The stretch run of the prep football season will receive a serious dose of reality this weekend, and the consequences are dire for most teams.
In the Division II Northern Lights Conference, the top two playoff spots could be set in stone, or the whole thing could still be wide open heading into the final Saturday of the year Sept. 30.
If Kenai (1-1 in NLC play) loses to Palmer (2-1) Saturday, the Kardinals’ playoff chances will be on life support. Only a SoHi (2-0) loss Saturday to Eagle River would give Kenai any hope going into the final week of the season.
If the Kards win their last two games against Palmer and SoHi, they would claim the conference crown outright.
“I told the kids, this is it,” said Kenai head coach Ted Riddall. “They’re playing to get in, and so are you. We’re not assured of being in. … It’s going to be a great game, and I expect our kids to show up and play.”
A Soldotna win over Eagle River would clinch a guaranteed playoff spot for the Stars, but they would still need help to lock up the top seed. A Kenai loss to Palmer combined with a SoHi win Saturday would set the playoff field with a week left to play, giving the Stars the No. 1 seed and Palmer the No. 2 seed.
“I think for us, it’s business as usual,” said SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. “We’re getting down to the end of the year, and we want to be playing football as good as we can possibly play.”
The Division III Peninsula Conference also has playoff spots up for grabs this weekend. A win over Redington tonight would not only clinch a postseason berth for Homer (2-0), but also the top seed from the conference, as the Mariners would get the tiebreaker over any opponents at the end of the season.
Nikiski is playing out of its conference this week, but any date with the mighty Eielson Ravens is a big one for the Bulldogs. The two rivals clashed three times in a four-year span in the Division III (formerly small-schools) championship game, with Eielson taking all three titles in 2012, 2014 and 2015.
After this week’s contest with Eielson, Nikiski will have a chance to lock up a playoff spot in the final week of the regular season against Seward.
“The playoffs are still wide open for us,” said Nikiski head coach Paul Nelson. “We’ve got to take care of business and respond this weekend, and have something for the end.”
The following is a closer look at this weekend’s matchups:
Palmer (2-4) at Kenai (3-3), 2 p.m. Saturday
With their playoff hopes on the line, the Kardinals will need a win to stay alive in the postseason chase.
With homecoming weekend among the festivities, the motivation shouldn’t be hard to find.
“Everyone’s alive at this point,” Riddall said. “I told the kids, nothing’s changed, it’s still in your hands.”
Last week did not help the Kards in establishing momentum for a late season run. Kenai was the unfortunate victim of a 48-0 thrashing by the Division I Chugiak Mustangs.
Only able to muster up 121 yards of total offense, Kenai never found the end zone, while Chugiak scored twice off Kenai turnovers in the first 12 minutes of the game.
Riddall said the team did not execute well against one of the top programs in the state, one that harbors the defending Alaska Offensive Player of the Year Derryk Snell, and with several injuries sidelining players, it was a foregone conclusion by halftime.
“If (Chugiak does not) win the state championship, I’d be shocked,” Riddall said. “They’re loaded in every position.
“Making mental errors and mistakes are hard, but against a team that caliber, it multiplies against you.”
Riddall believes Kenai will find a much more even matchup against the Palmer Moose, which prevailed 21-7 over Kenai in last year’s matchup.
This fall, Palmer has a new quarterback but the same stable of dangerous running backs that are capable of ripping off yards on the ground. In a 28-10 loss to Soldotna two weeks ago, the Moose ate up clock and yards in methodical fashion to keep the game close until the waning minutes.
Palmer’s three-headed running attack Jared Oviok, Jeff Glynn and Larry Cutsforth will surely keep the Kenai defense busy all day, but Riddall believes a defensive line that includes Jon Grossl, Jarrett Wilson and Caleb Streiff should be ready to tackle the challenge.
“Our run defense is pretty good, and that’s pretty important,” he said. “They like to run more than pass, but you’ve got to play all phases of the game.”
Eielson (5-1) at Nikiski (3-3), 4 p.m. Friday
The recent history between these two hard-headed football programs is steeped in playoff intensity, but recently, the results have been lopsided in Eielson’s favor.
The previous meeting resulted in a 58-14 win for the Ravens, and in Nelson’s second year as a head coach at Nikiski, he hopes to see a reversal of fortunes.
Eielson is fresh off an upset loss, a 19-6 dud to Barrow last week that showed a lot of Division III opponents across the state that the Ravens are indeed mortal.
“They’re not used to losing a lot, especially to Division III opponents,” Nelson said. ‘So they’ll be looking to come back and have a good game against us.”
Eielson was missing three prominent starters in the loss to Barrow — senior running back Jeremiah Brown, who amassed nearly 800 yards of offense in the first five weeks of the season, and two starting offensive lineman — that left the Ravens in a weakened state of offense. Nelson said he said even if the three starters are back this week, the Bulldogs are feeling hopeful that a win is possible.
“I think that showed they can be beaten,” he said. “I think some of our kids look at (Eielson) like this big machine that keeps plugging away, so it’s nice to see them have some struggles.”
Nikiski fell flat in a crucial Peninsula Conference meeting last week, a 38-0 loss to Homer, which now leads the conference standings.
Nelson said the loss to Homer was due to the Bulldogs failing to execute assignments properly, but also credited the strength of the Mariners offense, which exploded for 453 yards of offense on Nikiski, including 234 passing yards and three touchdowns passes that shredded the Nikiski secondary.
“I was surprised how well they threw the ball,” Nelson said. “We had played a few spread teams in Monroe and Ketchikan, and we did fine defending the pass.
“(Homer is) a nonspread team, and they just threw the ball all over us. It was shocking to see that.”
Nelson added that the Bulldogs are also regaining full health for the first time since Week 2.
Homer (5-1) at Redington (4-2), 7 p.m. Friday
The Mariners are facing a playoff-clinching weekend against an improved Redington squad, one that has won four games this year after going winless in two previous seasons of football in program history.
Coming off big 38-0 win over Nikiski, Homer may be the most dangerous team in the conference with five straight wins.
Backed by an effective offensive line, Homer quarterback Teddy Croft continued to show why he is one of the top signal-callers in Division III by dropping three touchdown passes on Nikiski last week and running one in on the ground. Croft combined for 325 combined passing and rushing yards himself last week.
With just Redington and Voznesenka left on their schedule, Homer appears primed to be the top seed out of the Peninsula Conference. A win tonight would clinch a playoff spot and top seed for the Mariners, but they must deal with Redington first.
The Huskies are fresh off a 20-8 win over conference opponent Voznesenka, and feature a dangerous passing attack that can move the ball downfield in a hurry.
Eagle River (2-4) at Soldotna (6-0), 2 p.m. Saturday
Senior night for the Stars could also be clinching night.
A Soldotna win would give the Stars a 56th straight victory and a 12th consecutive playoff appearance.
Only a Kenai victory over Palmer is keeping SoHi away from locking up the NLC crown again. Brantley Jr. said while he is confident his squad can get the job done, there are still areas to improve on.
“We’ve spent lot of time on tackling and running,” Brantley Jr. said. “On defense, we’re still making too many mental mistakes. That’s plagued us all year.”
After going 2-22 over the previous three years, Eagle River opened 2017 on a 2-1 stretch to stake their claim as playoff contenders. While the Wolves has since fallen as a long shot to make it, Eagle River still has shown considerable improvement as a varsity squad, and Brantley Jr. can attest to that.
“They played our JV team a year ago to a one-touchdown game,” Brantley Jr. recalled. “We knew ahead of time they had some athletes coming up, they’re juniors now and they won a lot of games in the lower levels.
“People that were unfamiliar with their program thought this is a shock, but we knew better.”
Brantley Jr. said senior Eli Lovelace will return to the starting lineup this week as a center after going down with an injury in Week 4 against Crater High (Oregon) in a game played in northern California. Brantley Jr. added that senior guard and linebacker Wendell Tuisuala is still out this week to an injury.
Voznesenka (1-3) at Seward (1-5), 5 p.m. Friday
Seward, the reigning Peninsula Conference champion, has seen its season slip away with five consecutive losses, including four shutouts. The slide has left the Seahawks’ postseason hopes hanging by a thread, as a loss would eliminate them completely. A win would keep them alive, but Seward would need to rely on tiebreakers in the final week to make the playoffs.
Seward head coach Kelly Cinereski said the Seahawks have been saddled with the injury and sickness bug, as several starters have gotten limited snaps the previous two weeks to a combination of strep throat and the common flu.
“Every week we think we’re going to win, but it seems like someone’s sick or can’t go,” Cinereski said. “It’s one of those years, if it’s not bad luck, we’d have no luck at all.”
Seward is aching from a 15-0 loss to Division III opponent Monroe last week, and Cinereski attributed that to a young team making mistakes when the pressure is high.
“We’re in the red zone every game, we’re there, we should score, and we’ve had our opportunities,” he said. “The little things are beating us.”
Voznesenka lost 20-8 last week to Redington, but Cinereski still is wary against the Cougars’ option-style offense. Cinereski said Voz’s tricky scheme will force Seward to stay vigilant in keeping to individual assignments on the field.