Both coaches of the Kenai Central and Soldotna football teams know what is at stake in Saturday’s 2015 season finale between the Kardinals and the Stars. The winner claims the Northern Lights Conference crown and the No. 1 seed that goes along with it. That gives them a state semifinal matchup against the No. 2 seed out of the Southeast Conference, which will be either Juneau or Thunder Mountain.
However, it’s not the seeding that SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. and Kenai coach John Marquez are concerned with. For them, and all of the players, it’s about adding another chapter to the glorious rivalry between the Stars and the Kardinals.
“I think it’s the best rivalry in the state of Alaska,” Brantley Jr. stated. “You know, growing up playing youth football and hockey around here, everyone is really familiar with each other. My own children have grown up in this community knowing how big this is.”
“This is something that everyone looks forward to every year,” added Marquez. “It’s something special when you have this rivalry.
“It’s really cool when half (of the supporting crowd) went to one school and the other half to the other school.”
The 35-year history between the two teams has produced many memorable moments, even when the series has been lopsided at times. Saturday’s game, slated for 2 p.m. at Ed Hollier Field in Kenai, will be the 41st meeting between the two sides, which have combined to compile a total score of 968-543 in favor of SoHi.
Soldotna also leads the all-time series in wins 24-16, and has shut out Kenai on 11 occasions. However, the Kards — which have shut out SoHi on seven occasions — hold the distinguished honor of sporting a 4-1 advantage over the Stars in playoff games.
Some of the more memorable moments for the Kards have come after SoHi beat them in the regular season. In 2002, SoHi notched a 28-0 win over Kenai in the regular season en route to the Northern Lights Conference crown, only to see the crimson birds avenge the loss with a 7-0 triumph in the small-schools championship game.
In 2009, SoHi beat Kenai 52-27 on the way to another NLC title, only to be upended again in the small-schools title game 21-10.
History repeated itself for a third time in 2011, when the Stars notched a 50-20 regular-season victory over the Kards, but were toppled by Kenai in the state semifinal round in a 28-12 loss. Kenai went on to claim the inaugural medium-schools championship over Homer.
That most recent victory for Kenai four years ago is one of the memories in the forefront of Marquez’s mind, as the Kenai coach debuted with the Kardinals that year.
“They were undefeated and they just pounded us the week before, and we were able to come back and pull off a great win in the first round of the playoffs,” Marquez recalls. “Then, last year’s game, I know people remember that, because no one played SoHi as tough as we did last year.”
One year ago, Kenai used a strong first half to lead 14-6 at halftime, then had two opportunities to take the lead again in the fourth quarter but were denied; a fourth-down stuff at the SoHi 1-yard line and an interception on the final play of the game with seconds remaining. The two plays spelled the difference between Soldotna rolling to its then-27th straight win and Kenai taking the NLC title for the first time since 2005.
“We came within 2 inches of pushing that one to overtime,” Marquez reflected.
SoHi’s lone playoff victory over Kenai came in thrilling fashion, as the Stars beat the Kards in a 119-point shootout between the two schools in the 2010 state small-schools championship. SoHi won 77-42 that day.
Marquez, who originally hails from Barstow, California, said high school football rivalries in his hometown don’t match the same intensity as Kenai vs. SoHi.
“Rivalries are there, but they’re not as big,” he said. “I know I wasn’t used to being in an environment like this. This is a huge deal, and folks from both communities come out.”
The other important regular-season finale that will rehatch a longtime rivalry this weekend is Friday night’s meeting between Seward and Nikiski, two teams looking for a small-schools playoff berth.
Seward, Nikiski, Glennallen and Houston were the original four teams in the defunct small-schools Greatland Conference, and thus the matchup between the Bulldogs and Seahawks is a long and illustrious one.
“Those games were just incredible games,” said Nikiski coach Ted Riddall. “We played many championship games against them, and for a while it was green and gold against silver and black.”
If Nikiski beats Seward — game time is scheduled for today at 4 p.m. — the Bulldogs are guaranteed a playoff spot as the No. 1 seed from the Peninsula Conference. A Nikiski win would also punch Homer’s playoff spot as well.
“It’s pretty close up there, but we know we control our own destiny,” said Homer coach Josh Fraley. “We’re gonna take advantage of that. The goal from the beginning of the year was to get to the playoffs and give ourselves a shot at the state title.”
Homer will face the other area squad, the Voznesenka Cougars, Saturday at 2 p.m. in Homer.
Soldotna at Kenai, 2 p.m. Saturday
Soldotna is searching for its 10th straight NLC crown Saturday and 22nd overall since 1983.
Brantley Jr. is looking for his ninth in a row as head coach of the Stars. But don’t expect him to explain the long run of success.
“I’m such a game-to-game guy, we haven’t had a chance to stop and relax and look back at what we’ve accomplished,” Brantley Jr. said. “We’re so focused on doing everything we can to help this group of young men to succeed, we really haven’t thought about our past achievements.”
After last weekend’s 55-14 win over large-schools opponent Lathrop — the Stars’ fourth such matchup in 2015 — senior tight end Trevor Walden said he was already looking forward to the big game against Kenai.
“You think about it all year long,” Walden said. The senior caught a pair of touchdown passes against the Lathrop defense.
“If we had the opportunity to play them every single game for eight weeks in a row, we’d do it. It’s just such a fun game to play.”
Kenai’s 45-8 blowout over North Pole last Friday night gave coach Marquez a long-overdue victory. The Kards finally overcame the Patriots after losing their previous three meetings to the interior team.
Now, Marquez has a chance to beat a team for the first time since that historic 2011 playoff matchup.
“These kids do not know how to lose,” Marquez said about the Stars. “You can put them in any scenario, and they don’t flinch, and that’s scary.”
Football fans expecting a thrilling, high-flying act Saturday might be disappointed. For fans that share the mindset of Marquez and Brantley Jr., get ready for some hard-hitting action.
The winner Saturday will be the team that controls the clock and the line of scrimmage. Simply put, it will be a battle in the trenches.
“This is going to be a showcase of the trenches, their line versus our line, and it’s just going to be historic,” Marquez said. “I don’t see why they’re not ranked No. 1 in the whole state of Alaska.
“I think they’ve proven their point.”
SoHi, a team that is averaging 352 rushing yards a game this year, employs a well-disciplined and well-timed offense that has continued to confuse opposing defenses for four years running. In a matchup that oozes familiarity, Kenai should be well-prepared for what SoHi will bring on Saturday.
“You can’t stop them, you can only contain them and slow them down,” Marquez explained. “For us, each kid has a job, and there are 11 jobs on the field.”
Kenai also flaunts a fearsome running game, as evidenced by 332 rush yards per game this season.
Brantley Jr. is well aware of Kenai’s front line. So much, in fact, he knows them all name.
“With (Zach) Koziczkowski, (Toby) Randall, (David) Beck, (Jonathan) Delgado and (Royal) Brown, there are some really talented lineman,” Brantley Jr. said. “I think we match up pretty evenly with this team.”
Brantley Jr. said the SoHi game plan is the same as every week. Establish the run game, try to stop the opposing run game.
Sophomore Brandon Crowder, who has been filling in for a concussed senior Dylan Simons at quarterback, more than doubled his season passing yardage last week against Lathrop with 131 yards, and also threw four touchdowns on the day. Brantley Jr. said Simons will return under center Saturday after getting the clearance to play.
After an early season shuffling of players at the quarterback position, Kenai has finally settled on junior Chase Gillies.
Seward at Nikiski, 4 p.m. Friday
After seeing Seward in a midsummer preseason scrimmage, Nikiski coach Ted Riddall knew right away that Seward coach Kelly Cinereski was building up a tough squad, one capable of earning a second straight small-schools playoff berth.
That’s why Riddall knows better than to overlook tonight’s regular-season finale against the Seahawks.
“I really respect what Kelly’s doing over there,” Riddall said. “They started strong and have had some injuries, but I think if they can keep that group together now, they’ll be tough.”
On the heels of a 28-21 victory over medium-schools opponent Thunder Mountain, Nikiski has finally rounded into shape, and Riddall said he was pleased to see the improvement of the Bulldogs offensive line.
“We did a lot better up front on the line,” Riddall said. “The key was in the trenches with the seniors leading us, and they did.”
Nikiski seniors Luke Johnson, Rueben Sepeda and Jon McCormick, along with Kyle Rosado, Brendan Harris and tight end Ian Johnson form a formidable front line for the Bulldogs, and if they are looking to avoid the upset, Riddall said it will be down to them to take care of business.
If Seward were to pull the upset, a possible three-way tie atop the Peninsula Conference standings could result, as long as Homer beats Voznesenka on Saturday.
Head-to-head matchups would decide nothing, so a common opponents method would be next up. Homer, Nikiski and Seward have all played Houston, with Nikiski the only team to hold a win over the Hawks.
Homer and Seward would then likely to go to a coin flip to decide the remaining playoff spot.
“Desperate teams are dangerous,” Riddall said. “It’s an old opponent, they believe then can play with us, and they do most of the time.”
Nikiski blasted Seward in last year’s regular season finale 69-14, then put the Seahawks away again in the playoffs with a 48-0 victory.
All that is in the past, Riddall said.
“You’d better be playing like you’re getting to the postseason,” Riddall said. “The level of play should be increasing.”
Voznesenka at Homer, 2 p.m. Saturday
After beginning the season 0-3, the Mariners have rebounded nicely by winning three of their last four games, with wins over Seward, Redington and Valdez.
The Cougars, on the other hand, broke through last week with their first win of the season in a 40-6 triumph over Joe Redington Jr./Sr. High School.
A home matchup against Voznesenka to finish the regular season essentially creates a complete home crowd atmosphere for both teams, as Voz plays its home games on the same turf field.
“We’re really trying to sell it as a big community event,” said Homer coach Josh Fraley. “We’d like to try to build it eventually as a big rivalry game.”
Fraley added that the team is also trying to use the game as a fundraiser to help the family of one of Voznesenka’s players, whose home recently burned down.
Homer is looking for its first postseason appearance since 2012, when the Mariners went 6-2 and found themselves facing a rising Soldotna team in the medium-schools championship game, which they lost.
The only players left from that team would be seniors this year.
“I’ve gotten questions on what to expect, on the atmosphere, how things have been different,” Fraley said. “I’ve just told them to keep building the way they have been. I don’t want them to get worried or big-eyed before the playoffs.”
Fraley admitted that he will be following the Nikiski-Seward score on Friday, but the result will not force him to change the Homer game plan at all.
“We’re just focused on not having any defensive breakdowns,” Fraley said. “I know they like to throw the ball around and work the screen game, so it’ll be about making sure everyone is shifting the right way.”