The first full week of conference battles on the gridiron helped clear up the playoff picture, and some teams made big moves with the postseason in sight.
In a clash of the top two teams in the Division III Peninsula Conference, Nikiski throttled upstart contender Redington to the tune of a 39-0 shutout on homecoming weekend. The Bulldogs now sit atop the standings with a 2-0 mark, but will have to hold off another challenger for a second straight week when they travel down to play the Homer Mariners, now second in the standings.
“We’re going to bring our best game to match (Nikiski),” said Homer coach Walter Love.
Love said assistant coach Josh Fraley brought up in practice this week the fact that none of Homer’s current players have beaten Nikiski, meaning a win Saturday would be long overdue.
“There’s not a lot of firsts in the world to do it,” Love said. “If we come in and play our best game, then we can step up and do it.”
In the Division II Northern Lights Conference fight, the undefeated Soldotna Stars share the NLC lead with Kodiak, which just so happens to be visiting for a Saturday meeting on SoHi’s homecoming weekend. Kodiak and Soldotna are both 1-0 in the conference, and the matchup involving a team riding a state record 54-game win streak may be closer than it seems.
Kodiak held off a hungry Kenai Central contingent last week in a 27-22 victory, while SoHi escaped Machetanz Field with a 28-10 win over Palmer, the last team to defeat SoHi five years ago. The Moose trailed the Stars by just four points entering the fourth quarter, and it took a pair of touchdown runs to distance themselves from Palmer.
Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. said the tough test that Palmer gave Soldotna was a shining example that any team can win on any given day, and the Moose showed that rolling out over 100 yards rushing on the Stars to control the game clock.
“I don’t think there’s a set game plan (in beating Soldotna),” Brantley Jr. said. “Palmer is an example of every game matters, and we’re the team with a bull’s-eye on our back.”
With the two playoff spots that are awarded to teams in Division II and Division III conferences, Week 6 presents a crucial time to pick up a victory. The following is a closer look at this week’s matchups:
Kenai (3-2) at Chugiak (5-0), 7 p.m. Friday
While other teams are pushing through a heavy conference schedule, the Kardinals will get one last game against a nonconference opponent tonight against the undefeated Chugiak Mustangs.
Kenai lost an NLC matchup in excruciating fashion to Kodiak last weekend. The Kards trailed 20-6 at halftime and 27-14 after three quarters, but started a fourth-quarter rally with an 82-yard touchdown bomb from quarterback Connor Felchle to Zack Tuttle.
Kenai was on a potential game-ending drive into Kodiak’s red zone, but after making it down to the Bears 2-yard line, Kenai head coach Ted Riddall was unable to catch the attention of the officials in time to call the Kards’ final timeout, and the game ended with a 27-22 loss, putting Kenai in a much bigger hole in the NLC standings with two conference games remaining against Palmer and SoHi.
“We’re well aware of what it means,” Riddall said.
Riddall said the referees explanation that he did not hear Riddall calling for the timeout still did not sit well with him, nor did the loss itself.
“There’s no reason to take a timeout with me home to Kenai,” Riddall said.
Riddall said he broke it down to his players after the game by pointing out that the team is a total of 4 yards and seven points away from being an undefeated 5-0 this season. In a Week 2 matchup with North Pole, Kenai was also stopped late in the game on its opponent’s 2-yard line, handing the Kards an 8-6 loss.
“At some point, you’ve got to believe you can make something happen and you’ve got to go out and do it,” Riddall said.
While tonight’s meeting with the Mustangs is nonconference, a successful outing will go a long way in providing momentum for the final two-week playoff stretch.
Chugiak is coming off a 40-27 win over the Green Canyon (Utah) Wolves, in the third Outside matchup for an Alaska team this season.
The Mustangs feature a dynamic roster that includes reigning Division I Offensive Player of the Year Derryk Snell. Riddall said if Kenai can contain Snell, it will be a big step to giving the Kards a shot at knocking off a powerhouse school.
Kenai will also likely have senior running back Rykker Riddall back on the field. Riddall missed last week’s game in Kodiak while nursing an injured ankle. Coach Riddall said the Kardinals are ready to compete with the Mustangs.
“We won’t be punting on first down and running off the field crazy,” coach Riddall said.
Nikiski (3-2) at Homer (4-1), 2 p.m. Saturday
Two teams with win streaks on the line enter a pivotal Peninsula Conference meeting Saturday in Homer.
Nikiski has won three in a row to establish itself as the top team in the league, while Homer has won four straight to put itself right on Nikiski’s doorstep as playoff contenders.
Homer coach Walter Love said he expects a hard-hitting game with big blows and bigger plays.
“We’re basically treating this game like our first playoff game,” Love said. “They want to be the first group in their history to be a championship contender, to host a playoff game.”
Both teams are fresh off of defensive shutouts, with Nikiski blanking Redington 39-0 at home last weekend and Homer stopping Seward 45-0.
In their lone meeting last year, Nikiski took care of business with a 22-6 win over the Mariners.
Bulldogs head coach Paul Nelson said after Saturday’s homecoming win that he felt his squad played their best defensive game of the year.
After their shutout win over Seward, Love had different feelings about his Mariners.
“We were flat the entire game,” he said. “It was one of the few games I’ve won that felt like a loss, it just wasn’t to the capacity they can play.”
With 156 of Homer’s 168 team rushing yards coming from the backfield trio of Teddy Croft, Noah Fisk and Jack Heimbold, the Mariners have shown they can be a dangerous team on offense, but Love said he has even more confidence in his defense, which is led by the line play of Kyle Wells and Levi King.
With Sean Love holding the fort in his linebacker spot and a cornerback duo of Justin Sumption and Joe Ravin teaming up with Croft at safety, coach Love said he is relishing the chance to see Nikiski’s backfield trio of senior Luke Johnson and juniors Cody Handley and Justin Harris in the matchup.
“I think (Johnson) is going to have his hands full with Sean Love at middle linebacker,” coach Love said. “I don’t think Nikiski has a receiving game, so even if we’re focusing on their run, we can put our safeties out there and they can pass on them.
“I’d invite them, please throw the ball, and one of those boys will take it to the house on you.”
Kodiak (2-3) at Soldotna (5-0), 2 p.m. Saturday
SoHi hosts its homecoming game this weekend with a decisive date with the Bears.
SoHi showed cracks in its immortality in a 28-10 win over Palmer last week, a game that the Stars led just 14-10 after three quarters.
“I think Palmer is a very good football team, much better than their record shows,” Brantley Jr. said.
Palmer currently sits at 1-4 on the season.
“They had a great scheme, offensively especially, where they were sitting on the ball,” he said. “I think we got five total possessions in the game.”
Entering the fourth quarter with a 54-game win streak on the line, Brantley Jr. said the team turned to quarterback Brandon Crowder to get things done with his legs. After Palmer showed an ability to stop SoHi’s inside run game against backs like Brenner Furlong and Aaron Faletoi, Crowder began knocking off yards on the edge and ended up rushing for a season-high 78 yards and a touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
“It’s like having an extra running back,” Brantley Jr. said. “We just took what they gave us.”
Crowder almost had a second rushing TD, but lost the handle on the ball within a couple yards of the end zone, catching a break when Aaron Faletoi recovered it for a TD.
Meanwhile, Kodiak is hot off a tight win over Kenai Central last weekend, putting itself near the top of the NLC at 1-0.
The Bears were able to knock off Kenai last week with the help of 96 ground yards from Kaleb Finley and 169 passing yards on 22 throws by quarterback Shaun Walton.
Brantley Jr. said senior center Eli Lovelace will not be back in the starting lineup for a second straight week after going down with a knee injury against Crater, Oregon, two weeks ago. Starting offensive lineman and linebacker Wendell Tuisaula is out as well with a leg injury.
Seward (1-4) at Monroe (2-3), 1 p.m. Saturday
The reigning Peninsula Conference champion Seahawks are reeling with four straight losses, including three shutouts, in the last month.
Last week, the Seahawks lost 45-0 to Homer to continue the downward trend, and are currently 0-2 in conference play.
Meanwhile, the Rams are smarting from a 38-0 spanking by the Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow) Whalers.
While Saturday’s matchup against Monroe is a nonconference game, the Seahawks could stand to gain some momentum before a two-week finishing kick against Voznesenka and Nikiski.
Redington (3-2) at Voznesenka (1-2), 5 p.m. Friday
Voznesenka head coach Justin Zank has gotten 19 guys out on the team this year, and will be playing 14 this week.
After forfeiting their first game of the year to low turnout, the Cougars are back on track after picking up a 6-0 win over Valdez last week.
A matchup with Redington tonight at Homer High School will be a big measuring stick of where Voznesenka is at in its preparation. The Huskies have three wins this year after never having won in two previous years of the program’s existence.
“(Coaches) were all talking at the end of the season last year about how Redington was going to be at the top here in the next couple years,” Zank said. “They have the numbers, the athletes, the seniors finally, and they can win.”
A “brutal” win over Valdez last weekend has Zank feeling hesitant. He said after a 7-yard scoring pass from Anthony Kalugin to Dia Martishev, the Cougars failed to get anything else on the board, but the defense held stout with a bagel on the opponents scoreline for the team’s fourth win in the last four years.
“It was big of course, and any win we can come away with is a big win for our program,” Zank said. “On the other hand, we strive to win. We expected to win that game, much like we expect to win this week.”
Kalugin had over 100 yards passing against Valdez, and Zank said senior linemen Nikit Anufriev and David Sanarov helped bring a constant presence with their dominant line play. The coach added that Sanarov will be getting carries this week against Redington.