillies has averaged 165 yards passing yards, and against Service, Gillies threw the ball 37 times for 215 yards.
To beat Thunder Mountain, the Kardinals rolled with 49 team carries that built up 224 yards, while Gillies’ arm was only used 15 times for 63 passing yards.
“It was our goal and the week’s goal,” Lowery said. “Our number one goal is to control the clock.”
Kenai found itself trailing the Falcons 12-0 just seven minutes into last Friday’s game, but rallied back via the leg of junior Zack Tuttle, who kicked three field goals to help pull Kenai back into the game. Tuttle also handled the extra-point kicks after both Kardinals touchdowns as well, giving him a role in every scoring play for Kenai.
“It builds our team character,” Lowery explained. “It builds our strength. To come back, we played very good defense and ran the ball.”
In tonight’s matchup with Eagle River, a team that just busted a 24-game losing skid that dated back three years, Lowery said he plans on using much of the same method to control the game and clock.
“It’s like a balanced approach, bringing it all together,” he said. “I think we’re going to face a tougher team than most realize.”
Redington (0-3) at Seward (0-3), 1 p.m. Saturday
In a battle of winless squads, there is guaranteed to be a winner after Saturday afternoon. The Seward Seahawks notched respectable losses to Ketchikan and Valdez to open the season, losing 34-14 and 26-14 to each school, but are coming off a tough 54-2 loss to reigning small-schools champion Eielson last week. Redington, meanwhile, in its first year of play in the Peninsula Conference, was crushed 59-6 and 58-6 to Monroe and Ketchikan, respectively, before losing 65-30 last week to Valdez. If Seward, can maintain momentum on offense, a win for the Seahawks may be in the cards.
Voznesenka (0-2) at Nikiski (1-2), 5 p.m. Friday
Another peninsula coach earned his first win with his new team last weekend. Nikiski head coach Paul Nelson picked up his first win with the Bulldogs in a 43-34 triumph over Monroe Catholic in Fairbanks.
The victory also put Nikiski on top of the Peninsula Conference standings, although all other teams are still winless ahead of conference play.
After accumulating just 33 rushing yards through the season’s first two games against Valdez and Thunder Mountain, the Bulldogs finally got the ball rolling against Monroe with 386 team rushing yards. Seniors Patrick Perry and Matthew Minium combined for 354 of those yards.
Juneau (1-2) at Homer (0-3), 3 p.m. Saturday
It’s been at least 12 years since the Mariners have matched up with Juneau, but the timing may be just right for Homer.
The Kodiak Bears took out Homer 56-32 last weekend, and topped Juneau 26-20 a week prior.
The common opponent matchup would appear to lend itself to a tight game between Homer and Juneau, but the Mariners also have something the Crimson Bears do not.
Junior quarterback Teddy Croft will be back for a second consecutive week for Homer. After sustaining a concussion in Homer’s season opener against Eielson, Croft sat out Week 2 against Barrow before returning last week against Kodiak.
In all, Croft has racked up 345 passing yards in six quarters of action and completed 58 percent of his throws.
In the option offense, the junior has amassed 289 yards with his feet, second-best among all peninsula players, and easily the best among all quarterbacks.
When Croft does pass, he’s got a pair of soft hands to put the ball in.
Through three weeks, senior Joe Ravin is leading the way in receiving yards among peninsula schools with 244 on just 10 catches.