SoHi-Kenai to renew football rivalry
The conference title. Playoff positioning. Bragging rights.
All of it's there for football rivals Kenai Central and Soldotna.
Time for one squad to take it.
"I'm going to tell you, that in my 15-plus years of coaching, I have never seen anything like this. It's absolutely amazing how deep the colors run between red and blue," first-year Kenai Central coach John Marquez said. "I'm excited about this, how the community gets behind this. Even if this wasn't for the league championship, I think it would be just as exciting. It's a pride thing. That alone makes it very exciting."
The Kardinals host the Stars at 2 p.m. Saturday in a game that will determine the Northern Lights Conference regular-season champion, as well as the conference's top seed to the medium-schools playoffs.
A SoHi victory gives the Stars (7-0 overall, 4-0 NLC), winners of 18 straight, the title outright. A Kenai Central victory gives the Kards a share of the title and perhaps the No. 1 seed, depending on tiebreaker scenarios and the result of a Friday contest between Homer and Houston.
Homer, Kenai Central and SoHi have clinched the NLC's three playoff berths. Now it's a matter of which team goes where.
SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. acknowledged the magnitude of the game, but downplayed the hoopla.
"Our kids know it is Kenai week. They look forward to it every year. They know it's our biggest rival. We are just excited to be in control of our own destiny," Brantley Jr. said. "It is what it is. It will be an exciting game."
In addition to the postseason implications, a number of story lines make this one interesting:
* Kenai Central's defense vs. SoHi's Wing-T offense - Some believed the Kards' defensive unit would be overpowered last week in a 21-14, double-overtime loss against a physical Homer squad, which runs the ball about 90 percent of the time.
But the Kards stood strong, holding the Mariners to 175 yards on 36 carries and 4.9 per rush. Entering the contest, Homer had averaged 292 rushing yards per game.
The order is just as tall against the Stars, who enter the weekend with 2,065 yards on the ground - 295 per game.
SoHi features the area's leading rusher in Auston Tennis, who needs 78 yards to eclipse 1,000 on the year. He's carried the ball 79 times for 18 touchdowns - scoring once every 4.4 carries.
Marquez said the Kards must read their keys and follow their assignments if they hope to slow the Stars' ground attack.
"Last week was just had a phenomenal stand by our defense, and we expect the same and better from both sides of the football this week. It's a must," Marquez said. "This is going to take, from myself down to the last player on the roster, a complete game to win this thing. It's going to be a war. It's going to be a flat-out war - that's how it's been all week."
* SoHi's ability to contain Kenai Central's do-it-all AJ Hull - The most explosive player on the field in just about every contest for which he dresses, Hull can be a game-changer.
Hull returned an interception for a would-be, game-winning touchdown in the dying seconds of regulation against Homer, but the play was negated because of a penalty.
But it's what the senior quarterback does with his feet and arm that make him so dangerous. Hull enters the game with 694 yards passing and 654 rushing, scoring 14 touchdowns.
If he gets going Saturday, the Kards have a chance.
"You don't stop him, you just hope to limit the big plays," Brantley Jr. said. "He can hurt you in so many ways. He's a very dynamic athlete and will definitely be hard to contain."
* SoHi's winning streak - The Stars, ranked No. 1 in the state for small and medium schools, haven't lost since the 2009 small-schools state title game, against none other than the Kards.
A 2010 state title and 18 wins later, SoHi is poised to remain unblemished. The Stars blasted Kenai in the regular season last year and duplicated the effort with a 77-42 win in the state championship game.
Can the Kards break the streak?
A win gives the Stars the conference title and a first-round game at home in the playoffs.
"I don't know if we are so focused on being perfect. We've been going through the season with the same focus the whole time - we are focused on the game at hand. This week it's Kenai," Brantley Jr. said. "But would we like to host a home playoff game? Absolutely. I don't want to leave the future of our season up to a coin toss."
* Kenai Central's ability to respond after a tough loss - Last week's thrilling overtime loss places added pressure on the Kards to win. How will they respond?
Early this season, Kenai Central lost a heartbreaker at home to Wasilla, 24-20, in a game that came down to the last play. The following week, the Kards got steamrolled at North Pole, 52-29.
For Kenai Central to have any chance Saturday, they must put the Homer loss to bed and understand the season, in essence, is just beginning.
"It's not over. We lost a tough game to a great team. We should have won, but we can't control the past," Marquez said. "We can control the future, we can control SoHi. That's been our focus. We've had to let go of the past and focus on SoHi."
* The role turnovers, and penalties, will play in the outcome - Soldotna forced five turnovers while committing one in a 34-7 win last week over Skyview. But the Stars also were flagged for 16 penalties.
Kenai Central, meanwhile, had two touchdowns called back because of penalties against Homer. The Kards coughed the ball up twice, the second coming on the play that ended the game - an AJ Hull interception in the second overtime period.
Don't expect a close game if one team is mistake-prone while the other plays clean.
"The team that makes the fewest mistakes is going to win the game," Marquez said.
Nikiski at Eielson, 1 p.m. Saturday
Bulldogs coach Ted Riddall cut right to the chase when explaining the importance of this Greatland Conference regular-season finale.
Not only does the winner earn a share of the conference title, but it receives a home game to open the small-schools state playoffs.
"This is like a state championship game right here," said Riddall, whose only loss came at Barrow. "We had a tough opponent in Barrow, and this will be as good - if not better - of a test. We're not overlooking them and there's a lot at stake."
Nikiski is 6-1 overall and 4-1 in the Greatland, while Eielson is 4-3 overall and 4-1 in the conference. Two of Eielson's defeats came against medium schools - Soldotna and Kenai Central - while the third was to one-loss Barrow.
Saturday's winner is the No. 1 or 2 seed into the playoffs depending on the outcome of a Friday contest between Barrow and Seward, which hasn't won a game.
If Barrow wins, the Whalers are the top seed because they own the head-to-head tiebreaker over both Nikiski and Eielson.
That would create a scenario where the Nikiski-Eielson winner gets the second slot, while the loser drops to No. 3.
Since the No. 2 and 3 teams face off in Round 1 of the playoffs - with the higher-ranked squad playing host - it's likely Saturday's game is a playoff preview.
So in a way, Riddall is preparing for two games, not one.
"When you look at it from a coaching standpoint, you want to make them use practice time on what you are doing offensively," said Riddall, who threw the ball a season-high 12 times in a 58-6 win over Seward a week ago. "You show them as much as you can show them. Then they have to spend a week coming up with schemes to defend it."
Riddall said Eielson features four capable running backs as well as a 6-foot-5 wide receiver who will have a huge size advantage over every Nikiski defender.
Using a combination of the shotgun spread and wishbone offense, Riddall called Eielson a running team that also is capable of throwing the ball.
"Their coach does a great job," Riddall said. "It's going to be a war."
West Valley at Skyview, 2 p.m. Saturday
The Panthers (2-5, 0-5) saved arguably their best opponent for last.
West Valley, which plays in the Railbelt Conference, currently sits in a tie for fourth place in the state's poll for large schools.
The squad is 5-2 coming into the regular-season finale.
"We expect a real tough game," Skyview coach Eric Pomerleau said. "We are playing one of the top teams in the state and they are really well-coached."
The Wolfpack is coached by Daniel Esparaza, a former player for Pomerleau. Esparaza runs a combination of Wing-T and shotgun spread on offense, styles with which Skyview is familiar.
The Panthers faced the Wing-T in a 34-7 loss to SoHi last week, and saw the spread earlier this season against Kenai Central.
Pomerleau expects a stiff challenge.
"They are going to come down with some very good athletes," the coach said. "They are going to be excited to play heading into the playoffs."
Skyview will be without running back Jasen Suonvieri, who has an injured shoulder. Although the Panthers are a pass-heavy team, Suonvieri has been a focal point of the offense.
The senior has 790 rushing yards on 129 carries, including seven touchdowns. Pomerleau said Cody Williams and Brandon Rice will receive the bulk of the carries Saturday.
"It's going to be by committee," he said.
Since Skyview won't make the playoffs, this is the last game for the squad's seniors.
Pomerleau said it's his job to utilize the seniors' individual strengths and get as many on the field as he can without compromising the team's chance of winning.
"Starting as sophomores and going all the way through, we've had our ups and downs, but they stuck it out together," Pomerleau said. "And for the program, with our younger guys winning most of their games on the C team and junior varsity, we have a lot to look forward to for the future."
Homer at Houston, 7 p.m. Friday
After an emotional, double-overtime victory over Kenai Central in Week 7, the Mariners are heavy favorites against the Hawks (3-3 overall, 1-3 conference).
Homer could finish first, second or third in the NLC depending on the results of this game and Saturday's contest between Kenai Central and Soldotna.
But coach Camron Wyatt said it's foolish to look beyond the Hawks, whose lone conference win came by forfeit against Skyview.
"This is a classic David and Goliath situation. Houston can unite. We've seen it on game film. They have come together and put together some good drives," Wyatt said. "They are going to come after us, and if they come after us and have a good game, nothing is for sure."
What is for sure is Homer's plan. The Mariners will run the ball - a ton.
Dyllan Day leads the way, entering Week 8 with 817 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns on 88 carries. The Mariners have rushed for more than 1,900 yards as a unit.
A week after carrying it 36 times for 175 yards in the win over the Kards - Homer's first over Kenai Central since 1992 - Wyatt plans to pound the ball even more against Houston.
An area of focus this week, the coach said, is to create more separation between the running backs and offensive line before the snap. That's because Homer's backs hit the holes too fast against Kenai Central, making it difficult for the line to create gaps or hold blocks.
"Our plan is to run it 55 times instead of 36," Wyatt said. "We need those big boys up front to get their blocks."
Barrow at Seward, 4 p.m. Friday
The Seahawks, who have yet to win a game, conclude the campaign against the first-place Whalers.
Barrow, which has clinched a small-schools playoff berth, needs a win to secure a share of the Greatland Conference regular-season title.
Of Seward's seven losses, five of them have been by 38 points or more.