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Week 7: Kenai, SoHi face crucial conference tests

Nobody can accuse the Kenai Central football team of scheduling lightly for homecoming.

Last season, the Kardinals scheduled Redington for their homecoming game and lost 68-14 to the eventual Division III champs.

This season, the Kardinals will play Houston at 2 p.m. in the homecoming game. The Hawks are 2-0 in the Mid Alaska Conference and 5-0 overall.

Kenai, at 1-1 in the Mid Alaska and 4-2 overall, is fighting for one of the three conference berths to the Division III playoffs.

The Kardinals took a key step forward in that playoff push by recovering from a 14-0 deficit to defeat Redington 27-14 in Week 6.

“They got a grip at halftime and realized the game was not that far out of reach,” Kenai head coach Jake Brand said. “A lot of the things that happened were correctable errors. The credit goes to the players in that moment to pull themselves back into the game.”

Brand said Houston runs a sound offensive and defensive scheme. The players come through by blocking hard, tackling hard and running hard.

“In Division III, when you execute on both sides of the ball, you’re going to win a lot of games,” Brand said.

Brand said Kenai will have to be just as sound on both sides of the ball to challenge the Hawks. He said Houston has some big players and a particular challenge will be running the ball against the 4-4 stack of the Hawks’ defense.

Soldotna at Wasilla, 7 p.m. Friday

The Stars have been totally dominant this season. They have yet to punt and their closest win was by 29 points.

Yet, with two games left in an eight-game regular season, the Stars haven’t even secured a playoff spot.

The Northern Lights Conference has just five teams, with the top two teams going to the Division II playoffs. The Stars are fighting for those playoff berths with Wasilla and Eagle River — SoHi’s opponents in the final two weeks of the season.

SoHi comes into Friday’s game against the Warriors at 2-0 in the league and 6-0 overall, while Wasilla is 1-1 in the league and 3-3 overall. The Warriors lost 24-21 to Eagle River in Week 6.

“It makes it kind of weird being in a small conference where everything is backloaded at the end,” SoHi head coach Galen Brantley Jr. said. “Everything comes down to the end for us.

“It feels like the playoffs for us. Everything has a playoff feel from here on out.”

Wasilla was able to nip Soldotna for the Region 3/Division I boys track title a year ago. Brantley Jr. said that’s the type of athleticism the Stars will be facing on the road on a Friday night with Wasilla’s season on the line.

“Wasilla’s a hidden gem as far as football goes,” Brantley Jr. said. “They’re dominant on the basketball court and wrestling mat.”

Matt Jaronik was hired as Wasilla’s head coach before the 2021 season. Brantley Jr. said getting within a field goal of Eagle River shows just how far Jaronik has brought the program in a short time.

The Warriors will have to figure out a way to stop Soldotna’s rushing attack to have a chance at defeating the Stars. Gehret Medcoff, Wyatt Faircloth and Collin Peck have been so good running the ball the Stars haven’t punted. Zac Buckbee also has kept the offense running smoothly at quarterback after starter Brayden Taylor was injured.

“The formula that’s time tested is to run the ball and stop the run,” Brantley Jr. said. “If you do those two things, you’re going to win a lot of football games.”

In a 49-7 victory over Palmer in Week 6, Brantley Jr. also said the Stars made improvements in stopping the run. Soldotna did not give up a first down in the first quarter.

Brantley Jr. credited middle linebackers Joe Whittom and Faircloth, and the front four of Kenai Lepule, Tanner Clyde, Luke Miller and Elijah Lee, for bottling up the run.

The coach said the Stars will likely be without three two-way starters and a one-way starter again against the Warriors.

Homer at Nikiski, 5 p.m. Friday

The Mariners will tune up for the playoffs, while the Bulldogs will get ready for an important battle with Seward in Week 8.

Homer is 3-1 in the Mid Alaska Conference and 5-1 overall, meaning the Mariners have locked up one of the league’s three playoff berths. Homer closes with nonconference games against the Bulldogs and Chugiak.

Nikiski is 1-0 in the Denali Conference and 2-1 overall. The Bulldogs haven’t played in two weeks due to two teams dropping out of the conference this season. The conference gets one playoff berth, and that will be determined when the Bulldogs host the Seahawks in Week 8.

“It’s definitely weird,” Nikiski head coach Matt Trammell said of having two weeks off during the season. “I feel like we really needed it, because we’re dealing with health issues and that sort of thing. But it’s also negative because we don’t have a short-term goal in a game, so it’s tough getting focused and dialed in.”

Homer didn’t have quarterback Carter Tennison due to injury in the first two weeks, but the senior has returned to put up ridiculous numbers and keep the Mariners undefeated since then. In a 58-20 victory over Barrow in Week 6, Tennison had nine rushes for 149 yards and four touchdowns, and also passed for 178 yards and two touchdowns.

“He’s by far the most physical runner we’ve seen so far,” Trammell said. “The focus was on gang tackling. We need two, three, four or five swarming to the ball by the time the whistle blows.”

The Nikiski coach also said the offense must keep Tennison off the field as much as possible.

“That was one of the talking points at today’s practice — limiting our mistakes, fumbles and penalties,” Trammell said.

Trammell said Oliver Parrish continues to be a coach’s dream by playing any position he’s asked and diligently taking coaching on how to play the position. The Nikiski coach said James Hemphill’s play at cornerback will be important against Tennison’s passing.

“We’re just excited to get back to a normal game,” Trammell said.

In going 1-1 while Tennison was injured, Zank said his team set the tone for the season.

“We were able to become more well-rounded,” Zank said. “His numbers do pop, for sure, but we have a lot of good players around him.”

Mo Techie had 143 yards receiving and a touchdown against Barrow, while Russell Nyvall had seven runs for 54 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

“I thought the guys played well, although there’s always stuff we can improve on,” Zank said. “I was proud of the guys. Barrow is a physically imposing team with a bunch of big dudes. I thought we played well considering how outmatched we were sizewise.”

Zank said Barrow, which defeated Nikiski 12-8 in Week 1, plays a similar style to the Bulldogs in trying to run the ball and control the clock.

“We’ve played the T formation and are preparing the guys accordingly,” Zank said. “It’s definitely going to be a challenge though.

“Nikiski does a good job making it look like any one of four dudes in the backfield could have the ball at any given time.”

Palmer JV at Seward, noon Saturday

The Seahawks have homecoming and senior night as they get ready for a big clash with Nikiski in Week 8.

In Week 6, Seward topped Redington 28-7 to set up a game with the Bulldogs for the lone playoff spot out of the Denali Conference. Seward is 1-0 in the league and 1-4 overall.

When the Ravens scored in the second half to cut the score to 14-7, Seward quickly answered with two touchdowns.

“We stressed all week talking about that drive and fight and not getting down on ourselves,” Seward head coach Tyler Mallory said.

Running back Kupono Albino had 179 yards on 23 yards for Seward, while the defense had multiple sacks and caused five turnovers. Mallory also said Ronan Bickling played a great game at outside linebacker, keeping Eielson’s speed on the inside.

“We still need to improve on some stuff,” Mallory said. “We’ve still got work to do. We need to get better with our blocking and we’ve installed a couple new, little things.”

Mallory said Palmer will also use some varsity reserves since the Moose varsity has the week off. For that reason, the coach said there’s not good film on the team Seward will face, so the Seahawks will focus on improving themselves.

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