Week 5 football preview: It’s time for midseason grades

The brief fall sports season has quickly made its mark on the football turf, as four weeks of the regular season have whisked by like leaves in a stiff autumn breeze.

With four weeks remaining before the postseason, playoff hopefuls are running out of time to climb up the standings, and desperation often lends itself to exciting action on the field.

But before Week 5 of the football season casts its shadow on the playoff picture, the time to reflect on what has passed and where teams are (or where they think they are) in terms of performance is now.

The midterm report cards are out. What have we learned?

Soldotna (4-0) at Palmer (3-1), 7 p.m. Friday

For a team that has proven to be as dominant on the large-schools scene as the Soldotna Stars have been, coach Galen Brantley Jr. still gives his squad a B.

“We certainly have a ton of things to work on, but we’ve also survived three large schools,” Brantley Jr. said. “I think that was part of our goals coming into the season.”

The Stars have not only survived the three large-schools matchups, but they have done so largely without senior running back Drew Gibbs, who was sidelined for the season in the first quarter of the season against South after suffering an anterior cruciate ligament tear.

“This is a team that can handle some adversity,” Brantley Jr. said. “For us to stay in there and claw and fight, that’s a trait we’ve wanted to see in this group of young men.”

According to an online blog post by Gibbs, the sidelined senior had ACL surgery Thursday in Pensacola, Florida, which means he will not be joining the Stars on the road for tonight’s Northern Lights Conference matchup. The surgery was performed by noted surgeon Dr. James Andrews.

“I know my rehab after surgery will be a challenge, but I’m ready for it,” Gibbs wrote in the post.

While Gibbs is ready for the challenge of recovering from his injury, the Stars are readying for what is expected to be their toughest Northern Lights Conference matchup yet this year.

Brantley Jr. has traditionally given Palmer coach Rod Christiansen many compliments. The two coaches are close friends that enjoy facing each other on the football field, and Friday night’s showing will be another chapter in a great rivalry.

“I don’t think there’s any secret about it, I think Rod is the best coach in the state,” Brantley Jr. said.

Brantley Jr. isn’t lying, either. Christiansen is approaching a career milestone, as the longtime Palmer leader currently has 142 career wins as a head coach, just eight away from tying Buck Nystrom’s all-time Alaska record of 150. Nystrom recorded all of his victories with Eielson and North Pole.

There are not enough games on this year’s regular and postseason schedule to reach that mark, but 2016 could see it happen.

But before the Moose begin thinking about getting Christiansen that record, they need to start with SoHi. The Moose have beaten some of the state’s best in 2015, including current No. 1-ranked Chugiak back in Week 1. The Mustangs were given the top spot in the rankings this week after toppling previous No. 1 West last weekend 28-21.

Putting aside the statistics and accolades, Brantley Jr. said wins and losses are not determined by past results or common opponents. The high school football scene is much too fluid to rely solely on conjecture.

“We put very little stock (in the rankings),” he said. “The only ranking that matters is the one at the end of the season.”

Brantley Jr. is expecting a game that will be won in the trenches, as both sides feature a formidable stable of backs that stand behind strong offensive lines. For Palmer, senior back Chase Ferris is the guy that the Stars will need to keep an eye on.

“That kid can house the football at any moment,” Brantley Jr. said. “It always seems like (Palmer is) upsetting another team in the playoffs, or on the verge of upsetting a big school in the playoffs every year. They play hard, and that’s the biggest compliment you can give a coach.”

Kenai (2-1) at Eagle River (0-4), 1 p.m. Saturday

One week after delivering a 63-6 beatdown on Houston at home, the Kardinals are beginning to round back into shape with the return of senior Andrew Welborn, who rushed for 132 yards and a pair of touchdowns on only four touches of the ball. Welborn rejoins fellow backs Zack Tuttle, Chase Gillies and Draiden McMinn as potent ball carriers.

However, Kenai coach John Marquez still graded his Kardinals at a C+ or B-, stating that they have not come close to hitting on all cylinders yet. It’s a scary proposition for opposing teams.

“They’ve learned they can play with anybody,” Marquez said. “They have the capability to win any game that they step on the field for.”

Much of that improvement has begun with the Kenai offensive line of Zach Koziczkowski, Toby Randall, Jonathan Delgado, Royal Brown and David Beck, a quintet of linemen that have acted as the bulldozers for the Kenai backfield.

Marquez said his offensive and defensive lines attended a football camp in Washington at the beginning of summer that helped reinforce the notion that a successful team begins with the front line.

“They found out that in order for us to succeed on the field, it’s on those guys,” Marquez said. “They have a lot of pressure on their shoulders, and we expect to win games on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. When you put pressure on them, they respond.”

Kenai arrives this week at the picturesque Eagle River High School football field, situated between the high-rising mountains that border the Eagle River valley, for the team’s first NLC matchup with the Wolves. Eagle River suffered a 47-6 blowout at the hands of Palmer last week, but like any playoff-worthy coach, Marquez knows better than to look past their record.

Houston (2-2) at Nikiski (3-1), 2 p.m. Saturday

After losing a tight battle to Kodiak in Week 1, Nikiski has rolled off wins against small-schools opponents Barrow, Homer and Voznesenka.

Now, they face the Houston Hawks, a squad that was pummeled by medium-schools opponent Kenai in a 63-6 loss last Friday night.

Are the Bulldogs on a return trajectory to the small-schools playoffs? Coach Ted Riddall thinks so, but he still graded his team at a solid B.

“There are areas we still need to improve on and going down towards the second part of this stretch, we need to make less mistakes and take care of the ball more,” Riddall said. “The next four weeks we’ll be playing stronger opponents.”

With a plethora of experienced seniors on the offensive line and a stout one at quarterback (Cade Anderson), there is no shortage of leadership to help guide a younger backfield.

“We need to make sure those backs are schooled up and know where they’re going,” Riddall said. “I think we’ve kind of grown up in games this year.”

Against Voznesenka last weekend, Nikiski scored 27 first-quarter points en route to a 52-0 shutout. The Bulldogs piled up over 250 yards of rushing offense, averaging nearly 16 yards a carry. While starting running backs Rykker Riddall and Corin Cooper got their usual touches on the ball, the blowout also allowed backups, such as Warren Gage and Matthew Minium, to receive valuable experience. Gage had 21 yards on the day and Minium used a 70-yard scoring romp to get to 104 yards total.

Meanwhile, Anderson maintained his usual dominant passing game, completing all seven throwing attempts to gain 147 yards and a trio of touchdowns.

Last year, Nikiski notched a 16-6 win over Houston in a game that featured no Christian Riddall, an explosive senior running back that sat out that day. Coach Riddall said he believes his team entered that game a bit too confident of grabbing an easy win, and therefore allowed the Hawks to come within 10 points of toppling them.

This time, as Peninsula Conference opponents, Riddall isn’t about to let that happen again.

“We’re using that as motivation from last year, that it was a closer game than it should’ve been,” Riddall said. “We just want to make sure we’re not making mental errors, and that we’re starting fast and closing games.”

Thunder Mountain (1-3) at Homer (1-3), 2 p.m. Saturday

Even after a 40-6 rout over Seward lifted the Mariners from the Peninsula Conference basement and into second place, Homer coach Josh Fraley is still looking for improvement.

That’s why he graded his squad at a C.

“I think we should be quite a bit further along than we are,” Fraley said. “We were kind of treading water for a while there, and now we’re finally starting to reach our potential.”

Losses to conference opponents Nikiski and Eielson left Homer looking like a drop into the small-schools division still was not going to be enough to save their playoff hopes.

One week later and the Mariners are back into contention.

Sophomore quarterback Teddy Croft has helped mold the Homer offense into a dynamic offense that can strike on the ground or from the air. Croft has thrown two touchdowns in each of his last three starts, and has accumulated 440 passing yards this year. On the ground, Croft has scored three touchdowns in the same time span, and posted 84 rushing yards last week against Seward.

Add in senior Josh Fisk and tight end Michael Swoboda, and Homer is a team on the rise for the second half of the season. Fisk leads the Mariners with 324 total offensive yards and five touchdowns. Swoboda, meanwhile, has caught a pair of touchdowns this year for 90 yards.

“We have a lot of tough kids,” Fraley said. “Just a lot of really big kids with good leadership, we just have to keep them focused. We’re a young team, and staying focused is an issue, but they’re tough.”

Fraley said he would like to see his squad cut down on the number of penalties in the next four weeks, as well as sharpening their third-down conversion rate.

Homer’s opponent this weekend — medium-schools rival Thunder Mountain — will present several obstacles.

The Falcons are coming off 41-20 loss to North Pole, a team that made it to the medium-schools championship last year. Fraley said he likes the matchup because Thunder Mountain reminds him of his own team.

“It’s kind of like we’re playing ourselves,” Fraley said. “They like to throw the ball and spread the field, and they will test our skill positions, so we have to make sure we’re good on coverages.”

Barrow (1-3) at Seward (1-3), 2 p.m. Saturday

The Whalers travel south to meet the Seahawks for a nonconference, interdivisional matchup.

Barrow lost to Eielson 27-6 last weekend, and the Seahawks are also smarting from a loss to Homer, a team that is battling with Seward for a playoff spot in the Peninsula Conference. Both Homer and Seward share 1-1 conference records.

Halfway through the season, there is still time for Seward to make its case for a second straight postseason appearance, but each and every game from here on out will be crucial.

Voznesenka (0-3) at Monroe (2-1), 1 p.m. Saturday

The Monroe Rams lost to Valdez 32-6 in an Aurora Conference bout last weekend, while Voznesenka was handed a 52-0 blowout from Nikiski.

Led by quarterback Nikit Anufriev, Voznesenka has shown itself to be capable of turning out yards, but as the smallest school in the state with a football team, getting wins has not been easy.

The Cougars have been outscored this year 146-6.

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