The final week of the prep football regular season arrives as a final act for some teams and a playoff primer for others.
For Soldotna, Week 8 will be one more chance to build up to yet another playoff run as the Stars seek their eighth straight state championship. The Stars (2-0 NLC) clinched the Northern Lights Conference last weekend with a win over Eagle River, and by doing so eliminated the Kardinals (0-2) from the postseason. Eagle River (2-1 NLC) sealed up the second seed from the conference after falling to SoHi and losing the potential head-to-head tiebreaker.
Getting the top seed from the NLC means SoHi will get to host a playoff game for the first time in six years, since Oct. 12, 2013, when SoHi pummeled Houston 69-13. That was a time when the Hawks still competed in Division II football, and it was also SoHi’s last time on natural grass. The school moved to a turf field the following season and has rolled up an unprecedented string of success on it.
“It seems pretty surreal,” said SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. about winning a 14th straight division title. “But I think it’s always exciting when you see all the hard work come to fruition. A lot of what goes on behind the scenes, they don’t see. They don’t see all the (weight) lifting in the summer, the kids coming to camps, coming in at 6 a.m. to work out. It’s just a culmination of all that hard work and we’re finally getting to the point right exactly where we want to be.”
In the five seasons since SoHi’s last home playoff game, the Alaska School Activities Association has hosted all Division II and III playoff games at Alumni Field at Dimond High School in Anchorage (2014 and 2015) and Machetanz Field in Palmer (2016 to 2018). A rule change this year brought back the semifinal contests to the top seeds’ home field.
The Peninsula Conference hasn’t been decided just yet, but the Nikiski Bulldogs took a huge step to the Division III playoffs last week with a heart-stopping 26-22 win over Homer, coming up with the winning touchdown with just 13 seconds left to seal it.
“It was wild,” said Nikiski head coach Paul Nelson. “It was a crazy sequence of events.”
With an eight-point lead entering the fourth quarter, Homer had two late drives stall out in Nikiski territory, the second of which ended on a Mariners fumble.
“It was third and short, we called timeout, and I told them, ‘Guys, we need this stop,’” Nelson said. “Then they fumbled it on the next play.”
From there, Nikiski drove most of the length of the field to take the lead on a Sam Berry TD run. Berry finished the day with four touchdowns and 217 rushing yards.
The Nikiski win came four weeks after the Bulldogs lost 50-18 to Homer in a nonconference game, and was quite timely considering the playoff implications.
The Houston Hawks (4-0 conference) have already locked up the Peninsula Conference top seed and homefield advantage in the semis, but the Bulldogs can clinch the second seed with a win tonight over Seward.
Seward (0-7) at Nikiski (2-4), 4 p.m. Friday
Nikiski will celebrate its senior night with a chance to go to the playoffs as well. The Bulldogs will celebrate seven seniors on the team, who appear headed to the playoffs for the third time in their four years.
Nelson said Nikiski’s clutch play in the fourth quarter last weekend in Homer provided a glimpse at the preparation the team has put in over the season.
“It speaks well to how our kids have grown this year,” he said. “Earlier this season, it would’ve been tough for our kids to pull that one off.”
Nelson said Berry stepped up after one of Nikiski’s other starting halfbacks went down to injury, and said the senior pulled his weight in carrying the team.
“He’s a good fullback, he runs slippery between the tackles,” Nelson said. “Sam had to go from full to half(back), and he kind of put the game on his back and his lineman did a good job of putting the team on their backs.
“Last year once he got rolling, he kept it going and really was a force for us.”
Nelson said it’s important for the Bulldogs to win their last regular season game in order to clinch the final playoff spot with no questions, and to maintain a roll of momentum heading into the semifinals.
The two programs will rehash an old peninsula rivalry with a new twist this weekend. Nelson said Nikiski agreed to start a new tradition with a traveling trophy with Seward. The winner of this weekend’s contest will be crowned the Fish Bowl champion, and will get to keep a handmade carving of a salmon for the next year.
“Our kids are jazzed for it,” Nelson said. “They’ll be excited for that. Seward always plays tough, close games.”
Homer (3-3) at Ketchikan (1-4), 6 p.m. Friday
The Mariners missed their opportunity to make the playoffs for the first time in two years last Saturday in agonizing fashion, giving up a 22-14 fourth-quarter lead.
The team lost even with senior QB Anthony Kalugin’s big day. The crafty signal-caller racked up over 300 yards of total offense himself and scored twice, with 173 passing yards and 128 on the ground.
Soldotna (6-0) at Kenai (1-5), 2 p.m. Saturday
The 46th all-time meeting between the two peninsula rivals will end the regular season for the Kardinals and will wrap up SoHi’s 14th straight and 25th overall Northern Lights Conference title, which comes with a homefield playoff game for the Stars.
In their all-time history against each other, which dates back to 1980, Soldotna leads Kenai in the series 29-16, including the last eight matchups.
Last week, SoHi sealed up its playoff berth with a lopsided 81-7 win over Eagle River, the team that SoHi faced in last year’s Division II championship game.
This week, Brantley Jr. said the team’s biggest goal is to stay healthy for the playoffs.
“First and foremost, we want to get out of this healthy,” he said. “We want to be playing our best football heading into the playoffs.”
Brantley Jr. said Kenai’s elimination last week doesn’t lessen the motivation to win. It’s still a rivalry game, he said.
“It’s an unusual situation for us, because usually there’s a lot riding on that game,” he said. “Historically, Kenai has some talented football players and good teams, and they’ve had a bit of a rough season, but I know coach (Dustin) Akana and his staff is in a rebuilding phase, trying to get that program back to where it’s at.”
Akana said Kenai, which lost 14-7 to Kodiak last week minus six regular starters due to grade ineligibility, is celebrating senior day with seven seniors. It was a topic he brought up to motivate his team to go out with a bang.
“At the beginning of the week, I told the boys, we’re not going to the playoffs, this is our last game, so for all the seniors, let’s go out fighting,” Akana said. “I asked the question, how do you want to end your senior season? Winning isn’t everything, (but) we’re not going to playoffs, so how do you want to end it? There are two ways to end it — just give up, or end on a positive note and know we worked hard and fought hard.
“They told me they wanted to end it strong.”
With just one win this year — a season-opening 28-14 victory over Homer — Akana said the Kardinals have hurt themselves in making a case for the Division II playoffs with missed chances.
“We didn’t take advantage of opportunities that were presented to us,” he said. “I say this every week, but the people that killed us every week were ourselves. Every week we tried to clean up our mistakes from the week before, and just continued to make mistakes.”
For now, there’s just one thing Akana wants to see in Week 8.
“Do our job,” he said. “If everybody takes care of their position and does their job, we will put up a fight.”