A lot got accomplished last week as prep football teams took care of business on the turf.
The clinch game was in full effect as three of four combined playoff spots were locked up between the Division II Northern Lights Conference and the Division III Peninsula Conference races. As one familiar face took one regular season title, a new one grabbed ownership of the other.
The familiar face belonged to the Soldotna Stars, who clinched a 12th consecutive Northern Lights Conference crown, a remarkable streak dating back to 2006.
“It means we’ve done really well in our conference,” said SoHi head coach Galen Brantley Jr., tongue in cheek.
The Stars, owners of a 56-game win streak, have another astonishing streak that in Brantley’s mind is just as impressive — an NLC win streak that dates back to the final week of the 2005 season, when SoHi lost a 37-0 conference meeting to Kenai.
SoHi will bring all its glory to Ed Hollier Field on Saturday afternoon for the annual clash with Kenai, a highly anticipated matchup that always has local fans hungry for old-school, smash-mouth football.
“I’d be shocked if it wasn’t a packed place,” said Kenai head coach Ted Riddall.
For the first time in at least a decade, the Kardinals and Stars will meet with absolutely nothing on the line except pride. Kenai was eliminated from playoff contention last week after a loss to Palmer. Soldotna’s win over Eagle River locked up the top two postseason spots in the Division II playoffs, with SoHi taking the top seed and Palmer the No. 2 seed.
In the Peninsula Conference, a first-time winner has emerged to take the crown. After a two-win season in 2016, the Homer Mariners have rebounded in fantastic fashion to clinch the first regular season crown in program history. It’s the second year in a row a school has claimed the Peninsula Conference for the first time, after Seward did it last year.
Homer competed at the Division III level (previously known as small-schools) from 2000 to 2010, then moved to the Division II (medium-schools) level when it was created for four years before returning back to the Division II scene in 2015.
First-year Homer head coach Walter Love said the accomplishment has injected a huge boost of optimism into not just the football program, but the Homer community.
“It means a lot to these boys,” Love said. “That had been out of reach for them since they started playing here, and to achieve that was quite a feat really.
“I’ve talked to parents and kids who have graduated here, and for the first time in a long time they’re excited to be a Mariner again.”
The only postseason slot left up for grabs in the final week is the second seed out of the Peninsula Conference. Nikiski currently holds the spot with a 2-1 conference record, but will need to beat Seward (1-2), the team trying to steal it away. The Bulldogs host the Seahawks Saturday, and Nikiski can clinch a playoff spot with a win.
A loss to Seward, however, would force a three-way tie that would include Redington, and head-to-head records would not solve anything, and neither would common opponents, so a coin flip would likely be used.
Nikiski head coach Paul Nelson said his players know what is on the line, and a big showing Saturday is needed to avenge a 22-8 loss to Seward last year.
“It’s huge,” Nelson said. “I’ve been talking to the guys, it’s pretty much first round of the playoffs for us. It’s win or go home, so it’s important to win this game.”
The following is a closer look at each matchup:
Soldotna (7-0) at Kenai (3-4), 2 p.m. Saturday
For the 44th time in the 37-year history of the rivalry, Kenai and SoHi will clash on the gridiron. SoHi leads the all-time series 27-16, including the playoffs.
While the history of the rivalry is not short on on-field action, it is bereft of close games. In a rivalry littered with blowouts and shutouts, some of the more memorable games include a 7-0 Kenai win in the 2002 small-schools state championship, a 22-19 regular-season win for Kenai in 2004 that was followed up with a 20-14 Kenai win in that year’s small-schools state championship, a 2009 season that saw SoHi demolish Kenai 52-27 in the regular season but Kenai take postseason glory with a 21-10 upset in the small-schools state title game, a 2011 season that saw SoHi dominate a 50-20 game in the regular season, only to be ousted in the state semis with a 28-12 loss to Kenai, and the 2014 regular season meeting in which the Stars survived a 21-14 win over the Kards.
Brantley Jr. said no matter how long SoHi’s win streak is, the Kardinals always show up for a tough game.
“They always figure out a way to play us tough and make us uncomfortable,” he said.
With nothing to play for, Kenai can use Saturday as an opportunity to knock off their longtime rivals and end The Streak. Riddall said a good first half can go a long way to beating the Stars for the first time since 2011.
“If they start to believe and are successful as the game goes on, the pressure is on SoHi,” Riddall said. “But I doubt (Soldotna is) going to go out and doubt Kenai at this time.”
In a 42-8 win over Eagle River last week that helped them clinch the conference crown, the Stars rolled out their typical run game with 316 yards on 40 carries, led by senior Brenner Furlong’s 137 yards and three touchdown runs, including one that went 70 yards in the third quarter.
Brantley Jr. said after a slow start, SoHi picked up the pace and was able to run its game — establish the run game and open up the pass game. Brantley Jr. also praised his team’s defensive effort, which pitched a shutout into the fourth quarter, when the SoHi second-stringers were on the field.
Riddall said SoHi’s trickery on offense is one of the toughest things to game-plan against.
“You’re not looking at just one kid doing it, there’s multiple kids in the backfield,” he said. “And how they use their lineman, you can’t really key in on them because I’m seeing eight different numbers.
“It’s a tough task.”
Kenai was eliminated from postseason contention with a 35-8 loss to Palmer last weekend, and while Riddall said he was disappointed to see the Kards miss out on the postseason, he was buoyed by the turnout in practice this week.
“As a coach, you just want to see them go out and play well,” he said. “Last week didn’t exactly show the ability of these guys, so I’m hoping they go out and compete and show who they are.”
Seward (2-5) at Nikiski (3-4), 2 p.m. Saturday
One big playoff spot is up for grabs in a high-stakes rivalry Saturday, and after losing out on a chance to win the Peninsula Conference title last year with a loss to their southeast neighbors, the Bulldogs are out for glory.
“They have the potential to take a playoff spot from us,” said Nikiski coach Paul Nelson. “We’re closely matched, and it always seem like crazy stuff happens when Nikiski plays Seward. We expect a good game from us.”
A win would put Nikiski squarely into the playoffs, but a Seward win would result in a three-way tie for second in the standings. With a coin flip likely to break it up, Nelson said the impetus is on the Bulldogs to take care of business.
“No one likes a coin flip,” he said. “You try to just put yourself in position where you don’t have to experience that.”
Missed chances hurt Nikiski in a 27-7 loss to Eielson last weekend, but Nelson said the way his team moved the ball gave him hope that a deep playoff run is on the horizon.
“I feel good about where we’re trending,” he said. “It’s been colder, it’s been rainy, it feels like it’s playoff football season, so it changes the attitude.”
Seward finally broke a five-game losing skid last week with a 12-0 win over Voznesenka, helping to keep the Seahawks in playoff contention.
Last year, it was a 22-8 Seward victory in the final week of the season over Nikiski that propelled them to the conference title and a berth in the playoffs.
Voznesenka (1-4) at Homer (6-1), 5 p.m. Friday
In what is essentially a home game for both teams, the newly crowned Peninsula Conference champion Homer Mariners are ripe for a deep playoff run.
First-year head coach Walter Love said the Mariners have had a big change in personnel this year, retaining some of last year’s coaching crew while adding a few more talented assistants, and the results have given Homer a six-game win streak.
“It’s getting the right coaches in the right place at the right time,” Love said. “The athletes we have of course are just excellent, and I’ve worked them very hard since camp.”
Love said a strong preseason workout regimen has given the Mariners an added dimension on the field. Instead of fading as the game goes along, Homer has loaded up and stomped on the gas in the second half of games in 2017.
“The results are we can play four quarters of football without being exhausted,” Love said. “It’s helped these young men to blossom this year.”
With the top seed locked up, Homer will host a playoff game for the first time in school history. The Mariners also have a chance to post the best season record in team history, which currently is 6-2.
“We’re hoping the hard work put in this weekend (will help us) to clinch 7-1 and a new school record,” Love said.
After a 55-0 win over Redington last week, Homer appears unstoppable as the playoffs near. In their last three games, all against conference foes, Homer has outscored the competition 138-0, averaging 46 points on offense.
With senior quarterback Teddy Croft getting the lion’s share of snaps under center this year, Love let Croft take a day off against Redington and had senior Dawson Felde take over.
Felde made it count with five touchdown passes on 6-for-7 efficiency and 232 yards.
The running game also gashed Redington for almost 200 yards, with Noah Fisk cranking out 115 for two touchdowns. On the receiving end, Joe Ravin made big play after big play and hauled in three touchdown catches for 137 receiving yards.
With Felde recovering from a minor ankle sprain, Love is brimming with confidence with the depth of his program.
“I look like a janitor, I’ve got so many keys,” Love said. “We have complete buy-in from these boys, and the results are there.”