By JEFF HELMINIAK
In an Alaska with a short, eight-week regular season as it is, COVID cancellations have quickly brought Kenai Peninsula prep programs to Week 6 and some pivotal conference contests.
Soldotna, which has won the last 14 Northern Lights Conference titles, will play at Eagle River at 5 p.m. Saturday in a game that will have a massive say in who wins the conference championship.
Kenai will host Homer at 5 p.m. Friday in a game that will go a long way toward determining the third and final qualifier from the Mid Alaska Conference for the Division III playoffs. The game time was moved to 5 p.m. after Homer had to cancel the junior varsity game due to not having enough players.
Seward will travel to Valdez for a game at noon Saturday for a game with Division III playoff implications out of the Denali Conference.
The only nonconference game on the peninsula slate is Nikiski traveling to Redington for a game at 7 p.m. Friday.
Soldotna at Eagle River
In the five-team NLC, the Stars and Wolves go into the game as the only teams undefeated in conference play. Both are at 2-0 in the league, while Eagle River is 4-0 overall and Soldotna is 3-1 overall.
Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. said this has probably been his toughest season as a coach due to all the uncertainty created on a daily basis due to possibly having players out due to COVID close contacts.
That being said, Brantley Jr. said it looks certain this will be one of the biggest games of the year.
“The way things have unfolded, this is really a conference championship game,” he said. “They’re undefeated and they have a ton of talent. It’s going to be a very tough challenge for us.”
Senior Noah Harper, a tight end and outside linebacker, will be back from injury for the first time all season. As of midweek, Brantley Jr. also said the COVID situation was looking good.
“If we can avoid COVID stuff the rest of the week, we should be able to put a team on the field that has a chance to be successful,” he said.
Brantley Jr. said Eagle River likes to stuff a bunch of players in the box and blitz a lot. While this approach has worked at times in the past against SoHi’s rush-heavy attack, far more often SoHi fakes out the defenders packed near the line of scrimmage and runs for long touchdowns.
“We’ve always looked at it as feast or famine,” Brantley Jr. said. “The strategy is to fly through there and if you guess right it’s a 3-yard loss, but guess wrong and it’s a 50-yard gain.
“Many of the groups we’ve had have done a really good job of following the rules and figuring out who they have on blitzes. For this group, it’s the first real test with this type of front and it’ll be interesting to see how they do.”
On offense, Brantley Jr. said the Wolves, who have never beaten Soldotna, have an experienced, talented group running a Pistol Wing-T.
The coach said Kaidan Spies continues to be a solid leader on the offensive line from his guard spot, while senior Wayne Mellon continues to improve week by week at halfback.
Homer at Kenai
There are three Division III playoff spots available in the five-team Mid Alaska Conference. Redington and Houston, both at 2-0 in the league, are in the driver’s seat for two of those spots. Homer is 0-1 in the league and 1-3 overall, while Kenai is 0-2 and 0-3, so Friday’s loser will not make the playoffs.
Both teams will have to recover from big losses to Valley opponents last week. Kenai fell 68-14 to Redington, while Homer dropped a 42-0 contest to Houston.
“I try not be super negative with the boys, but to tell you the truth, we didn’t come out to play on special teams, offense or defense,” Kenai coach Dustin Akana said. “We didn’t play our game. That’s what it comes down to.”
Akana said the Kards will be down a few players due to close contacts and grades, but the biggest loss is the two starters who went down with season-ending knee injuries against Redington.
Redington quarterback Wayde Bowman had 502 yards and seven touchdowns vs. Kenai, so Akana knows Homer will be trying to create similar situations for quarterback Carter Tennison.
“We just have to do our job, that’s what it comes down to,” Akana said. “Last week, we didn’t do our job, and it showed.”
Homer coach Justin Zank said he once had a roster of over 50, though he never had that many at practice. This week, he said the program was down to 25 players to due grades, injuries, attrition and COVID close contacts.
Homer opened up the season getting blown out by Eagle River 57-0, and Zank was happy with the way his team responded. Houston scored 21 points in the fourth quarter against Homer, so Zank said the loss wasn’t as bad as the one to Eagle River. Still, Zank thinks his team will respond.
“Practice has been good this week, better than the previous two weeks,” Zank said.
Zank said the team is focused in on making improvements after the Houston loss. Playoff talk isn’t a part of the picture.
“Right now we’re not even thinking about the playoffs,” he said. “We’re preparing for Kenai and doing our best to try and grow and get better and improve on our earlier success this season.”
Before the game, Homer Electric Association will hold a “Tailgate Together” event, with free hot dogs and hamburgers in the Kenai Central parking lot. The event starts at 4:30 p.m. There will be a donation bucket that will be split between the two programs.
Nikiski at Redington
After having problems in the secondary early in the season, Nikiski coach Paul Nelson said his defense played much better in a 28-26 loss to Seward in Week 5.
The Bulldogs (1-3 overall) will get another big test against 4-0 Redington. Saturday against Kenai, Redington quarterback Wayde Bowman had 502 yards and seven touchdowns.
“It should tell us where we’re at,” Nelson said. “He’s a really good quarterback who plays smart football.”
Nelson said Redington’s receivers run clever routes and running back Jaden Spaulding also is hard to bring down.
“If we could grind out a couple long drives like we did against Seward, that helps,” Nelson said.
Nelson said his team has done a great job limiting fumbles in the last couple games. The offense is designed to get 3 or 4 yards a carry and hold on to the ball. That’s what the Bulldogs will have to do to slow down the Huskies.
Nikiski will be without tackle Alen Nelson due to injury, but COVID-wise coach Nelson said the Bulldogs are not feeling a big impact.
“As a team, the chemistry is really coming together,” Nelson said. “At practice, there’s a really good attitude. I’ve always said you play your best football when you’re out there having a good time. That’s promising to see with three games left in the regular season.”
Seward at Valdez
The Seahawks will look to keep the momentum going after the 28-26 victory over Nikiski.
“After getting a taste of a win and beating Nikiski the way we did, the kids were ready this week,” Seward coach Tyler Mallory said. “They came to practice and worked hard. They’re coming together as a team and as a family.”
Seward lost a 66-36 nonconference game to Valdez in Week 3 at Seward. That game was played as nine-man football. Mallory was looking forward to playing Valdez 11 on 11, but the home team gets to choose in the Denali Conference and Valdez chose nine-man.
Seward comes in 0-1 in the league and 1-2 overall, while Valdez is 1-0 and 2-1.
Mallory said he learned a lot about how nine-man football works in the last game against Valdez and has made adjustments.
He looks for senior quarterback Tommy Cronin to have a big game and avoid the turnovers that plagued the Seahawks against Valdez. Mallory said Gideon Schrock has been playing well at receiver, and Kupono Albino is set for a big game at running back.
Against Nikiski, linebacker Landen DeRoos had 20 tackles after missing the Valdez game. Linebacker Noah Price had 17 tackles.
Mallory also said Marcus Lastimosa will be back on the line after limping off against Nikiski, while James Milburn will be looking to do a better job against Valdez’s nose guard.