Walking off Justin Maile Field under the fading late-summer twilight after a 42-21 Northern Lights Conference victory over the Palmer Moose, Soldotna football coach Galen Brantley Jr. was almost relieved to have gotten past the hurdle that their opponent presented to the Stars.
In a season full of big tests by bigger schools, SoHi was given one of its stiffest challenges by a conference opponent in quite some time, but the outside public would never know it by looking at Palmer’s record, which dropped to 1-4 after the Stars were finished with them.
But Brantley Jr. knew that the Week 7 matchup between Palmer and the Kenai Kardinals would likely play a huge role in deciding which two teams represent the NLC in the medium-schools postseason.
“That’ll be the one that decides it,” Brantley Jr. said. “They’re a talented enough team to be standing there in the second week of October.”
The Sept. 9 victory was just another in the long string of wins that the powerhouse SoHi football program has — it currently stands at a state-record 45 — but Brantley Jr. said it was one that made the Stars realize how real Palmer is, and how much of a fight the Kards would be in for.
Kenai (2-0 conference) and Palmer (2-1) face off tonight in a contest that could greatly clear up the playoff picture, or it could muddy things up even more. If Palmer wins, it would help the Moose avoid near-elimination from the postseason picture, while Kenai would be 2-1 in conference heading into its season finale with Soldotna, a team the Kards haven’t beaten since 2011.
If Kenai wins, it would clinch a playoff spot for the Kards for a third straight year.
“We win, we’re in,” said Kenai coach Davis Lowery. “We know that and the kids know it. Our theme this week has been relentless. We’ve got to play like that every play.”
Kenai (3-3) at Palmer (2-4), 7 p.m. Friday
A 48-3 drubbing by nonconference opponent Chugiak last weekend did not sit well with coach Lowery. In addition to being beat at home, the Kards suffered 13 penalties that backed them up 125 yards, and since Saturday, the team has been fixing to get as much time in as possible to prepare for Palmer.
“This week has been probably, since the preseason, one of our hardest weeks of work,” Lowery said. “We have a lot to crunch into a short amount of time.”
Kenai currently stands in a tie atop the standings with Soldotna with identical 2-0 conference records, although SoHi is 6-0 overall while Kenai is 3-3. Palmer sits in third at 2-1, and will wrap up its NLC schedule tonight against Kenai, meaning the Moose will be needing a SoHi victory over Kenai in the last week of the season to clinch a postseason spot.
That is, if they can beat the Kards tonight.
“I think it is the deciding game, no question about it,” Lowery said. “We’re not thinking about anything else but this particular game.”
After watching the SoHi-Palmer matchup two weeks ago, a game in which the Moose defensive secondary picked off Soldotna twice, Lowery said Palmer will force Kenai to play sound, fundamental football.
“They’re a big team, a physical team, and they are well-coached up front,” he said.
With 6-foot-8 quarterback Clayton Southwick taking snaps under center, the Moose offense features a variety of skilled receivers. One of the most lethal is Matt Daniels, who caught seven balls against the SoHi defense, and an eighth he hauled in from the Stars offense.
Southwick can move too. Not only did he throw for 131 yards and two touchdowns against Soldotna, but Southwick also scrambled a dozen times for 49 yards on the ground.
Lowery said fullback Nick Beeson will be out for a second straight week to injury.
Eielson (5-1) at Nikiski (4-2), 2 p.m. Saturday
The Bulldogs have a big fight on their hands this weekend as well. While Eielson and Nikiski are now separated into two different conferences, Saturday’s matchup is one for pride.
The Ravens and the Bulldogs have clashed in three of the past four small-schools championship games, with Eielson winning all three.
Eielson also proudly holds claim to the Alaska state single-game rushing record against the Bulldogs, a 516-yard performance by former Ravens running back Anthony Griffith two years ago on Nikiski’s home turf.
Needless to say, when these two sides collide, it’s bound to be big.
“It’s a point of pride,” said first-year head Nikiski coach Paul Nelson. “They’re unbeaten in small-schools play this year, they’re a tough opponent.
“If we can go out there and pull off a win, it kind of puts us as the No. 1 team. It gives us bragging rights.”
To heighten the tension, it is homecoming weekend for Nikiski, so a victory in the big game would go a long way in a season full of ups and downs for the Bulldogs football team.
Previous head coach Ted Riddall was not a particular fan of homecoming weekend, pointing to the many mental distractions that can upset a team’s balance in the most crucial time of the season, the playoff push.
Nelson said he can understand that reasoning, but added that he believes the positives outweigh the negatives.
“It’s kind of nice on that fact that you don’t have to get motivated or get the players up,” he said.
The Bulldogs haven’t fared well in recent meetings with the Ravens. Nikiski has lost four straight contests to Eielson, with their last win coming in a playoff semifinal at home in Oct. 2013.
So how does Nelson plan to put a stop to the Eielson run?
“I think it comes down to fundamentals,” he explained. “We want to try to make (Eielson) run between the tackles.”
A little rain this week has also been a boon to practice, Nelson said. A wet, muddy practice field has made for the perfect opportunity to practice fumble drills for the Bulldogs, which could come in handy in a matchup that will heavily penalize mistakes.
Soldotna (6-0) at Eagle River (2-4), 3 p.m. Saturday
A Week 6 shutout win over Kodiak left the Stars repeating the status quo this week — rest up and try to get healthy.
Brantley Jr. said offensive guard Kyle Marcuson is still questionable to play this week against an improved Eagle River Wolves squad, as well as fellow linemen Colton Walkden and Aseli Finau. Senior tight end Andy West is also dealing with an injury, and is likely out.
Brantley Jr. said the 15-hour ferry ride to the island and back seemed to do nothing to hamper SoHi’s performance on the field.
“I’d say defensively, they executed very well,” Brantley Jr. said. “We really couldn’t be happier with our kids.”
On offense, however, Brantley Jr. still sees mistakes being made, and the ongoing challenge to shore up cracks in the line will be tested by the Wolves.
A win Saturday — combined with a Palmer loss Friday night — would clinch a playoff berth for SoHi for an 11th straight year.
“It’s certainly a goal we want to be at,” Brantley Jr. said. “We want to be undefeated going into the final week, which is a playoff-type game for us.”
Kenai beat Eagle River 25-7 in Week 4, a game that presented a perfect opportunity for the Stars to watch, and Brantley Jr. gave a nod to the Wolves, who have won multiple games in a single season for the first time in four years.
Working out of a wishbone system, Eagle River’s offense depends a lot on how efficiently quarterback Thad Heagy can distribute the ball to his receivers. Heagy has the speed to scramble for first downs as well, so the SoHi defense will need to cover a lot of ground.
“They’re moving the ball on people, so they’ve come a long way,” Brantley Jr. said.
Seward (3-3) at Voznesenka (1-4), 5 p.m. Friday
A win today for Seward would clinch a playoff berth for the Seahawks, who are 2-0 in the Peninsula Conference, behind only the 3-0 Nikiski Bulldogs.
Seward is riding a wave of momentum with conference wins over Voznesenka and Homer and a nonconference victory over Monroe Catholic in the last three weeks.
Voznesenka (1-1 conference) is also making a playoff push, although the Cougars do not control their destiny. Voz head coach Justin Zank called last Friday’s 12-8 victory over Redington a turning point for the Cougars. It was just the fourth win in program history for the young Voznesenka football team.
“The way we did it, it’s going to help us in the future,” Zank said. “This was not only a big game for this season but a big game overall.”
Redington (0-6) at Homer (0-6), 2 p.m. Saturday
A Peninsula Conference battle between a pair of winless teams is not completely meaningless in the small-schools postseason race. At 0-2 in the conference, Homer is not out of it yet, but the Mariners need everything to go their way to grab a second straight playoff berth. A rising Redington squad may be primed to upset the hard-luck Mariners, but a Homer win would place them in position to scramble the standings in Week 8 against Voznesenka.
Losses to Nikiski and Seward over the last two weeks have hampered Homer’s chances, as well as the loss of their starting quarterback Teddy Croft in Week 4 against Juneau.
Backup signal caller Jaime Rios has done well in Croft’s spot, but coach Josh Fraley’s decision to switch to a Wildcat offense last weekend against Nikiski affected Rios’ passing game, as he completed 1 of 13 throws and was picked off four times.
“We ran the ball completely ineffective (against Seward), so we wanted to make sure we could run the ball (against Nikiski),” Fraley said after Saturday’s loss. “With that system, we had to throw the ball at some point, and it was rough.”