Week 7: A break from conference action

There is one week standing between high school football teams and the end of the regular season.

This week, the seventh of eight that make up the 2015 campaign, features not a single conference matchup, but that does not mean there is nothing for which to play.

Kenai Central and Soldotna both clinched medium-schools playoff berths last weekend by winning. The Stars cruised to a 62-6 blowout over new Northern Lights Conference opponent Eagle River, while the Kardinals had to claw and fight their way to a 56-35 win over NLC rival Palmer.

Both wins sealed the conference playoff picture with two weeks left, with only the regular-season finale between Kenai and SoHi on Oct. 3 standing as the final straw that determines the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds.

The small-schools playoff picture is still wide open. In the Peninsula Conference, three schools are vying for two postseason spots.

Nikiski leads the division with a 2-0 conference mark, while Homer and Seward are tied with 1-1 records, with the Mariners claiming the tiebreaker based on head-to-head records.

The entire conference hinges on the Week 8 matchup pitting Nikiski and Seward against each other. If the Seahawks were to pull the upset over the Bulldogs, and Homer beats Voznesenka, then a three-way tie atop the standings would result, and a head-to-head tiebreaker between the three teams would still not be enough.

That would lead to a common opponent tiebreak, which the three teams share in Houston. Nikiski is the only team among the three that has beaten Houston this year, so the ‘Dogs would be in. To separate Homer and Seward, it would likely come down to a coin flip, which is not unprecedented.

It’s a fate that will always spell a cruel end to a season for at least one team. Nikiski coach Ted Riddall has experienced both ends of that coin.

Nikiski was left out in the cold in 2006 when a flip of a coin determined who got into the playoffs and who did not.

In 2013, a coin flip was used to determine postseason home-field advantage, and Nikiski received the favorable flip to host Eielson, who the Bulldogs defeated to advance to that year’s championship game.

“We don’t like coin flips,” Riddall said. “We don’t want to go up to Fairbanks, and we definitely don’t want to go to Barrow.”

No matter the outcome, coach Riddall said he instills the idea in his players to forge their own outcome so chance does not play a role in the final decision.

“I told the guys, ‘You might want to consider those things a little heavier in the future,’” Riddall said.

Homer coach Josh Fraley, whose Mariners squad lost a tight 22-14 game to Houston in Week 1, is hoping early season results don’t return to bite Homer in the end.

“We’ve just got to take care of business (from here on out) so it doesn’t get messy,” Fraley said.

Of course, this is all a case of “what if,” but with two weeks left in the regular season, nothing can be discounted.

Nikiski (4-2) at Thunder Mountain (3-3), 8 p.m. Friday

On the heels of a stinging loss to hard-nosed rival Eielson, there is no telling what Nikiski is capable of in the final two weeks of the regular season and playoffs.

The last two state championships the Bulldogs have won came against teams they had lost to in the regular season. If a title rematch is on deck between Nikiski and Eielson, as it appears it may be, than the Bulldogs will not be a team to mess with.

“Sometimes it proves better to lose on the scoreboard, so your kids know you can’t make a lot of mistakes against a team,” Riddall said.

Nikiski gave up nearly 400 rushing yards in its 34-7 loss to Eielson last weekend, more than twice as much as their last five games combined. Riddall attributed that to an inability to keep offensive drives alive.

The game was tied at a touchdown apiece midway through the second quarter, before Eielson scored late to take a 14-7 lead into halftime. In the second half, Nikiski was shut out while the Ravens piled on 20 unanswered points.

“Our defense was on the field the whole game,” Riddall said. “We can’t put it on the kids.”

The loss made for a rough 10-hour bus ride home, but by the time the team arrived back in town Saturday night, the Bulldogs were refocused and already thinking about the next game.

“If you’re still dwelling on it 10 hours later, it’s gonna be a problem,” Riddall said. “By the end of Monday’s practice, we knew the things we needed to correct and adjust to.”

Nikiski faces its second medium-schools matchup of the season with Thunder Mountain tonight, a true Friday night lights game. Riddall, who has college experience as a player out of state, said the intensity always magnifies under the lights.

“For the kids to experience something like that, it’s a fun trip,” he said.

The biggest Falcon that will line up against Nikiski is Qon Bear-Clark, a bruising running back that ran rampant over conference rival Homer two weeks ago en route to 316 yards and five touchdowns. Riddall repeated the mantra that commonly decides games that feature strong ball carriers, “It will be decided in the trenches.”

“Whoever controls the line of scrimmage will be successful in the end,” he said.

Kenai (4-1) at North Pole (4-2), 7 p.m. Friday

The Kardinals’ biggest remaining game is their Week 8 matchup against SoHi, which will decide playoff seeds for the Northern Lights Conference.

But Kenai coach John Marquez isn’t looking to Oct. 3 just yet. Right now, Marquez and the Kardinals are looking forward to an anticipated rematch against North Pole. The Patriots defeated the Kards 47-14 in last year’s state semifinals to advance to the state title game.

In his career as head coach at Kenai Central, Marquez is 0-3 against North Pole. He would like to change that.

“It’s never going to be good enough,” Marquez said. “It’s something you take pride in as a coach and an athlete, and it hurts when you can’t beat a team and you can’t figure it out.

“Even in 2011, when we won the state championship, they beat us that year.”

Marquez added that clinching a state playoff berth for a third straight year does not take the pressure off the final two games of the regular season. Kenai punched its ticket to the state playoffs with a momentum-shifting 56-35 win over Palmer.

“Everyone asks that, and you’d think it would be, but we’re competitive in nature,” Marquez replied.

North Pole lost last week to Fairbanks rival Lathrop in a 33-12 game, so the Patriots are likely looking for a bit of redemption for themselves as well.

It’s no secret who the Kards will have to contain in order to have a chance to win. North Pole quarterback Andrew “Dew” Rogers has spelled the difference for North Pole against rival teams, like last year’s semifinals against Kenai, when the sophomore dropped 271 combined yards of offense on the Kards.

Coach Marquez believes the key to keeping Rogers from running wild will be to force him to run between the tackles, and not allow him to get to the outside.

“A kid that explosive in space is gonna make anyone miss and get 80 yards,” Marquez said. “You think you’re gonna pound him into the ground but he gets back up and goes.”

Luckily, Kenai has two stealthy linebackers on their side that are up to the task of stopping Rogers. Zach Koziczkowski and Andrew Welborn lead the Kenai defense with brute strength and power, and both have the ability to level ball carriers on the spot.

With a Friday night lights game in the Interior, the cold night air — it is forecasted to snow Friday — is certain to heat up quickly.

“It’s gonna be very intense,” Marquez said. “We’re going to play really physical and we’re going in with momentum.”

Lathrop (3-2) at Soldotna (6-0), 2 p.m. Saturday

For an eighth straight year — his entire career as a head coach — Galen Brantley Jr. has guided the Soldotna Stars to a playoff berth.

Brantley Jr. downplayed his role in getting the Stars to the postseason every year in his tenure as head coach, an era in SoHi football that has seen the Stars go 82-5 with six championships.

“It’s certainly a credit to the young men and the assistant coaches in the program,” Brantley Jr. said.

SoHi clinched a medium-schools postseason spot with a win over Eagle River on homecoming weekend, and will now face large-schools challenger Lathrop one week before ending the year with its traditional date with Kenai.

When was the last time Soldotna and Lathrop faced each other? It came in August 2004, when Brantley Jr. was just an assistant to head coach Sarge Truesdell.

The Stars tallied a 39-31 win over the Malamutes that day, in a game that was moved from the Interior to Wasilla in avoidance of wildfire smoke.

Brantley Jr. said he remembers that much of the game, but not much else. Not a surprise from a coach that exudes hyper focus on only the next game on the schedule.

“That was one of two crazy games we had with (Lathrop) back in the day,” he said.

Lathrop beat North Pole 33-12 last week and has clinched a large-schools playoff spot from the Railbelt Conference. Brantley Jr. said his squad got a chance to see what Lathrop looks like in a preseason training camp in July. His assessment is focused on the Malamutes QB Glenn Maiden.

“He’s an exceptional quarterback, he’s the man,” Brantley Jr. said. “He’s certainly one of those athletes, we want to limit his touches, and keep it from turning into a track meet.”

Maiden and twin brother Garrius, both seniors, are players capable of taking the ball on 50-yard runs if the opposing team isn’t careful, but SoHi is typically a well-disciplined team that tackles effectively.

Homer (2-4) at Valdez (3-3), 1 p.m. Saturday

Homer coach Josh Fraley knew the schedule for the Mariners was front-loaded early on. With games against Nikiski, Eielson and Thunder Mountain scheduled in the first five weeks of the season, the Mariners just had to put their noses to the grindstone and hope to emerge with a respectable record.

The struggles were there — Homer went 1-4 in the five-game span — but now the team is beginning to click on all cylinders with two weeks to go and a playoff berth in sight.

“The way it’s shaping up, as long as we beat (Voznesenka), we’re in,” Fraley said.

Homer took care of business in a 66-0 win against an upstart Joe Redington team, a squad composed only of underclassmen. Fraley said in a region meeting Monday, it was agreed that Redington will join the Peninsula Conference in 2016.

“For their second game (of the season), I was pretty impressed with what they had,” Fraley said. “It will be an interesting meeting for some years to come.”

Valdez could present a bigger obstacle for Homer, but after imposing a 55-0 shutout on the Buccaneers last year, Fraley said his Mariners squad is set to handle Valdez. Fraley pointed out defensive tackle Michael Swoboda, a versatile senior who will be crucial in pressuring Valdez’s quarterback.

Fraley also said that several members of the team came down with flu symptoms over the week, including quarterback Teddy Croft, who has racked up 944 yards of offense between his strong arm and quick legs in 2015.

Ketchikan (1-3) at Seward (2-4), 2 p.m. Saturday

Seward is looking to bolster its case for a second straight playoff berth with a nonconference matchup against Ketchikan.

The Kings tallied a 61-30 win over the Seahawks last year in Ketchikan, but Seward is coming off a 50-6 victory over Voznesenka last weekend, and has momentum on its side.

Joe Redington (0-2) vs. Voznesenka (0-5), 5 p.m. Friday

The new Joe Redington Jr./Sr. High School will likely give Voznesenka a fair matchup Friday at Homer High School, as both teams are winless on the year.

Voznesenka was eliminated from playoff contention after a 50-6 loss to Seward last weekend, but against an inexperienced group of Redington underclassmen, the Cougars face the possibility of grabbing their first win of the year.

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