The Alaska prep football season enters its second half of an eight-week season tonight with a slew of conference clashes between Kenai Peninsula rivals.
As the playoff race gets set for a surge of intensity, the time is now to determine who the contenders and pretenders are.
So what have we learned in the first half?
For one, the Soldotna Stars haven’t lost any firepower in their bid for a 12th straight Northern Lights Conference crown and a sixth straight Division II state title. The Stars have manhandled their opponents — all bigger schools — on a 4-0 kick to start the season, and are outscoring teams by an average of 34.2 points per game.
The list of wins this year includes West Anchorage, Dimond, South Anchorage and Crater High in Oregon, all schools with student populations above 1,000. SoHi currently sits around 700 students.
Meanwhile, the Division III Peninsula Conference has seen a shakeup in the top contenders this year. Typically dominated by the fearsome run-heavy schools like Nikiski and Homer, a new contender has emerged in Redington as a serious playoff threat after having no previous victories in school history.
The Huskies were 0-12 in program history entering their third year of football, second at the varsity level. After a season-opening 54-40 win over Monroe Catholic in Fairbanks, Redington has gone on to post wins over Valdez and Seward, with a loss to Utqiagvik (formerly known as Barrow) thrown in the mix.
Redington and Nikiski, both sitting atop the standings with 1-0 conference records, will stage a battle this week to see if the tables really have turned at the Division III level.
The following is a closer look at this week’s schedule:
Redington (3-1) at Nikiski (2-2), 2 p.m. Saturday
The Week 5 matchup between the Bulldogs and Huskies did not appear to be a pivotal game in deciding top dog in the Peninsula Conference when the season began, but the top two teams are on a collision course with each other for supremacy.
Nikiski head coach Paul Nelson said the importance of Saturday’s game is not lost on his players.
“It’s been quite a turnaround for them,” Nelson said about Redington. “We know they’re a good team … they’ve played well and they’re putting up a lot of points.
“They’re certainly a different Redington team than last year.”
Indeed, the Huskies have turned their young program around this season with a stealthy offensive attack. In their three wins this year, the Huskies have scored 133 points, an average of 44.3 per game.
Leading the way for Redington has been Kyler Rumfelt, a running back who has amassed 523 yards rushing this season. Nelson said he is on Nikiski’s radar.
“(Rumfelt) is a really hard runner,” Nelson said. “We’ve got to be making sure we tackle him.”
Against a Nikiski defense that Nelson believes is the strength of the team, Redington may face trouble.
“Our defense has stepped up and played well in all three games,” Nelson said. “(Voznesenka) scored the most against us, 18 points, and two were defensive touchdowns.”
In a 40-18 victory over Voznesenka last week, Nikiski rushed the ball an astounding 79 times, picking up 405 yards rushing along the way. Led by senior Ian Johnson’s 242 yards and two touchdowns, the Bulldogs were able to overcome four turnovers that resulted in 12 points for the Cougars.
Nelson gave his team a “solid B” in evaluating Nikiski’s current execution.
“We’re doing some things right, but there’s still lots of room for improvement,” he said. “We’ve had way too many turnovers this year.”
Nelson said Nikiski will be without senior lineman Randy Petty, who is out this week for concussion symptoms sustained last week against Voznesenka.
Kenai (3-1) at Kodiak (0-4), 5 p.m. Friday
Following a 42-28 win over Eagle River in its first Northern Lights Conference meeting of the year, Kenai Central is now the de facto leader in the standings at 1-0.
Head coach Ted Riddall gives the Kardinals a B at the midpoint of the season.
“There are definitely some things to improve on, but the kids are seeing that you can’t rest on what you did the previous week,” Riddall explained.
Against the Wolves, Kenai showed it can get scoring from all places, as junior quarterback Connor Felchle threw a pair of touchdown passes, the running game mustered up three touchdown runs and the defense came up with a clutch pick six in the fourth quarter by Titus Riddall.
The complete team effort gave Kenai an important victory over a much-improved Eagle River squad.
“You should win (those) games, that’s why you play them,” Riddall said. “You need to be ready. (Opponents are) going to be better than the previous week.”
The Kards are hopping a plane over to Kodiak today for another NLC clash, this one against a winless Kodiak squad. Riddall said he feels good about Kenai’s chances, but told his players to be wary against a stout passing attack that Kodiak features.
“The last thing you want to do is lose a game you should probably win,” he said.
Kenai senior Rykker Riddall, who leads the team with 306 rushing yards this fall, is questionable to start against Kodiak after injuring his ankle against Eagle River.
Soldotna (4-0) at Palmer (1-3), 7 p.m. Friday
Following another superlative start to the season, SoHi is once again heavy favorites to take control of the NLC, even as the Stars have yet to play a single conference game.
SoHi head coach Galen Brantley Jr. said after three solid weeks of play, he felt his squad took a few steps back in the 20-7 win over the Crater Comets of Central Point, Oregon, although a five-day trip out of state will surely slow down any behemoth.
“I’m definitely glad we had Monday off to recover,” Brantley Jr. said. “It was a long trip, a lot of bus time. I think the kids figured out we spent well over 24 hours on buses.”
In one of their stiffest tests against a string of bigger competition this year, the Stars relied on their trusty ground and pound game to eke out their narrowest win of the year. SoHi rushed 63 times against the Comets for 271 yards, while limiting Crater to 248 total yards of offense.
Brantley Jr. said playing talented teams outside the state will hopefully sharpen the Stars for a run of conference games.
“Good talent exposes mistakes and weaknesses,” he said. “In the long run, you hope that’s a good thing, but we have our work cut out for us.”
Soldotna’s first NLC matchup of the year is a rematch of last season’s Division II state championship, which SoHi easily won over Palmer 49-13.
However, the Moose do retain bragging rights as the most recent team to have defeated Soldotna, doing so in Week 1 of the 2012 season, 53 games ago.
Tonight’s game also pits two of the top six winningest coaches in Alaska football history against each other. Brantley Jr. picked up his 101st win of his coaching career at SoHi last week against Crater, while Palmer stalwart Rod Christiansen currently sits at 149 wins after a 57-0 thrashing of Kodiak last week. Christiansen is just one win away from tying Buck Nystrom’s all-time win record in the state of Alaska.
Brantley Jr. said SoHi is not overlooking Palmer, which has stumbled out of the blocks this year, particularly due to a rough opening slate of games against some state powerhouses. Two of Palmer’s three losses have come to current undefeated teams North Pole and Colony.
“They’ve played some tough games,” Brantley Jr. said. “They’re a team that’ll contend for a playoff spot.”
Brantley Jr. said the Stars are game-planning to contain Palmer’s stable of running backs, led by frontrunner Larry Cutsforth, who scored both Palmer touchdowns in the state title game last fall en route to 158 yards rushing.
Brantley Jr. said the only injury in his starting lineup remains center Eli Lovelace, a 6-foot-6, 305-pound lineman who went down late in the first half against Crater last week. Lovelace became entangled in a scrum of players and rekindled a lingering knee injury. Brantley Jr. had no timetable for Lovelace’s return, adding that Cody Nye, Trent Walden and Jake Marcuson will help pick up the slack on the front line.
Homer (3-1) at Seward (1-3), 2 p.m. Saturday
This Peninsula Conference clash features teams trending in opposite directions.
After losing 21-8 to Kodiak in Week 1, the Mariners are winners of three straight and have staked a claim as a playoff contender.
Seward, on the other hand, is reeling from three straight losses after beating Valdez 32-12 in the first week.
Homer is riding a wave of offense, winning a pair of games over Valdez and Ketchikan by a combined score of 125-21. Last week against Ketchikan, the Mariners dominated the ground with 452 team rushing yards, almost averaging a first down per carry with 9.2 yards and scoring six total touchdowns.
Teddy Croft led the way with 223 rush yards, and also passed for 126 yards with three scoring strikes, bringing his game total to six touchdowns.
The Seahawks felt the wrath of Redington last week in a 34-14 loss to the conference leaders.