The final week of the 2014 prep football season is here.
Eight weeks ago, teams began the season with fresh faces and high hopes, buoyed by the idea of making the playoffs.
Now, only 16 teams will be left to fight for postseason glory in three divisions — large, medium and small.
The Northern Lights Conference is already locked up with two teams heading to the playoffs. Soldotna and Kenai Central hold both spots, as Homer and Kodiak have been eliminated.
In the other medium-schools league, the Southeast Conference, Juneau and North Pole already hold spots as well, meaning that the 2014 playoffs will have a strikingly similar look to the 2013 playoffs.
The Greatland Conference of the small-schools division has also been decided. The four schools? Eielson, Nikiski, Barrow and Seward.
Let’s take a closer look at each matchup in the final week of the regular season:
Kenai Central (3-3) at Soldotna (6-0), 2 p.m. Saturday
The Stars and Kards will face each other for the 40th edition of their once-a-year battle Saturday at the revamped Justin Maile Field at Soldotna High School.
In the 34 years that the two teams have been playing each other, Soldotna has claimed a 23-16 edge, including playoff games.
Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. has attended many of those games in person, either as a coach on the sideline or a player on the field.
“Gosh, there’s been so many good games,” Brantley Jr. said when asked which contest he remembers most vividly. “It’s tough to pick just one. Every year is great, I really enjoy it, especially just the good-natured competitiveness of it.”
Kenai began the longtime friendly rivalry with a 32-0 victory in 1980, en route to winning the Northern Lights Conference championship that season. Kenai went on to take the first four games between the two schools, but Soldotna stopped that streak with a 40-6 victory in 1983, the same year the Stars won their first NLC title.
In the intervening years since, the Stars have emerged with 19 NLC titles, while Kenai has claimed eight. Palmer, Colony and Wasilla have won the other six.
In the previous 39 games, the total overall score is SoHi 947, Kenai 529. SoHi has shut out Kenai 11 times, while Kenai has shut out SoHi seven times.
Soldotna has won the last eight regular-season matchups against Kenai (the most recent Kenai win was a 37-0 contest in 2005), but the Kards got the better of the Stars in the 2011 medium-schools state semifinals, a game in which they topped SoHi 28-12.
It’s also the game that Kenai coach John Marquez looks back on most fondly.
“We had just played them at the end of the year on our turf, and they beat us pretty good,” Marquez recalled. “We had to turn around and go to their place, and to see the same kids from a week earlier, we just refused to lose.”
Marquez said the Kards made several offensive adjustments that year to knock off the Stars en route to the first medium-schools state championship.
“We didn’t have a shot by any odds,” Marquez said. “You can take that game to Vegas, we weren’t gonna win.
“It was just a combination of our athletes’ resiliency, and we made less mistakes that game.”
This year’s highly anticipated game between the Kards and the Stars will have playoff implications on the line once again. The winner takes the Northern Lights Conference crown and the top seed.
Both teams hold 2-0 marks in the NLC, and with this year’s playoffs holding only two weeks of action, no postseason games will be held at home for any team. Next week’s semifinals will be played in Anchorage.
In Brantley’s mind, the two seeds from the Southeast Conference — Juneau and North Pole — are so evenly matched that it does not matter which team the Stars face in the semifinal round.
“The biggest thing to keep in mind is keeping things in perspective,” Brantley Jr. said about preparing for the season finale. “Win or lose, it doesn’t change our futures.”
With no real advantage, the only thing on the line in Saturday’s game is pride … and a 26-game winning streak that the Stars currently hold.
It’s a streak that Kenai is hoping to break.
“I respect Brantley, those kids do not know how to lose,” Marquez said. “They’ve never felt that, and because of that, they’re just calm all the time.
“All that said, it goes out the window for us.”
Brantley Jr. said it will come down to the trenches — moving the ball effectively on the ground.
“My suggestion is get there early,” Brantley Jr. said. “With both teams running the ball, time’s gonna go away quick.”
Both schools feature a formidable stable of backs that can make big gains on the ground. For SoHi, it’s Drew Gibbs, Ty Fenton and Jared Chavez. For Kenai, it’s Chase Logan, Kyle Foree and Andrew Welborn.
Marquez echoed his fellow coach and repeated that the Kardinals defense is focused on containing — but not fully stopping — the SoHi offense.
“Listen, you’re not gonna stop them completely,” Marquez said. “You can slow them down, try to keep their offense off the field, but we gotta have good ball control and clock management on our side.”
Marquez added that Kenai will receive a boost on both sides of the ball with the return of linebacker Zach Koziczkowski, who has been sidelined for three weeks with an injury.
Soldotna is hoping to see the return of receiver and special teams player Tim Duke, who suffered a leg injury last week against West Valley. Brantley Jr. said he is a game-time decision.
Nikiski (5-1) at Seward (5-2), 2 p.m. Saturday
A home playoff game is at stake in the Greatland Conference battle, and the Bulldogs and Seahawks will fight for it Saturday afternoon in Seward.
Both teams are 4-1 in the conference. Eielson currently leads the standings with a 5-0 record and is in great position to claim the Greatland crown with a win over Barrow this weekend.
Seward clinched its first playoff spot since 2004 with a Thursday night victory over Voznesenka over a week ago, and can lock up home-field advantage with a win over Nikiski.
Of course, that is easier said than done.
“The last four years being at home, fighting for a state title, we’ve won that home game,” said Nikiski coach Ted Riddall. “We’ve got some success built around it.”
The Bulldogs have won the small-schools state championship twice in the last three years, and have hosted playoff games in Nikiski all three years.
But Riddall is not counting out a small team like Seward, which has experienced a renaissance in performance this year.
“I think they have a little more support over there than recent years,” Riddall said. “In the past, they’ve had difficulty with support around the team, so now I think that’s really changing. Whenever we play them, they play us tough no matter the record.
“They’ll probably bring the whole town.”
The rise of Seward also brings to mind the old rivalries that the two schools used to have in the past, says Riddall.
Before the advent of the small-schools category in the state of Alaska in 2000, Seward and Nikiski fought each other in an unsanctioned conference, a bit of a prelude to the current Greatland Conference, beginning in 1996. Glennallen and Houston also featured teams in the first edition of the GLC.
The first few years saw Nikiski and Seward engage in tough games that brought together the best of what the sport had to offer.
Riddall did not join the Bulldogs until the later two years of that period, and Nikiski will also be challenged to beat Seward without its head coach on the sideline this time around as well. But it’s for a good reason.
Riddall said he is traveling to Washington this weekend to his former college, Pacific Lutheran University, where he will be inducted into the school football hall of fame.
“It’s a really cool deal, so I couldn’t pass that up,” Riddall said.
As an outside linebacker from 1991 through 1994, Riddall racked up a school-record 41 sacks, including a single-season record of 21 in 1993. In that same span, Riddall was a part of three championship appearances, winning one of them.
“A lot of what I do as a coach comes from there,” Riddall said.
Nikiski will be under the guidance of former head coach and current offensive coordinator Scott Anderson.
Riddall said both he and Anderson know what to look for when playing Seward. The Seahawks run a traditional wishbone offense, which should provide a nice complement to Nikiski’s Wing-T offense.
“They run that wishbone pretty well,” Riddall said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us. We just got to be able to stay in the gaps and stay in, take on your own blocker, and we gotta play well.
“The Wing-T offense has won numerous state championships. Bartlett’s doing well and they’re bringing it back. You just look at it and there’s a reason teams use it.”
A two-way tie will be decided by head-to-head matchups, should either team rise or fall to Eielson or Barrow’s season record after Saturday’s pair of games.
Houston (1-4) at Homer (2-5), 3 p.m. Saturday
With nothing on the line as far as playoff positioning, it may look like the Mariners have nothing for which to play.
But there is one thing missing that the team has yet to do. Win a home game on the new turf.
“The most important thing is to get our guys out here, get the win but have fun,” said Homer coach Josh Fraley. “We want to get our seniors out there, play and have fun.”
It will be the third game on the new turf, and with 10 seniors on the roster, Fraley said now is as good as time as any to get the players game-time experience.
The game is also Homer’s homecoming celebration.
“This particular group of guys are excited,” Fraley said. “Most of them knew what a rough time we had last year, with the games we played against Lathrop and Palmer. It was brutal.
“But this is a good homecoming matchup.”
Fraley said the offense that the Hawks utilize is similar to that of Kenai, a team that Homer saw last week. Because of the similarities in the offensive schemes, Fraley said he is hoping for an easier time than what the Mariners experienced in the 41-6 loss against the Kards.
“Our tackling has been horrendous the last couple weeks, but we’ve put in a lot of work in that,” Fraley said. “We want to be fundamentally sound, that’s been a point of emphasis. Just limit turnovers and penalties, unlike last week.”