Homer, Kenai face off for medium-schools crown
The first medium-schools state championship will go to a football team from the central Kenai Peninsula.
Just not the one many expected.
Kenai Central and Homer play for it all in an unlikely matchup at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Chugiak High School.
"We thought we would be in this game from the beginning of the season. That was one of our goals," said Kenai Central coach John Marquez, whose squad finished the regular season with a .500 record. "We went about it the hard way, but that shows the type of character on this football team and the will of the players on this team to battle through adversity."
The Kardinals (5-4) knocked off rival Soldotna 28-12 in last week's semifinals, breaking the Stars' 19-game winning streak and eliminating the squad most considered the odds-on favorite to win the crown.
Homer (8-1), meanwhile, stomped Thunder Mountain 46-6 to prolong a season in which it has eclipsed the school's all-time win mark.
And so the crown for medium schools, a newly created classification, comes down to a rematch of Week 7.
That's when Homer defeated Kenai Central for the first time since 1992, outlasting the Kards 21-14 in double overtime.
"Our boys, they have been practicing, they have been reminding themselves that they are 8-1," Homer coach Camron Wyatt said. "They earned the right to play in this game. They have done everything necessary to be one of the last two teams standing."
There's a good chance the title will go to the team with the most players left standing.
Homer, which uses the run-heavy Single Wing offense, is one of the most physical units in the state.
The Mariners throw less than 10 percent of the time, relying on running backs Dyllan Day, Taylor Downes, Hoss Frank and host of others to shoulder the load.
And Kenai Central redefined itself last week, showing it will run the ball with relentless aggression if that's what it takes to win.
The Kards, who for much of the season operated in a spread attack, lined quarterback AJ Hull under center and rushed it 54 times to dominate possession.
Both coaches said that could make Saturday's contest a bruiser.
"Going into this game, I truly believe it's going to come down to a slobber knock," Wyatt said. "Our goal is to control that ball."
Mistakes played a large role in the Mariners' Week 7 win over the Kards, who had multiple chances to win the game.
Kicker TJ Wagoner missed two go-ahead field goals late in the contest. Hull returned an interception for a touchdown with less than 20 seconds to go, but the play was called back because of holding. And the Kards blew a 14-point lead.
For Saturday's result to be different, Kenai Central must cut down on those miscues. Not that Marquez expects anything to come easy.
"Those kids are hard-nosed, physical, blue-collar workers who just get the job done," Marquez said. "That's what they are going to do again. They aren't fancy, they aren't going to change. They aren't going to do anything different."
Kenai Central is no stranger to the big stage, having made six appearances in the small-schools championship between 2002 and 2010. The Kardinals won five of those games.
It's new territory for Homer, which lost to Kenai Central in the semifinals last year.
But Marquez said previous postseason experience - and the 2011 regular season - shouldn't play a huge factor.
"That's all said and done. The slate is wiped clean," the first-year coach said. "Everyone is 0-0. Now it's all about getting to 1-0."
For Homer, which has a lower enrollment than most medium schools, this is a program-defining weekend.
Wyatt, who took over as head coach five years ago, called it a long process made possible by hard work and dedication from the coaching staff and players.
The coach said family members are flying in everywhere from Colorado to the East Coast and that the school maxed out its allotment of buses for travel to the game.
If Homer wins, it would be the first time in 10 seasons neither Kenai Central nor Soldotna brought home a state title.
"This is an opportunity for us to demonstrate to the state of Alaska that if you have a goal and work hard enough, those goals can come true," Wyatt said.