Kenai Central’s Titus Riddall wards off Palmer’s Morgan Freeman on Friday, Aug. 24, 2018, at Ed Hollier Field in Kenai. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai Central’s Titus Riddall wards off Palmer’s Morgan Freeman on Friday, Aug. 24, 2018, at Ed Hollier Field in Kenai. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Week 6 prep football: Playoff races heat up as weather cools off

The weather is turning cooler as the state playoff races heat up for Week 6 of the prep football season.

Northern Lights Conference contender Eagle River saw its best ever start in program history go sour last week thanks to a 55-19 thrashing to the powerhouse Soldotna Stars. The Wolves (3-1 overall, 1-1 conference) will undoubtedly be looking to return to winning this weekend when they pay a visit to Ed Hollier Field in Kenai to take on the Kardinals (2-3) in an NLC clash that could very well be a turning point in determining final state championship playoff spots three weeks from now.

Kenai head coach Dustin Akana did not deny the impact Saturday’s contest could have on the rest of the season as the Kardinals finally get down to conference play for their final three weeks.

“The next three games are the most important,” Akana said. “The one thing I know is they can compete. We have the boys to compete, it’s just staying true to what they do and their technique and their responsibility.

“We have to play from the whistle from the first quarter to the ending whistle. It’s 100 percent through the whole game.”

Kenai will join its peninsula rivals in Week 6 with a full slate of conference contests. All but Nikiski will play conference opponents, which will help to clear the playoff picture a little more with just three weeks left in the regular season.

After dispatching of Eagle River last weekend, the Stars (4-1 overall) have taken the top spot in the NLC with a 1-0 record, and appear to be back in control of their destiny.

“We certainly responded well to a little adversity,” said Stars head coach Galen Brantley Jr. “We made a couple mistakes, got ourselves off the field and they had some talented players to score early, we didn’t get out of the gates well.

“But once we got a little pressure on them, got our run game going, it was a pretty standard SoHi game.”

The Houston Hawks (2-0 conference) and newcomer Ketchikan Kings (1-1) have established themselves as the big dogs of the Division III Peninsula Conference, but an overtime victory last week for Nikiski over Seward went a long ways in keeping the Bulldogs in the race.

Nikiski (1-1 conference) will play its final nonconference game of the year when the Bulldogs travel to Monroe Catholic school in Fairbanks, a Division III opponent.

For Homer (0-1 conference), a winless season has left the Mariners dangerously close to missing the playoffs altogether, and a date with Ketchikan will likely put the young Homer team to the test.

Eagle River (3-1) at Kenai (2-3), 2 p.m. Saturday

The Kardinals will finally dip into conference play for the first time this season, and will finish their NLC schedule with three straight contests to wrap up the regular season.

Akana said he wants to see better consistency and a full 60 minutes of execution from his squad if they wish to secure their first playoff berth since 2015.

“To be honest, this is where the season starts,” he said. “We’re preaching to the boys that we just have to do our job.”

A 44-6 loss to West Valley last Saturday didn’t help bolster the Kardinals’ stock, and now with a hungry Eagle River program that tested SoHi for a quarter coming into town, Kenai is looking at a big test.

Akana said he took notice when the Wolves opened the scoring last week against SoHi with an 80-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter.

“Eagle River is a good team, a really good team with really good athletes,” Akana said. “They run multiple offensive sets, but we kind of went through this with West Valley. They lost to SoHi a week before, and now Eagle River lost to SoHi a week before we play them.”

While still a run-heavy team with ballcarriers like Titus Riddall, who leads peninsula teams with nine touchdown runs in 2018, or Zach Burnett, who has averaged 7.6 yards a carry this fall, the Kardinals have increasingly relied on the air attack. Junior quarterback Connor Felchle has shown increasing efficiency under center with a 63 percent pass completion this year, and Kayden Daniels has also lent a hand in spot snaps.

Akana said outside linebacker and offensive lineman Ben Grossl will sit out this weekend with an injured shoulder. Billy Morrow will replace Grossl on the O-line and Joe Sylvester will take over his defensive slot.

Soldotna (4-1) at Kodiak (2-2), 2:30 p.m. Saturday

A 65-15 loss to Eagle River in Week 3 of the season doesn’t give Kodiak a lot of hope as they host Soldotna this weekend, but Brantley Jr. in usual fashion cautioned not to overlook the Bears.

“I think they have a bad game against Eagle River, they were missing a bunch of kids,” Brantley Jr. said. “They beat Lathrop last week, and Lathrop hung around with us.

“They’re not without some talent, so we can’t afford another slow start.”

The sluggish opening quarter against Eagle River last weekend might have looked concerning to SoHi fans, but the Stars eventually found their rhythm to put the game away by the fourth quarter bell. Aaron Faletoi and Wyatt Medcoff together accounted for 293 of SoHi’s game-high 466 team rushing yards against the Wolves.

A 20-12 win over fellow Division II opponent Lathrop last week helped Kodiak’s cause as they prepare for the Stars. Brantley Jr. said a conference matchup with the Bears on their home turf is a daunting task for any team. The biannual slog on the Alaska ferry system can be long and arduous for football teams hoping to stay fresh for a game in Kodiak, but Brantley Jr. has kept the journey light with a planned workout as soon as the team unloads off the dock.

“I’m of the mind-set that everyone should do it, get off the road system and they should experience it,” he said. “We’re getting our kids away from distractions. We’re together, and there’s a little solitude in that. We have their attention. It’s really a team bonding experience.”

The Stars picked up a 44-7 victory in their most recent meeting with Kodiak in Week 6 of last year.

In his years coaching against the Bears, Brantley Jr. said the Kodiak program always gives rival teams challenges with their relentless running game.

“They have a great coach who’s trying to turn the program around, and you can see progress throughout the year,” he said.

Brantley Jr. added that kicker and defensive back Cam Johnson will return to action this week for the fully-loaded Stars.

Nikiski (3-2) at Monroe (3-2), 7 p.m. Friday

The Bulldogs take to the road for what is expected to be a very tight Division III clash against the Rams. A quick comparison between common opponents opens up a juicy matchup.

Monroe is coming off a 60-28 win over Valdez, a team Nikiski defeated 48-28.

Monroe also beat Seward 27-12 on opening weekend, while Nikiski won 14-8 in overtime over Seward last week.

Nikiski head coach Paul Nelson stated earlier in the season the importance of the team’s consistency on offense. Junior Sam Berry has carried the Bulldogs consistently each week, and did so again last Saturday with a team-high 116 yards on 24 carries. Berry got into the end zone twice, the first late in regulation to force overtime, and the second in overtime to score what was ultimately the game-winning touchdown.

The success of signal-caller Noah Litke has also helped to spread the field on offense. Litke leads all peninsula QBs with 428 passing yards in 2018 and seven touchdown passes. His favorite target has been senior Michael Eiter, who leads the peninsula in receiving yardage, averaging 19 yards per catch.

On defense, the Bulldogs have gotten several big plays in recent weeks, including Eiter’s game-ending interception last week at Seward.

Ketchikan (3-1) at Homer (0-5)

In dire need of a win to keep their postseason hopes alive, the Mariners are staring at a big game in front of them.

Ketchikan suffered its first loss of the season last week with a tight 22-20 result against Houston, the frontrunner to take the Peninsula Conference crown.

Before the loss, the Kings were averaging a victory margin of 47 points over opponents in their first three games.

Homer is fresh off a 63-6 spanking by Eielson, although head coach Walter Love said Homer was missing several valuable starters to illness.

Houston (4-1) at Seward (2-3)

A tough loss kept Seward from its first conference victory of the season in a game the Seahawks led 8-0 until the final minutes of regulation.

Houston, fresh off a close win over Ketchikan, is rolling at 2-0 in conference this year.

Seahawks head coach Kelly Cinereski said he experimented at QB two weeks ago by placing Tommy Cronin under center after starter Gunnar Davis went down with a concussion in Week 2. Cronin’s abilities shone through in a 41-0 Week 4 win over Valdez, and Cinereski said Cronin flourished with Chris Kingsland at tight end.

The pair will need a big day together against a powerful Houston squad that is undefeated in Division III play this year.

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