Week 7 football preview: Playoff chase heats up

Kenai, Homer battle for NLC positioning
Kenai’s A.J. Hull will be on his toes Saturday when Kenai faces Homer.

The last year Homer football beat Kenai Central, Tiger Woods was playing his first PGA Tour event at the innocent age of 16.


That probably feels like a lifetime ago for the golfer, who lost his clean image and the ability to win after he confessed to adultery last year.

For the Mariners and Kardinals players, it's actually been a lifetime.

Homer's most recent triumph over Kenai Central was 1992.

"That's probably our greatest motivation right now," Homer coach Camron Wyatt said of the skid. "These young men have done a great job going through the conference, but they want to be the group that said they beat Kenai Central, too."

The Mariners look to snap the losing streak when they host the Kardinals in a Northern Lights Conference showdown on homecoming at 3 p.m. Saturday.

As regular-season contests go, this one's got all the juice - history, postseason implications, clashing styles and the possibility of wind and rain, making for classic, backyard football.

Homer (5-1 overall, 2-1 NLC) would all but lock up the conference's No. 2 seed to the playoffs with a win. The Mariners, who finish the NLC schedule next week at one-win Houston, are perfect except for a 26-22 loss to undefeated and top-ranked Soldotna.

Kenai Central (4-2, 3-0) is tied with SoHi (6-0, 3-0) atop the NLC but must edge Homer to avoid a scenario in which it would need a Week 8 win over the Stars to avoid falling to No. 3.

The NLC No. 2 squad draws Southeast Conference champion Thunder Mountain in Round 1 of the playoffs. The NLC No. 3 team gets the NLC regular-season champ, which will be either the Kards, Mariners or the Stars, winners of 17 straight.

Homer beat Thunder Mountain 84-20 early this season, although coaches say the Falcons have probably improved. Three NLC teams qualify for the playoffs.

"It's real important for us. We battled with SoHi, but when they get to the postseason they are a different cat," Wyatt said, adding his squad would welcome a rematch against Thunder Mountain but that nothing would come easy. "We'd like to see SoHi in the big game. Either way, we need to knock them off, but we'd like it to be on the big stage."

First-year Kenai Central coach John Marquez, whose team slept its way to a 38-3 win over Houston in Week 6, said the Kards won't settle for anything less than second place in the conference.

"Our goal is to win it outright and be No. 1 - that was our goal when we set out," Marquez said. "But obviously it all starts with Homer. If we win this one, we control our own destiny. You lose and you still control your own destiny, but your back is against the wall against the No. 1 team in the state."

For the Kards to stay the course, they must slow down a relentless Homer rushing attack. The Mariners ran it more than 50 times in a Week 6 victory over Skyview, using three-back sets out of the Single Wing.

Led by Dyllan Day's 11 rushing touchdowns, Homer has piled up 1,753 yards on the ground through six games. The squad is averaging 45 points per game.

For a Kenai Central defense that features nine athletes who play both ways, there's no bigger test.

Marquez said his unit lacked intensity in the win against Houston and must dial it up if it hopes to defeat Homer.

"The mind-set has been on focus and effort and being physical - that's where we are at right now," Marquez said. "Last week we weren't focused and there was hardly any effort, and we sure weren't physical."

Kenai Central quarterback AJ Hull presents a challenge for Homer. Hull provides a run-pass threat and has the ability to score on any given play.

In last season's 47-12 playoff victory over the Mariners, Hull played running back. He had 72 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries, and also caught five passes for 129 yards and two scores.

This season, the senior has 600 passing yards for seven touchdowns and 568 rushing yards for 10 touchdowns.

Wyatt said it's inevitable Hull will make plays, but Homer must prevent the star from dominating. To do that, it will take a team effort.

"We can't allow him to get one-on-one with anyone on our team. He's just a really good athlete," Wyatt said. "What you need to do is respect him for his speed and athleticism and play clean football and let 11 people play football and not allow yourself to get into a one-on-one situation."

Although the Mariners are arguably the most physical team in the conference, Wyatt said they are smaller than Kenai top to bottom.

The coach said it's vital to start fast and sustain the energy through the final whistle.

"If we don't show up," Wyatt said, chuckling, "Kenai will take us by the hair of our chinny, chin, chin, and swing us around and around and around."

There was between 2 and 3 inches of standing water on the field, Wyatt said Thursday, which along with rainy and windy forecasts could create sloppy conditions.

Throw in the fact it's homecoming, and both sides expect a playoff atmosphere.

"You will see and hear a different football team regardless of the outcome," Marquez said, reflecting on Week 6. "This will be a different team from the past game, no doubt about it. We are ready to go."

Added Wyatt, "I feel good about our chances, but these are young kids. It's like unwrapping a present on Christmas - you just don't know what's going to be in the box."

Skyview at Soldotna, 2 p.m. Saturday
The Stars, winners of 17 straight, look to continue their dominance of the Panthers. Only once in the schools' 20-plus year rivalry has Skyview defeated SoHi - 13-12 in 1998.

"It means everything to them," said SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr., who is perfect against the Panthers. "It's a huge opportunity for them to make something out of a season that was extremely disappointing."

SoHi is 6-0 overall and 3-0 in the NLC, closing in on the regular-season title, while Skyview is 2-4 overall and 0-4 in the conference.

While the Stars have clinched a playoff berth, the Panthers have been eliminated from postseason contention.

A victory over SoHi would change how Skyview remembers the 2011 campaign.

"We tell them that every day is a new opportunity," Skyview coach Eric Pomerleau said. "It's who rises up and is the best on that day. You're not determined by what you do before, it's what you do on that day."

On Saturday, SoHi will put its run-heavy, Wing-T offense against a Panthers team that saw more than 50 running plays a week ago in a hard-fought, 24-13 loss to Homer.

The Stars are averaging an area-best 47 points per game and have racked up 1,739 yards on the ground. Much of that credit, Brantley Jr. said, goes to the offensive line - including Tyler Marcuson, Jarrett Urban, John Shirley, Gavin Larson and Kayne North.

Auston Tennis is the squad's leading carrier, entering Saturday's game with 813 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns.

Pomerleau said the Panthers must play a smart game defensively.

"You have to really balance your reads and your keys and do your specific job," the coach said.

Skyview's offense looks much different as the Panthers look for big plays from the spread formation, which uses a heavy dose of passes.

Brantley Jr. said the key to stopping the spread is to tackle well in open space, eliminating big plays.

One of the biggest threats for Skyview is senior wide receiver Albert White, who caught six passes for 161 yards and a touchdown against Homer. The Panthers also need production from fellow receivers Richard Reynolds and Kyle Pietro.

Meanwhile, quarterback Jordan Jones will look to bolster his passing totals. The senior leads the area with 771 passing yards, but he's also thrown an area-high eight interceptions.

Getting a win over SoHi would be especially sweet for players like White and Jones, who are seniors.

"We have quite a few seniors, so these last few games are going to be super important to a lot of them," Pomerleau said. "We are hoping to send them out on a high note."

The Stars will be without the injured Garrett Bosick, but otherwise healthy. Quarterback Noah Fowler had a breakout game last week in a 56-18 win over Kodiak, throwing for four touchdowns.

SoHi's final regular-season game is against rival Kenai Central, but Brantley Jr. isn't about to look ahead.

"There are no guarantees. It's a big game for our kids, too, and I don't think our kids look past Skyview. They know exactly what they are capable of doing," the coach said. "The challenge for us is, their season has been a disappointment and they have a chance to come in and win one game and make the season worth it. We have to do everything we possibly can to prevent that from happening."

Seward at Nikiski, 5 p.m. Friday
In a Greatland Conference contest, the Bulldogs (5-1 overall, 3-1 conference) host the 0-6 Seahawks, who have allowed 289 points while scoring 36.

Despite what figures to be one-sided affair in his squad's favor, Nikiski coach Ted Riddall said the team's focus doesn't change.

"It's kind of been the same week in and week out. Your opponent gives you the opportunity to step in the arena and compete, and respecting them is the No. 1 thing," Riddall said. "Whether the team is 1-10 or 10-1, or whatever, they just give you the opportunity to get in there. We don't look past anybody."

Nikiski is at full strength, with 38 players available. Riddall said he hopes to get all of them into the game.

Running backs Kaden Spurgeon, Stephen Hartley and Josh Brown will carry the load in the first half. The trio has combined to rush for more than 1,800 yards to go with 29 touchdowns.

Riddall said Seward runs a similar offense to the Bulldogs' Week 8 foe, Eielson (3-1, 3-3), as both squads use a lot of double-tight end, wishbone sets with the occasional spread look.

Facing the Seahawks will prepare the Bulldogs for the Eielson game, which will determine playoff seeding.

"We're challenging them to get better than they were last week," Riddall said.



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