The high school football regular season still has two weeks left, but this weekend could help solidify the playoff picture a great deal.
The Soldotna Stars (1-0 Northern Lights Conference) can clinch a 14th straight state playoff spot Saturday with a win over Eagle River (2-0 NLC) and a Kenai Central (0-1 NLC) loss. The Kardinals must win out to have a shot at making the postseason, and it starts Friday night against Kodiak.
“This game is really important,” said Kenai head coach Dustin Akana. “We have to win out in order to go to the playoffs, and I always preach, take it a day at a time. Friday, we’ve got to take care of business, we have to beat Kodiak in order to have a chance.”
SoHi head coach Galen Brantley Jr. said in addition to trying to claim a playoff spot, the Stars are excited to hold homecoming celebrations, while sending out the senior class with a win.
“For us, it’s just been this long journey with these guys from little pups to where they are now,” he said. “It’ll be a celebration for us.”
Saturday’s game is also a rematch of last year’s Division II state championship, which SoHi won in a rout over the Wolves.
At the Division III level, Houston (3-0 conference) leads the Peninsula Conference and has already sealed a playoff berth, although not the top seed yet. The Hawks can accomplish that with a win Friday over Ketchikan.
Nikiski, Ketchikan and Homer are all currently tied up for the second spot at 1-1 each in conference play. The biggest matchup involves Nikiski and Homer, which will meet up for the second time this year Saturday afternoon in Homer. The winner of that game will earn a huge leg up on the field going into the final weekend.
“I believe the team that wins this game makes the playoffs,” said Nikiski head coach Paul Nelson. “The team that loses is staying home, so it’s definitely a big game.”
Nikiski and Homer met Aug. 30 in an unscheduled contest that was hastily put together after Swan Lake wildfire travel bans instituted by the school district jumbled things up.
Instead of Homer traveling to Monroe Catholic and Nikiski hosting Valdez, the two peninsula programs played a nonconference game that Homer ultimately won 50-18.
This week, with everything on the line, Homer head coach Justin Zank is hoping his team can stay focused amid the school’s homecoming activities.
“It’s the next game for us, it’s business as usual,” Zank said. “We’re feeling good about where we sit, and we have a big matchup this weekend. We’re feeling good.”
Nikiski (1-4) at Homer (3-2), 3 p.m. Saturday
Homer’s homecoming weekend could be a big one for the football team, which is looking to get back to the postseason after missing out last year.
Zank has never coached a playoff game, so it would be a big moment for him as well, but Zank is all business, even after his Mariners throttled the Bulldogs 50-18 on Aug. 31 in a road win.
“We expect Nikiski to come out ready to play,” Zank said. “The last time we played them, Nikiski came out and punched us in the mouth with 12 straight points (to start the game).
“I expect them to do that again, so we’ve got to calm our nerves.”
With senior QB Anthony Kalugin under center for Homer, Zank said he likes the Mariners chances of scoring on the Bulldogs.
“We can’t avoid them coming out strong, but what we can avoid is our focus,” he said. “We need to be ready to play like ourselves, just come out and do what we do and when our offense is clicking, it’s hard to stop.”
Homer shut out Seward 30-0 last week in a conference game, with Kalugin doing a lot of damage with 204 rushing yards and four total touchdowns — three rushing and one passing.
“I would say he’s playing extremely well, and when he’s rolling, we’re rolling, that’s for sure,” Zank said.
Nelson said after giving up 47 points in the first half last week in a loss to Houston, the Bulldogs are looking to rediscover their defensive edge, and Kalugin presents the biggest test.
“He’s a good athlete and a threat in both running the ball outside and throwing it as well,” Nelson said. “We have to be aware of what he’s doing. They run the play action well, so our (defensive backs) have to be disciplined.”
Nelson said Nikiski struggled against Homer’s read option plays in the Aug. 31 clash, but he and the Bulldogs coaching staff have learned from that.
“That was a big problem for us,” he said. “We’ve coached them up to be more prepared this week.”
The biggest issue, however, plaguing Nikiski in recent weeks has been the offense, which has scored a measly nine points in the last three games, including two shutouts.
Homer, meanwhile, has given up an average of 11 points a game this year against Division III opposition, and contained Seward to just 31 yards of offense last week.
“We’ve been focused on getting the offense going,” Nelson said. “I think the boys are ready to turn the corner and score some touchdowns.”
Eagle River (4-2) at Soldotna (5-0), 2 p.m. Saturday
Last Oct. 13, the Wolves were at a pinnacle in program history, making their first title game appearance. It ended in a 46-14 beatdown to Soldotna, and the team unloaded a big class of senior talent.
Still, with a mostly new cast of faces, Eagle River has fought its way to a winning record in NLC play this year after beating up on Kenai last week 31-0.
After hauling in two TD catches with 66 yards last week against Kodiak, SoHi tight end Galen Brantley III said the Stars are excited to host the Wolves for a rematch.
“It’ll be a good one, it’ll be fun,” he said. “The biggest thing is to stay focused, and not overlook any teams.”
SoHi does not control its own playoff destiny this weekend as it needs a win combined with a Kenai loss to clinch, but the Stars can put themselves in position to clinch against its longtime rival in Week 8.
SoHi QB Truesdell has been unflappable this year with eight TD throws to zero interceptions, and starting opposite of him will be Eagle River sophomore Nathaniel Guderian, who will be flanked by Wolves RB Cashiez Reaves. Reaves posted 142 rush yards against Kenai last weekend, along with two touchdowns.
Kenai (1-4) at Kodiak (0-6), 5 p.m. Friday
Kenai’s playoff hopes are on the line, and a road victory against the winless Kodiak Bears would keep them alive going into the final week.
The Kardinals, however, were hit hard this week with grade check eligibility. Akana said he is missing six starters due to grade checks, which will toughen the test this weekend.
“We have our goals and expectations for the boys, and they know it,” Akana said. “It’s hard, but we tell them weeks in advance to get your grades taken care of. We know they have to do it by the end of grade checks. We’ve got to move on.”
Akana said while one offensive playmaker will miss the game, the offense will still have senior QB Kayden Daniels and junior RB Tucker Vann. Akana listed three new names that will step up and make their debut on varsity, including sophomore Corbin Bookey at offensive tackle and guard, sophomore James Sparks at cornerback and junior River Tomrdle at linebacker.
While Kodiak hasn’t won this year, Akana said the Kards aren’t far ahead of the Bears with just one win to show for it.
“We just can’t overlook them,” he said. “To be honest, we don’t have much to talk about either.”
Last year, Kenai defeated Kodiak 41-22. In 2019, one of Kodiak’s most dangerous playmakers is running back Josue Martinez, a strong runner that can bowl through a defensive line.
Last week against Soldotna, Martinez struggled with just 17 yards on 13 carries, but Akana knows who to keep an eye on.
“He’s one that we’re watching,” Akana said. “He’s one we’ve been prepping for, he’s on everything.”
Seward (0-6) at Eielson (4-1), Saturday
The Seahawks are still in search of their first win of 2019, and it will be tough to pick it up against the reigning Division III state champion Ravens.
The Seahawks, who are eliminated from postseason contention, failed to find the end zone last week against Homer in a 30-0 loss, while Eielson is coming off a rare Aurora Conference loss last weekend when Barrow thrashed the Ravens 42-0 at home.
Eielson dumped Seward 45-0 in the teams’ meeting last year.