Week 5 prep football: Conference races heat up

The halfway point of the prep football season gives pause and reflection on how preseason predictions have been proven right or wrong, and the chaos is slowly coming into focus.

The Soldotna Stars have shrugged off an opening week loss to West Anchorage to reclaim the throne as top Division II team in the state with a trio of overpowering victories.

The Kenai Central Kardinals have been hot and cold with an average margin of victory of 49 points in their two wins, but an average margin of defeat of 28 points in their two losses.

At the Division III level, the Nikiski Bulldogs have mirrored their Kenai brethren with two dominant wins of 24-point average margins, along with two big losses by an average of 31 points.

The Seward Seahawks also have played to a split first half, all against Aurora Conference opponents, and have seen both sides of the shutout coin the past two weeks with a 45-0 dud to Eielson, followed by a 41-0 triumph over Valdez.

And down in Homer, the young Mariners have reached the halfway stop still searching for that elusive win, just one year after a one-loss regular season resulted in a championship game appearance. Homer has been outscored 201-48 thus far in 2018.

All five peninsula football teams take to the road this weekend in a challenging test of motivation.

Soldotna’s current reign of terror — a three-game win streak that has seen the Stars outscore their opponents by an average of 40 points and induce a running clock in the fourth quarter for each contest — has helped push the Stars back to the top spot in the weekly Alaska Sports Broadcasting Network poll.

While the weekly releases of the ASBN polls keep things interesting and create intriguing matchups for fans and team supporters, SoHi head coach Galen Brantley Jr. has not kept his distaste for the polls secret, even as his No. 1 ranked Stars prepare to meet No. 2 Eagle River this weekend.

“It’s not worth the paper it’s printed on,” Brantley Jr. said.

Ranked first in the preseason poll, SoHi was left out completely after the Week 1 loss, then made its return at fourth after a Week 2 win over North Pole, then the No. 1 team in the poll.

SoHi moved up two spots to No. 2 last week before facing top-ranked West Valley. This weekend, the Stars travel to face No. 2 Eagle River in a third straight matchup against a No. 1 or 2 ranked team.

The Kards have yet to make an appearance in the polls at 2-2 overall, but after a big win over North Pole, head coach Dustin Akana said the team is beginning to find its stride.

“We’re past the halfway mark, we’re starting to click, and we’re getting a hang of positions and understanding reads and getting our technique down, and it’s showing,” Akana said. “But we still have a whole half of season and lot of improve on.”

After a rough game against the Peninsula Conference leading Ketchikan Kings, the Nikiski football team is in need of a conference win before their playoffs hopes begin to dim.

Bulldogs head coach Paul Nelson said Nikiski can’t rely on a late season run to make the playoffs if they don’t start winning now.

“I assume one more conference loss would mean we miss the playoffs,” Nelson said. “(Ketchikan) held (Valdez) to zero points, and Valdez scored 28 on us. So we’ve got to go out there and play a complete game. We haven’t done that yet.”

The second half of the season is sure to see the drama meter pegged as conference races heat up:

Nikiski (2-2) at Seward (2-2), 2 p.m. Saturday

Nikiski’s opening conference clash of the season snapped a two-game win streak by the Bulldogs as a powerful Ketchikan squad proved their might. Nelson said Nikiski was doomed by allowing too many big plays and had trouble making tackles in open field.

“It was tough sledding,” Nelson said. “They’re athletic, talented, tough. They’re for real.”

Nikiski’s defense was shredded by Kings QB Brendan Wong, who hit six touchdown passes for 264 yards.

On the other side of the coin, Nikiski signal-caller Noah Litke also had a big day, throwing three scoring passes for 246 yards, including two to Michael Eiter, who had 176 receiving yards.

“It was just kind of something we had to go to, the pass was working a little bit,” Nelson said. “We weren’t getting a whole lot of production on the ground … fortunately (Litke and Eiter) hooked up and Mike had some great catches.”

The Seahawks are six days removed from a 41-0 beatdown on Valdez, a team Nikiski defeated 48-28 earlier in the season. Seward held Valdez to just 54 yards of offense.

Cinereski said a severe concussion to Seward quarterback Gunnar Davis three weeks ago forced him to reassemble his starting roster.

Cinereski put Chris Kingsland under center in a 45-0 loss to Eielson, then made a QB switch again last week in the win over Valdez, this time putting freshman Tommy Cronin in while moving Kingsland to tight end.

The moves worked, as Cronin tossed two touchdown passes and had a third one called back, while Kingsland thrived as a pass catcher and blocker.

“He’s super fast and when you throw a ball to him, he’ll be coming down with it,” Cinereski said about Kingsland. “It was a good win, any time you can get a win is good. We’re very young and the guys came back well.”

Many of the matchups Nikiski and Seward have played have come in the season finale with playoff hopes on the line.

Seward head coach Kelly Cinereski said while a game against the Bulldogs in Week 5 of the season doesn’t quite hold the same feeling, he still looks forward to the intensity the two rivals bring.

“Looking at the whole scheme of things, this is a huge game,” Cinereski said. “It’s usually the last game of the season, and it’s been a big rivalry for years. They’re always a big deal, because they’re just our size and we can compete with each other.”

The last meeting between Seward and Nikiski resulted in a 58-14 Bulldogs victory in the final week of the regular season last year.

“It doesn’t make a difference what the record is,” Cinereski said. “It’s always a tight game.”

Cinereski said the matchup against Nikiski QB Noah Litke and receiver Michael Eiter will be tough to handle, especially with the Bulldogs running game matching the passing attack. Sam Berry leads all peninsula backs with 448 rush yards in 2018.

However, Cinereski said he likes his backfield of Beau Freiberg, Gabe Schrock and Kingsland, which he hopes will move the ball effectively and to provide the necessary leadership for the younger players.

“I like to think the best defense is offense,” he said.

Soldotna (3-1) at Eagle River (3-0), 3 p.m. Saturday

The Stars will get their first taste of NLC play this year with a matchup against the No. 2 ranked Wolves in the ASBN polls.

The Wolves are undefeated through three games for the first time in school history, which dates back to 2005. The question turns to whether Eagle River can sustain momentum in an already historic season for a program not as accustomed to winning.

“We’re interested in that same question,” Brantley Jr. said. “We know they have talent, and they’ve made us uncomfortable for a half the last time we played them.”

In such a rare position, the stakes are high for an Eagle River squad searching for its first-ever state playoff appearance. Brantley Jr. said he is not surprised to see the Wolves sitting with three wins thanks to a team loaded with senior talent that has been groomed for several seasons.

“This is the best Eagle River team that I’ve seen,” Brantley Jr. said. “They’ve got a huge class that are finally all seniors. I definitely think Eagle River could easily make the playoffs, and I think they’re good enough to make the title game.”

Eagle River starting QB Ryan Adkins has led the Wolves offense with a talented stable of ball catcher and carriers, and Brantley Jr. said SoHi’s objective will be to keep that offense off the field as much as possible.

With SoHi finally getting down to conference play, Brantley Jr. said the 2018 Stars are slowly being molded into the team he hopes to see. First-year starting QB Jersey Truesdell is fresh off a four-touchdown night against West Valley, three by air and one by ground. Truesdell’s favorite passing target, Galen Brantley III, hauled in an end zone reception last week to go along with a second-half opening fumble recovery touchdown.

The Stars defense also hasn’t allowed more than 21 points in a game this year, which may be slightly down from recent years, but with three of their first four opponents having played in Division I in 2017, the numbers are to be expected.

“Some players are developing into their roles and starting to piece together the identity of team,” Brantley Jr. said. “Ideally, we’re a team that plays hard, unselfish and if we can do those two things, we’ll have a chance.”

The only injury on the team is kicker and defensive back Cam Johnson, who Brantley Jr. said will be sitting out for another week.

Kenai (2-2) at West Valley (3-1), 1 p.m. Saturday

Kenai will play its final nonconference game of the year, before finishing with three straight weeks of NLC opponents.

Akana said the Kardinals enjoyed a positive week of practice after a dominant victory over North Pole.

“They’ve progressed,” Akana said. “I’m happy with the progression we’ve made, we have a lot of guys playing varsity for the first time in their lives, and some are playing positions they’ve never played before.”

The Kenai defense had one of its biggest days in recent years last Saturday with four interception returns for touchdowns against the Patriots.

Overall, the Kardinals defense scored four of the team’s nine touchdowns, a huge confidence booster, Akana said.

“Any time you have success like that, it’s a confidence booster for the boys,” he said. “It was not only getting the win, but also seeing them trust their reads, and seeing that it works. It made them more hungry to want to continue that success.”

The Wolfpack are fresh off a humbling road loss to SoHi last week, and will be looking to get back on the horse. Ranked No. 1 in the ASBN poll entering the weekend, West Valley’s two quarterbacks put 154 passing yards on SoHi, and the run game had 127 yards, led by Isaiah Warner with 63.

While any team may look subdued when playing SoHi, Akana said West Valley is a team the Kards must not underestimate. Akana said the Wolfpack’s offensive line is not particularly large, but they are fast.

“They’re a good team, they’re really good,” Akana said. “We’re going into this game like we have this whole season, just focusing on their players and also on their strengths.”

Homer (0-4) at Eielson (2-1), 1 p.m. Saturday

Saturday’s road game in Fairbanks will be a rematch of the 2017 Division III semifinal round, which saw Homer topple the three-time defending state champion Ravens 33-21 at home.

But that was a different Homer team, said Mariners head coach Walter Love. In that semifinal win over Eielson, the Mariners exploded for 455 yards of offense.

However, none of the current Homer players had touches on the ball in that game last October, so inexperience will hope to be overshadowed by tenacity, Love said.

“Those guys have a great team, what can I say?” Love said. “Any time you can take the field and beat a team like Eielson is a great day.

“Our guys this year are just really young, and where we are, being banged up from the first day, it’s one of those things we knew where we were going. The idea is you’re going to play, and 60 minutes is coming whether you want it or not.”

Homer only had 57 yards of offense last week in a 59-0 road loss against conference foe Houston, a game that Love said disappointed him after the team fell into an early hole.

“It was unexpected,” he said. “I’ll say that as a coach, it was unexpected.”

Homer QB Anthony Kalugin struggled with four picks (with three being returned for touchdowns) and just two completed passes all day, but Love said his young signal caller is learning a valuable process with games like that.

“I told him, ‘I could sit here and scream at you’, but if I strip you of your confidence, then I’ve done nothing good for you,” Love explained. “I’m here to help you relax, calm down, make good decisions and see your guys. I’m here to help to make him the best athlete on that spot, and that goes for every player.”

Love said senior running back Noah Fisk will be sitting out this week to continue recovering from an early season injury, and three other players are staying home for personal reasons.

Those absences won’t help against the Ravens offensive attack, led by ballcarrier Jayden Manibusan and QB Payton DeVaughn. Both seniors have been a part of the Eielson dynasty that won three straight state crowns.

While Homer’s road to the playoffs is currently an uphill battle, Love said he preached to his team this week that the season is not over until the final game.

“There’s no such thing as a lost season,” he said. “The only lost season is the one you don’t play. Until the last whistle of the last game, the season’s not over. Last year, there were only two teams playing to the last game, and we were one of them.”

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