Among the eight regular-season weekends of the high school football season, perhaps none dawn as anticipated as this one.
Week 6 has taken on added meaning for players and coaches alike.
Nikiski goes on the road to face Eielson for the two teams’ annual battle for small-schools supremacy, a highly anticipated rematch of last October’s small-schools championship thriller. Eielson outlasted Nikiski in an epic 55-51 finale that added another chapter to the intense rivalry between the two heavyweights.
While the Nikiski-Eielson game has no bearing on the playoff chase because the schools are from different conferences, the other big game of the weekend has crucial playoff implications.
Medium-schools foes Palmer and Kenai Central clash in a Northern Lights Conference matchup that could very well decide a postseason berth for either team.
In addition to the postseason implications, both Kenai Central and Soldotna will both be hosting their homecoming games Saturday, a tradition that puts the entire school in a frenzy in the week leading up to the big game.
No matter the occasion, there is excitement at every turn.
Nikiski (4-1) at Eielson (4-1),
1 p.m. Saturday
After losing to the Ravens twice last year, the Bulldogs are not running short on motivation to beat their rivals to the north.
Nikiski suffered a 52-34 loss to Eielson in the regular season in 2014, then fell just shy of a second straight football crown in October, when the two schools combined for 972 yards of offense.
As soon as the game ended last Saturday in their win over Houston, the Bulldogs were already setting their thoughts on Eielson.
“We’ve been thinking about Eielson since the beginning of the year,” said senior tight end and defensive back Dylan Broussard after Saturday’s game. “We’re always going hard, and we’re not only thinking about Eielson, but they’re the team that gives us the best look.”
This year, Eielson has once again stamped itself as a leading candidate for a small-schools championship, compiling a 4-1 record, with their lone loss coming last week in a 35-21 game to large-schools opponent Lathrop.
“These two teams will probably end up seeing each other again,” said Nikiski coach Ted Riddall.
The good news for Nikiski is that the Bulldogs will not have to face Eielson running back Anthony Griffith again, a talented senior that laid down a state single-game record 516 rushing yards on Nikiski last year in their regular season meeting.
The bad news is that Nikiski also lost its star running back from last year, Christian Riddall, who scored seven times and had 256 rush yards in Nikiski’s title loss to Eielson.
When asked which running back proved to be a bigger loss to his respective team, coach Riddall said he couldn’t choose between the two.
“Both those kids were so similar,” coach Riddall said. “All the kids looked to them to make a play, they were both dynamic, so it’s hard to pick one of them.”
With Griffith gone from Eielson, quarterback Antonio Griffith (Anthony’s brother) and running back Kaleb Dunlap have stepped up to provide most of the lost power, which Riddall knows is where his team needs to focus.
“We’re focused on the details, getting play fakes, sustaining blocks, that sort of thing,” he said. “If we can make them go on long drives, that will help us.”
Nikiski has piled on almost 1,400 yards of offense in the running game this year, so keeping the ball moving on their end has not been a problem. With senior quarterback Cade Anderson demonstrating a lethal passing attack as well with 500 yards through the air, Nikiski has moved to the precipice of another postseason opportunity.
“I think we’ll end up winning (the Peninsula Conference title) if we can put some things together,” Riddall said. “But this week, we get an opportunity to get into the arena with Eielson.”
Palmer (3-2) at Kenai (3-1),
2 p.m. Saturday
An opening week loss to large-schools opponent Bartlett followed by three straight victories has left the Kardinals in good position to clinch a medium-schools playoff berth. Kenai can finish the job this weekend with a win over the Palmer Moose.
If Kenai beats Palmer, it moves the Kards to a 3-0 conference record and Palmer to 1-2, which would clinch a third straight postseason berth for Kenai, a perfect celebration on homecoming night.
“This team understands what’s at stake,” said Kenai coach John Marquez. “We knew going into it, it would come down to this, us and Palmer battling for that spot.”
The Kards posted a 44-20 win over Palmer last year, and are already coming off the high of a 67-0 dismantling of Northern Lights Conference opponent Eagle River last Saturday.
“This is a deciding factor for both of us,” Marquez said. “It’s pretty much one of those things where you guarantee yourself your destiny.”
The biggest challenge in facing Palmer will undoubtedly come in trying to stop running back Chase Ferris, a powerful Palmer back that exhibits a lot of speed.
Marquez said in order to stop Ferris from scoring, Kenai needs to control the pace of the game by bleeding the minutes off the clock and keeping Ferris off the field.
“In order to get to him, we have to first get through their (offensive) line,” Marquez said. “It’s going to be a battle in the trenches. Like I’ve said before, how we’re going to win games this year will come down to our front five.”
Even Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. vouched for the Kards, saying that Kenai brings a type of physicality nearly unmatched among medium-school opponents.
Interestingly enough, in a weekly medium- and small-schools football poll that was released on Monday, the Kardinals weren’t featured in the top five rankings, left out of a group that included Nikiski, Eielson, North Pole and Juneau. Coach Marquez said he would accept it no matter what.
“We’ll take the underdog role all the time,” he said. “In 2011, we were underdogs, so that means nothing to us. Our kids don’t read into that.”
Eagle River (0-5) at Soldotna (5-0), 2 p.m. Saturday
The Stars celebrate their homecoming with an inaugural Northern Lights Conference matchup against the Wolves.
SoHi dominated the proceedings in a 53-6 blowout over Eagle River last year in a nonconference tilt. Now, the marbles are all in play.
Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. said when a team faces an opponent that is struggling, it presents an opportunity to look inside and fix as many weaknesses as the Stars can.
“(Eagle River) certainly has a couple good athletes, they’re a big school,” he said. “For us, it’s one of those games that is important to just take care of business early and get our backups on the field. We need to stay healthy.”
Like Kenai, SoHi can seal a playoff spot with a win over Eagle River. With homecoming on the minds of his players, Brantley Jr. said that’s easier said than done.
“I kind of have a love-hate relationship (with homecoming),” Brantley Jr. said. “I love the fact that people in our building get excited about being kids and having fun, and I think some tend to lose sight of that.
“But we got to make sure we stay focused too.”
A 42-7 triumph on the road against Palmer last weekend reinforced the theory of SoHi’s statewide dominance, and Brantley Jr. said he was happy to see his defense control the game as much as it did.
“I couldn’t be happier with the effort they put in,” he said.
Joe Redington at Homer (1-4), 6 p.m. Friday
The Mariners are fresh off a close loss to medium-schools opponent Thunder Mountain, but a meeting with newcomer Joe Redington Jr./Sr. High School should cure any lingering doubts.
Thunder Mountain running back Qon Bear-Clark ran rampant over Homer last Saturday, racking up 316 yards with four touchdowns. Homer coach Josh Fraley said the absence of starting middle linebacker Alex Stephens did not help the Mariners efforts in stopping Bear-Clark. Stephens returns this week after sitting out last week due to an injury.
“(Bear-Clark) was their everything,” Fraley said. “He’s just a solid kid, and it’s like a bowling ball going through there, it’s really hard for one guy to bring him down.
“We had lot of guys in position to tackle, but they bounced right off.”
In addition to the dominance of Thunder Mountain’s running game, the Mariners fell short on two-point conversion attempts, as Homer went 0-for-5 on the day on attempts after each touchdown.
“We tried runs to the outside, up the middle, pass plays,” Fraley said. “We had a fumble on one, and others didn’t make it through.”
Redington, a new school that features only underclassmen, presents a wild card for Homer, but nothing that Fraley doesn’t think his Mariners squad can’t handle.
“They’re green, they’re trying to build a program, so we’d like to get our guys in there for a couple series, then get our JV guys in there,” Fraley said. “We need to get some rest and heal up some guys.”
Voznesenka (0-4) at Seward (1-4), 5 p.m. Friday
The Cougars and Seahawks face each other in a Friday night battle that holds Peninsula Conference playoff implications.
Voznesenka fell in a 44-6 loss to Monroe last weekend, while Seward was bounced by Barrow 50-0. Both opponents are northern teams from the Aurora Conference.
Seward currently sits third in the conference with a 1-1 mark, tied with Homer, which gets the tiebreaker on head-to-head matchups. A win for Seward would go a long way in helping the Seahawks’ fight for a second straight playoff berth.