Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion Kenai Central quarterback Chase Gillies tries to avoid getting sacked from Kodiak's Braxton Bolen Saturday afternoon at Ed Hollier Field in Kenai.

Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion Kenai Central quarterback Chase Gillies tries to avoid getting sacked from Kodiak's Braxton Bolen Saturday afternoon at Ed Hollier Field in Kenai.

Week 5 preview: Getting down to business in conference play

Five weeks into the prep football season has given teams a clearer picture of who is legit and who is a pretender, but nothing is decided yet in the playoff picture.

The final three weeks of the regular season will be huge in deciding which teams’ postseason hopes will come true and which ones will die. In the Northern Lights Conference, Kenai Central has taken a lead with a 2-0 record, but Soldotna (1-0) is still considered king with a 44-game unbeaten streak.

The Kardinals will face nonconference opponent Chugiak this weekend, but will wrap up their season with a pair of crucial NLC matchups against Palmer and Soldotna.

SoHi, meanwhile, faces all conference opponents in the final three weeks of the regular season, starting this weekend with Kodiak and moving on to Eagle River and Kenai.

Among small schools, the Nikiski Bulldogs have rebounded from a shaky 0-2 start to the season to record three straight wins, including consecutive Peninsula Conference wins that have positioned Nikiski atop the conference standings, but their biggest task is coming this weekend with a determined Homer squad.

Seward has matched Nikiski with a 2-0 conference record, a showing that followed an 0-3 start to the season in nonconference play. The Seahawks and Bulldogs play each other in the final week of the regular season, a game that is growing in importance each week.

Homer (0-5) at Nikiski (3-2), 2 p.m. Saturday

The road trip just a few hours north to Nikiski this weekend could make or break Homer’s season. The Mariners have stumbled their way to a winless season, and lost their opening Peninsula Conference game 22-14 last weekend in Seward.

After losing starting quarterback Teddy Croft, a player that had single-handedly accounted for 72 percent of Homer’s offensive yardage prior to the Seward game, to a leg injury and wideout Dawson Felde to a concussion, the Mariners have turned to Jaime Rios as their signal caller, as well as freshman Noah Fisk at running back.

“At the beginning of the season, we were looking at this as one of the tougher games on the schedule,” said Nikiski coach Paul Nelson. “They’re winless, but maybe haven’t been able to get it together.”

The Bulldogs, however, are still intact and in position to claim another conference crown. Nelson said a 47-6 conference win over Joe Redington Jr/Sr High was the most complete game the Bulldogs have had all year.

“We came out and shut them down on defense and scored on our first play,” Nelson said. “We forced them to punt again and scored again on our next play. We just came out firing, and never let up.

“Everything was awesome.”

Patrick Perry and Matthew Minium once again combined to create a two-headed rushing attack against Redington, with each player ripping off long scoring plays. Nelson said Baker Hensley also grabbed his first scores of the year with two touchdown catches from quarterback Ian Johnson.

Nelson, who arrived in Nikiski this fall after a few years with the Colony Knights football program, said he can understand a developing rivalry that Nikiski and Homer share. Nelson said Colony was a school that always worked to be the top team from the Matanuska-Susitna valleys, and coaching for the Bulldogs this year, he has picked up that same sentiment.

“Just in talking to some of the kids, one of their goals is to be the best peninsula team,” Nelson said. “I guess they have a big rivalry history with Seward, and the Homer one is developing.”

Which is why Saturday’s contest is big on several levels.

Nikiski controlled things last year in a 50-18 victory in Homer, but the loss of a few big players has left the Bulldogs with a much different look this year. Prior to this year, Johnson had never touched the ball as a quarterback.

After Homer lost its quarterback, Nelson said the matchup hasn’t changed much. Rios managed to sling the ball around 166 yards for Homer last week, and Nikiski will be working hard to pressure Rios.

Chugiak (2-3) at Kenai (3-2), 2 p.m. Saturday

The Kardinals welcome a big team into their house this weekend. The Chugiak Mustangs made it to the large-schools championship game last fall, only to fall in a 41-0 loss to West.

After starting the year with consecutive games against bigger competition, losses to South and Service, Kenai is on the upswing by winning its first two NLC matchups against Eagle River and Kodiak.

But now the Kards have a third large school with which to contend.

“It’s a good test for us in this point in the season,” said Kenai coach Davis Lowery. “They make you play disciplined football. You can tell by last week’s game, they’re improving every week.”

Lowery is fresh off an emotional victory over Kodiak, his old team that he spent a year with as defensive coordinator in 2015. Lowery said he housed a few Kodiak friends over the weekend, which he finished with a 30-6 Kenai win over the Bears.

“The emotions of that one made it the most unique experience for me,” he said. “It was just amazing, seeing the kids again.”

Kodiak’s dangerous duo of quarterback Andreas Carros and running back Jay Miranda were held in check for most of the day, but Chugiak’s threat will be larger. The Mustangs offense features receiver Derryk Snell and fullback Karletty Faamatuainu, two playmakers that can cut into a defense at will.

“In some phases, we play assignment football, and in other phases, we’re going to take a belt-and-suspenders approach,” Lowery said. “They’re gonna force you to play disciplined football.”

Lowery said the Kards will be vigilant in defending Snell and Faamatuainu, but will not be straying from their defensive game plan.

On offense, Lowery said Kenai will need to be efficient. Last week, quarterback Chase Gillies hit 17 of 27 passes for 150 yards, raising his season average to 51 percent, and Lowery added that Kenai cannot afford to suffer any turnovers.

Soldotna (5-0) at Kodiak (3-2), 2 p.m. Saturday

A week after losing to Kenai, the Kodiak Bears will be facing another daunting peninsula team when Soldotna visits the island.

At least the Bears will have home field.

After watching Kenai claim a 30-6 win over Kodiak last week, just weeks after Kodiak lost a 35-18 contest to Palmer, SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. harbored some doubts as to what kind of team the Bears are.

“We watched them play Palmer and they were two fumbled kickoff returns from a tied game,” Brantley Jr. said. “Then they show up to Kenai and are not the same team.”

If there’s one thing Brantley Jr. is certain of, it’s the ability of Kodiak ballcarrier Jay Miranda and signal caller Andreas Carros. Brantley Jr. said collegiate coaches that attended the All-Alaska football camp earlier this summer graded Miranda high, calling him the “best running back in the state.”

“(Kodiak) coach (Bill) McGuire has come a long way with that group of kids,” Brantley Jr. said. “I think it’s a team that’s headed in the right direction.”

After beating Palmer last week 42-21 in a game in which Soldotna came out flat, according to Brantley Jr., the Stars will need to batten down the hatches against an upset-minded Kodiak squad.

“Our kids have to get used to the idea that everyone’s gonna give us their best game,” he said. “We’re their focus for their entire season.”

Brantley Jr. said offensive guard Kyle Marcuson will be sitting out this week to expedite his recovery from physical games earlier in the season.

Monroe (2-3) at Seward (2-3), 4 p.m. Friday

The Seward Seahawks are eyeing a playoff berth after two straight Peninsula Conference wins have put them behind only Nikiski in the standings.

Seward escaped Redington with a 36-34 win two weeks ago and rode a volatile rushing attack to a 22-14 victory over Homer last week. The Seahawks amassed 218 rushing yards against Homer, led by the 126 by Michael Wilps.

The Monroe Rams are slumping with three straight losses, a streak in which they have been outscored 145-48.

Voznesenka (0-4) at Redington (0-5), 7 p.m. Friday

The Voznesenka Cougars continue to be winless this season, but if not for a couple mistakes over the last two weeks, Voz could be standing with a win.

Against Nikiski two weeks ago, the Cougars played a tough game, but shot themselves in the foot with turnovers and missed opportunities, resulting in a 33-0 loss to the Bulldogs.

Last week, Voz fell 60-14 to Valdez, but coach Justin Zank said his squad is keeping it optimistic.

“We feel great,” Zank said. “We had that pretty good game against Nikiski, then came back with a flop against Valdez.”

Zank reminded his players that the team is only 0-1 in Peninsula Conference play, so the season is not over by any stretch of the imagination.

In its game in Nikiski, Voz pulled into the red zone twice but failed to finish with any points. Zank said if the Cougars can eliminate mistakes and penalties, he feels that first win is right around the corner, and against a Redington program that is also winless, this could be the week.

“We feel like that every week, though,” he said. “It’s just that we are our worst enemy sometimes.”

Facing Redington’s triple-option offense won’t be easy, Zank said, but if Voz can shut down the running attack, then it will be a big step up.

“(Linebacker) David Sanarov leads our team in tackles on defense, so he’s going to be key for us,” Zank said.

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