Just like the unusual late-season summer weather, the Kenai Central football team doesn’t intend to go away.
Last Saturday’s meeting at Ed Hollier Field against the visiting Kodiak Bears resulted in a 41-22 win and kept the Kards alive in the playoff hunt, thanks to their biggest game of the season.
Saturday afternoon at Soldotna’s Justin Maile Field will be even bigger. A win may push Kenai into the playoffs.
Kenai head coach Dustin Akana said his squad has been focused this week for the task at hand.
“It’s business,” Akana said. “We made a point to the boys, (that) we’ve got to get work done this week, because we all know who we’re playing.”
In order to ready his crew for their biggest game of the season, Akana said he is bringing in a handful of Kenai alumni to give a Friday night motivational speech, all of whom have been to the playoffs and have won state titles. Akana said the group includes former players Luke Oliver and Danny Autrey, both of whom were part of the four-year run of state crowns that Kenai won from 2002 to 2005.
“They’re going to talk about what they did, they’re going to come and share their wisdom with the boys,” Akana said. “They went through it, they went through high school … so they know what needs to be put in to have a championship-winning team.”
A Kenai victory will send the NLC into chaos with a three-way tie atop the standings between SoHi, Kenai and Eagle River. The tiebreaking procedure would likely resort to using common opponents out of conference. Soldotna has victories over Railbelt Conference schools West Valley and Lathrop, two teams that Kenai lost to, but Eagle River has not played either opponent, and has no common out-of-conference opponents with either Kenai or SoHi.
Soldotna head coach Galen Brantley Jr. said with the potential tiebreakers at stake, the easiest thing to do is win and avoid all that confusion.
“That would be nice,” Brantley Jr. said. “It’s a rivalry game, so throw the records out the window.
“There’s been years where Kenai was 7-1 and we weren’t doing so well and they lost to us, so anything can happen. We were aware of that a year ago, and they hung with us for a half.”
Meanwhile, in Division III, the Peninsula Conference is all locked up heading into the last week. Houston captured its first conference title in school history with a perfect 4-0 record, the key victory in its schedule coming in Week 5 with a 22-20 win over Ketchikan, the team that will finish second. The Kings are currently 2-1 in conference with just a game against Seward left.
Nikiski was eliminated last weekend with a 34-8 loss to Houston, and will miss the postseason for the first time in 11 years, and the first time in three years for head coach Paul Nelson at the helm. For Nelson, he said missing the playoffs is a disappointment and an odd feeling, considering Nikiski’s strong history of making it.
“We talked to the guys, and it’s kind of a unique experience as a player and as a coach, because we’ve always been to the playoffs,” Nelson said. “This is the first year we haven’t gone in my years, and it’s kind of a new thing.”
The most recent state postseason that did not feature Nikiski was 2007. During that run, the program went to five straight state finals from 2011 to 2015, winning two of them (2011 and 2013).
As the school’s homecoming game, Nelson said the Bulldogs still have something to play for with pride on the line. Playing a team that beat Nikiski 38-0 last year, Nelson said he expects the Bulldogs to come out for one last shining moment.
“It’s (about) how you prepare yourselves when there’s no tomorrow,” he said. “We have no excuse to not give everything we have.”
The following is a closer look at the Week 8 slate of games:
Kenai (3-4) at Soldotna (6-1), 2 p.m. Saturday
The Kardinals visit Justin Maile Field looking for a playoff spot and their first win over their crosstown rivals since the 2011 postseason, when Kenai toppled SoHi 28-12 in the medium-schools semifinals.
Since then, Soldotna has been the victor in seven straight contests over Kenai, including the 2015 state championship game.
Brantley Jr. said for the Stars, the week has been business as usual against a familiar opponent.
“For us it’s a rivalry game, and we love playing Kenai,” Brantley Jr. said. “The kids have grown up together, they’ve played hockey together, soccer, Pop Warner together, so we have a relationship with kids in that community, and we love the opportunity to play them.
“They do have some talented football players, and I know their season hasn’t gone the way they wanted but they can take care of that with a win Saturday.”
A SoHi win would also give the Stars a remarkable 13th consecutive conference crown, dating back to 2006, a stretch of success that has resulted in a perfect record against NLC teams.
“It’s a lot of years of young men that have bought in and committed themselves to the process of being successful,” Brantley Jr. explained.
In a 57-13 nonconference win over Anchorage powerhouse Service last week, the Stars ground game piled up 521 yards on 56 carries, both season highs for SoHi.
“We’re still making steady improvement but not anywhere near where we want to be,” Brantley Jr. said. “But I think we’ll see this improvement is a testament to the kids and their commitment to the process.”
In their win over Kodiak, Akana said the Kards executed well in a must-win game, which he attributed to solid discipline and using what the coaching staff has taught them.
“We had to win that game in order to move on, but the big part of the game was the boys executed how they’re supposed to execute,” he said. “They did their job, and because of that, they learned and saw if they do their job the way they’re coached to do it, they can win.”
Akana said with the discipline and trickiness that has made the SoHi offense nearly unstoppable during its 59-game win streak from 2012 to 2018, his Kardinals defense will need to bring its own brand of discipline to keep SoHi at bay. Akana said each defensive lineman and linebacker must stick to their assignment to have a chance.
“We have to have a 100 percent game to get the W,” Akana said. “But most of all, they’ve got to have confidence in themselves and trust in their teammates to be able to beat SoHi.”
Homer (1-6) at Nikiski (3-4), 2 p.m. Saturday
With nothing to play for except pride, Nelson said Nikiski is aiming to get the win in Week 8 to bring some needed momentum into the offseason.
“We want to go up and not have a three-game losing streak to end the year,” he said. “It’s also about having fun and ending the season on a good note.”
Last year’s matchup ended with Homer shutting down the Nikiski offense for a 38-0 win en route to a 7-1 season.
One year later, the Mariners didn’t pick up their first victory until last weekend with a 21-20 show against Seward, but Nelson acknowledged the loss of a valuable core of seniors that Homer experienced helped play a role in that, plus current senior Noah Fisk’s absence for a chunk of the season hurt the team.
Homer had its most productive outing of the year last week with 300 team rushing yards, nearly doubling the season total in one afternoon, and Fisk put up 184 yards himself.
“We expect it to be pretty even, because they lost Noah Fisk for a few weeks and now have him back,” Nelson said. “They’re better and improved. They just played a Seward team and beat them close.”
Nelson said two starters will be unavailable due to grade ineligibility, but with quarterback Noah Litke providing a rock to the stable of running backs Nikiski has, Nelson said he believes the Bulldogs are in for a good day.
Seward (2-4) at Ketchikan (5-1), 2 p.m. Saturday
Following their elimination last weekend after a tight loss to Homer, the Seahawks will cap their 2018 season by hosting playoff-bound Ketchikan.
Prior to the Homer loss, Seward head coach Kelly Cinereski praised the improvements made over the course of the season by his players, including freshman QB Tommy Cronin stepping in after starting signal-caller Gunnar Davis went down with a concussion in Week 2.
Last week, Cronin racked up 61 passing yards and a touchdown to complement a ground game that compiled 179 yards, led by Shane Saulivan’s 97-yard day.
The Kings’ lone loss of the year came in Week 5 to Houston, the Peninsula Conference champions. Ketchikan is headed to the postseason with the No. 2 seed locked up, so with virtually nothing to play for, the possibility of a close game against Seward could rear its head.