New football classification takes flight
History will be made when Soldotna, Kenai Central, Homer and Skyview kick off the 2011 prep football season Saturday.
With Week 1 comes the arrival of the new medium-schools classification - and the pursuit of its inaugural state title.
The nine-team classification includes the four central Kenai Peninsula schools, Kodiak, Houston, Ketchikan, Thunder Mountain and Sitka.
Kodiak and Houston are paired with the Peninsula schools in the Northern Lights Conference, while the other three belong to Southeast Conference.
Area coaches had varying opinions on the new classification, which is based on enrollment.
"My honest opinion is it's way past due," SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. said, citing the disparity in enrollment between large, medium and small schools. "It should have happened a long time ago."
The main difference this season is that Nikiski remains in the small-schools classification, in which Homer, Skyview, SoHi and Kenai Central previously competed.
Homer and Skyview are now the smallest schools in the new division.
"The medium-schools is pretty much our conference from last year. We haven't gained anybody in the medium schools, we just lost the bottom," Skyview coach Eric Pomerleau said. "We are playing right where we were last year and we are comfortable there."
Homer coach Camron Wyatt has a different take.
He said his squad hasn't beaten Kenai Central in 15 years and had edged SoHi just once in the same span. There are added challenges to being one of the smallest schools in a classification, he added.
"It adds a little incentive," Wyatt said.
For first-year Kenai Central coach John Marquez, the new classification is a nonfactor.
"That's not our concern. We play who they put on our schedule. That's what we worry about," Marquez said. "The bracket doesn't bother us at all. The kids don't think about it, we don't let them think about it. If you win every game, none of that matters."
Here is a closer look at each school:
The Panthers return 17 of 22 starters from the 2010 squad, which lost to Eielson in the first round of the playoffs after finishing 6-2 during the regular season.
Pomerleau, in his third year, believes the team will be benefit from experience. Not only do the Panthers return quarterback Jordan Jones and wide receiver-defensive back Albert White, but the entire offensive line is back.
"We have so many seniors, they know the routine and they know how to work," Pomerleau said. "When they have good attitude and stuff like that, you are able to get a lot done. They know what the whole story is - we have really seen that - so you don't have to teach them as much."
The offense, which will feature a heavy dose of shotgun formations and four-wide receiver sets, will be led by Jones and White.
In 2010, Jones led the central Kenai Peninsula in passing yards (1,616) and touchdowns (24). His primary target was White, who hauled in 32 catches for 668 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Pomerleau expects the duo to create big plays, setting the tone for an up-tempo offense.
"We want to play fast. It's really nice. We have good team speed, where they can take short plays and turn them into touchdowns," the coach said. "If you have some kids that can ‘house' the ball on short plays, it just gives you a huge advantage."
Seniors DJ Diaz and Cody Cledenen anchor the offensive line, and Pomerleau expects Jasen Suonvieri to have a quality season at running back.
Skyview will play a base 4-4 defense, led by lineman Alex Rodriguez and linebacker Joeben Hawkins. The biggest loss on that side of the ball, Pomerleau said, came with the graduation of linebacker Vlad Ferderer.
Although SoHi and Kenai are perennial favorites to win the conference title, Pomerleau expects Skyview to be in the hunt.
"I think it's going to be a really, really, supercompetitive season with everybody having a good shot to be at the top when it's all said and done," Pomerleau said. "I think games are going to be really, really competitive. It's going to be a battle and there will be some good teams that don't make the playoffs."
It's something the Mariners won't lack in 2011.
Homer, which along with Skyview is at the bottom for enrollment in the new medium-schools classification, saw its 2010 campaign end in a 47-12 loss to Kenai Central in the second round of the playoffs.
"We pretty much got manhandled. We didn't go out the way we thought we would. It was a little bit of a depressing performance for us," Wyatt said. "The end of last season set the tone for the start to this season. The guys were quite a bit more motivated during the offseason."
Wyatt said between 14 and 16 athletes lifted weights regularly during the offseason, a symbol of dedication. The Mariners lost four seniors from the 2010 squad, including linemen Mitch Wyatt and Ross Kalke, but return the bulk of their starters.
Sixteen seniors are back, which is an all-time high, and the roster features 42 players.
"Hopefully we can hold on to all of them," Wyatt said.
Homer will feature what Wyatt called an old-school, single-wing offense, which is predicated on the run.
"We throw the ball about twice a year," the coach said. "We hit hard and fast and our goal is to outlast you."
The entire backfield returns, including a trio of seniors.
Robin Glosser, who was injured last season, will take the snaps under center. Dyllan Day, who rushed for three touchdowns in 2010, will get a healthy share of carries at running back. Also returning is running back Travis Smith.
"The ticket is we have some older boys who have had time to mature," Wyatt said. "It's their time to shine."
In 2010, the Mariners advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs for the first time under Wyatt. But that was in the small-schools classification, where Homer's enrollment was in the middle of the pack.
Now Homer is one of the smallest schools in the new classification, something Wyatt said poses a challenge but also adds incentive to remain competitive.
"It will be difficult, but it provides a tremendous amount of external and internal motivation for our program," the coach said. "The team is very healthy, very excited. They are very physical and very mental, too. And very confident. They are unified."
Kenai Central Kardinals
New coach. New classification.
"Nothing changes for Kenai Central High School football," Marquez said. "The expectations are high just as they have been in the past. Our expectations are to finish what they didn't finish last year, and that's winning state."
The Kardinals lost to rival SoHi in last year's small-schools state championship, 77-42, and are poised to rebound in the new medium-schools classification.
Quarterback AJ Hull is the focal point of Kenai Central's offense, which will feature a spread attack. He passed for eight touchdowns and rushed for 15 more in 2010, piling up 1,126 yards.
Hull's role figures to grow this season in an offensive system in which the quarterback must run and pass.
The Kardinals will put the ball in the senior's hands as much as possible, but Marquez knows Hull needs help, too.
"Everyone in the state of Alaska understands that AJ is our guy," Marquez said. "He is our premier guy offensively and defensively, but he knows he can't do it all himself."
Kenai Central lost 10 seniors from 2010.
Gone is Kai Risung, who rushed for 676 yards a year ago, plus nine other seniors - including offensive linemen Richie Ziehmer and Kyle Rogers, and linebacker-fullback Tyler Glidden.
But the team also returns a healthy core.
Marquez expects a big year from Kyle Dougherty, a linebacker and offensive lineman, as well as Levi Hansen and Joe Sandahl. Alex Nason will anchor a revamped offensive line.
Meanwhile, Daniel Carlson, a senior, will move from fullback to offensive line. Marquez said Carlson volunteered his services because the Kards didn't have more beef up front, and because the spread attack doesn't require a true fullback.
"He made an unselfish move, he made that sacrifice of playing guard for us," Marquez said of Carlson, who also plays linebacker. "It makes us a much better team."
Marquez said the team drew between 26 and 28 players, but that number could grow once the academic year begins.
In the meantime, the first-year coach is ready to step on the field.
"I'm extremely excited not only for myself, but for the kids," Marquez said. "They have done everything we have asked. We are excited to get out there and show people what Kenai Central is all about."
After winning the 2010 small-schools state title, the Stars will look to become the inaugural medium-schools champion.
Brantley Jr. knows it's a tall order.
"We are obviously proud of our accomplishment, but that was last year," the coach said. "This year's group has gotten a chance to see several of the area teams and we know that we have our work cut out for us."
SoHi will be without its offensive leader from 2010, Robbie Smithwick, who was named the Gatorade Player of the Year. Smithwick, who also was the Stars' kicker, averaged more than 15 yards per carry and scored 11 touchdowns in the Wing-T offense.
Fullback Phil Bennett also is gone, as are three of the five starters on the offensive line.
"We are going to have our work cut out for us," Brantley Jr. said. "We have a lot of new players who are stepping in who will need to make plays. We are as curious as anybody else to see how they perform."
Austin Tennis and Dusty Poole will receive most of the carries out of the backfield. Tennis rushed for nine touchdowns last season, averaging 10.5 yards per carry on 694 yards and will see an increased role in the absence of Smithwick.
"He's going to carry the load," Brantley Jr. said.
Noah Fowler replaces older brother Tanner Fowler at quarterback and will make his first varsity start Saturday. Protecting him will be lineman Tyler Marcuson, who is one of two returning starters up front.
Despite the turnover on offense, Brantley Jr. hopes to open the playbook more this season. The coach said the Stars will remain a run-first team, but could turn to the air with more frequency than in the past.
"Hopefully we can open up the Wing-T a little bit more than we have the last few years," the coach said. "We should be a little more balanced, but there's no secret we are a running team."
Brantley Jr. said Jared Duncan and Garrett Bosick will anchor the SoHi defense.
The coach is curious to see how his players react when they step on the field for the first time Saturday against Eagle River.
"We are looking forward to getting started just like everyone else," Brantley Jr. said. "We have a lot of questions with individuals and our group as a whole that we need to answer on Saturday."