Week 7 football preview: Playoff picture sharpens

After six jumbled weeks to start the 2014 prep football season, the playoff pictures for the medium-schools Northern Lights Conference and the small-schools Greatland Conference have sharpened considerably.

Soldotna crushed Homer to the tune of a 51-6 win last Saturday to stake out a 2-0 NLC record and secure the team’s ninth-straight postseason berth. It also extended the Stars’ winning streak to 25 straight games, only four away from tying the school record of 29. SoHi has a shot to tie the mark if they make it to the medium-schools state championship game on Oct. 18.

While the Kenai Central varsity was off on a bye week, the Kardinals JV team was up north facing an independent Houston varsity squad that topped them 22-0.

Kenai currently holds a 1-0 NLC record and the second playoff spot over Kodiak (1-2) and Homer (0-2). Should Kenai beat Homer this weekend, the Kards will claim a second consecutive playoff spot and the sixth berth in seven years.

If Kenai loses, the Homer Mariners will have to wait until the Oct. 4 meeting between Kenai and Soldotna before knowing their postseason future.

West Valley (2-4) at Soldotna (5-0), 2 p.m. Saturday

The Stars will play only their second game on the new turf field this season, but it’s a big one. It’s homecoming weekend.

While the glamour and celebration of homecoming leaves players and supporters with an extra bounce in their step, it leaves football coaches even more stressed than usual. Schedules need to be rearranged to accommodate preparation for the weekend’s activities, which can also sidetrack the focus on the actual game.

“It’s always more of a distraction for us,” said SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. “We’re just trying to get everything done now to prevent any loose ends.”

It may look like Brantley Jr. has an easy job coaching one of the state’s premier football teams, but with a large-school opponent like the West Valley Wolfpack looming on the immediate horizon, SoHi’s biggest challenge is about to hit them.

“I hope not to get into a crazy track meet with (West Valley),” Brantley Jr. said. “But it might end up as that.”

After opening their season with four straight losses, the Wolfpack are coming off two big wins; a 35-28 win over Palmer and a 46-35 triumph over Juneau, a state finalist from last year. It’s clear that momentum is on their side.

“They’re a young team, with better athletes than we’ve seen at this point in the season,” Brantley Jr. said. “They’ve progressed and gotten better, and I don’t think their record reflects what they’ve been able to do. I mean, they just went through Palmer and Juneau, two powers in the state.”

Using a pistol spread offense, West Valley houses a stable of dynamic playmakers, starting with quarterback Zach Lester. Add to that running back Josh Cummings and receiver Prince Cooks, and the SoHi defensive line will have its hands full.

Last week against Juneau, Cummings carried the ball for 196 yards, while Cooks accounted for three touchdowns, two in the first half. Cooks is also ranked second among large-school teams in the state in receiving yards with 373 on 26 catches, including five touchdowns.

“(Cummings) will be the best back we’ll see so far this year,” Brantley Jr. said. “But our approach is the same as always. We’ll work to make them a one-dimensional team, take away their run game and try to give ourselves opportunities with our defense.”

Brantley Jr. added that SoHi’s defensive backfield will be needing a big day — players such as Bailey Blumentritt, Tim Duke, Brooks Furlong, Drew Gibbs, Ty Fenton and Drew Fowler.

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

One of the most important games this weekend will play out at Ed Hollier Field in Kenai, where the postseason fates of two teams will be decided.

For the Kardinals, it’s simple. Just win. A postseason berth can be sewn up with a victory, but that is easier said than done on homecoming weekend.

Kenai coach John Marquez said the annual festivities are all about the community, but when Saturday afternoon rolls around, he expects his team to show up ready for a battle.

“Everyone goes through it, so we’re just up front with the kids,” Marquez said. “We’re just keeping them focused in practice, when we can, and on Saturday the kids can go out there and enjoy it, but we have to make them understand we have a job to do.”

With a playoff spot on the line, Marquez said he is emphasizing to his players to keep their eyes on Homer.

“We have a huge game in front of us,” Marquez said. “We’re not looking at the playoffs or anything else. We just need to do our jobs against Homer, better than what we had against Wasilla.

“The celebration will be about winning the game. We’ll celebrate at the end of the season.”

The last time Kenai stepped off the field, it was on the heels of a 20-10 loss to nonconference opponent Wasilla. Marquez said the first week of the bye that Kenai had was spent on fixing things that needed work on the Kards’ offense and defense. The second week was spent on preparing specifically for Homer.

The bye ended being a needed relief in other ways, too. Marquez said linebacker Zach Koziczkowski suffered a hairline fracture in his hand against Wasilla, and the off week provided the rest he needed. Koziczkowski has been a crucial playmaker for Kenai this year, racking up numerous defensive tackles and sacks in each game.

Marquez said Koziczkowski will sit out against Homer, but is expected to return for the regular season finale against Soldotna.

Saturday’s game is do-or-die for Homer. If the Mariners lose, a playoff spot goes up in smoke. If they win, there is still a chance for them, but it depends on the outcome of the Soldotna-Kenai game on Oct. 4.

Homer coach Josh Fraley said he is relishing the chance that has been given to his team.

“There’s definitely nothing to lose,” Fraley said. “I think we’d kind of rather be in that situation than the other way around. With the kids we have, they like being the underdog.”

Fraley said another reason to look forward to this weekend’s game is the matchup that the Kards provide. Kenai features a similar power running offense to that of Homer, and that familiarity has lent itself to a good week of practice leading up to Saturday.

“We watched quite a bit of game film this week,” Fraley said. “We’ve just been working on being physical and because we’re so similar, it’ll come down to who can stand the most punishment.”

Even after the brutal loss to SoHi last weekend, Fraley said his squad was still happy to come away with six points. The late touchdown that Homer had against Soldotna was the first scoring play a team has had on the Stars since Week 1 against Eagle River.

“After that you’d think we had just won the game,” Fraley said. “It’s amazing what a few points will do.”

Barrow (3-3) at Nikiski (4-1), 5 p.m. Friday

Nikiski is tied for third in the Greatland Conference standings with a 3-1 record, identical to Barrow.

Nikiski coach Ted Riddall said he would like to avoid a tie in the standings — which would be decided by a coin flip — much like what happened last year.

“It’s not really satisfying yet because just being in the playoffs doesn’t bode well if you’re a three or four seed,” Riddall said.

Last year, Nikiski got lucky on the coin flip to determine who won the conference, and were seeded second, giving the Bulldogs home-field advantage in the first week of the playoffs. Nikiski went on to win the small-schools state championship.

Friday evening is Nikiski’s homecoming game, something that Riddall said he is wary of after past years performances.

“Homecoming week hasn’t been good to us,” Riddall admitted. “If it was up to me, I’d cancel it.”

Just a season ago, Nikiski was in position to claim the Greatland Conference title, but gave up a loss to Eielson, which ultimately gave the Ravens the No. 1 seed on the season-ending coin flip.

With the typical celebrations and festivities going on among the sports teams, Riddall said it is an opportunity to improve on the team’s mental edge, which will be tested under the distractions.

“If you focus on things you can control, the scoreboard takes care of itself,” Riddall said.

Last weekend against Voznesenka, Nikiski quarterback Cade Anderson got the chance to air the ball out, racking up 264 passing yards, which Riddall chalked up to Nikiski’s experimenting with different offensive formations.

“If you would’ve asked me before the game if Cade would throw that many yards, I’d say no,” Riddall said. “They were long passes down the field, but I don’t know if we’ve ever had that many passing yards for a quarterback here.”

With the improving passing game added to Nikiski’s already established ground attack, the Bulldogs hold a good shot of breaking the deadlock in the standings.

Riddall added that Barrow always brings a team that presents a passing threat, which is helped by the size of the linemen.

“They’re always big up front, they’re bigger than most teams,” Riddall said. “Over the years, we’ve had to come up with different schemes, so that it’s not mano a mano. We’ll be working on crossing back and getting blocks in other ways.”

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