The 2012 Alaska high school football season kicks off today with games being played around the state.
Five of the six varsity teams from the Kenai Peninsula open with games on the Peninsula.
Here on the Kenai Peninsula, it has been a year since the addition of the medium-schools championship, which left Kenai, Soldotna, Skyview and Homer battling for a medium-schools title, while Nikiski and Seward fought for the small-schools championship.
Kenai pulled out the 26-14 win over Homer last fall to win the inaugural medium-schools state title, while Nikiski took the small-schools crown with a 52-21 rout of Barrow.
The defending state champions will be missing a large chunk of last year’s starting players due to graduation, but head coach John Marquez still figures to be a contender.
“We’ve been together all summer, the kids have been learning offense and defense, but we’re very young and not very deep this year, obviously,” Marquez said. “You have to find someone and adjust your offense and defense to what you have.”
One of the biggest holes left is that of quarterback AJ Hull. In eight games last year in the regular season, Hull completed 35 of 90 passes for 751 yards and 15 touchdowns total.
“When you look at it, we have four guys from last year’s state championship team coming back, and we don’t have an AJ Hull or a Kyle Dougherty, Daniel Carlson or Johnny Wilson, and all those guys are going to play college football, and when you lose that type of caliber kid, it’s hard to replace,” Marquez said, referring to last year’s senior class. “But we’re not replacing them, we’re adjusting to what we have and we’re looking pretty good with that.”
Hull was the 2011-12 Gatorade Alaska Football Player of the Year, and is slated to play this fall at Western Oregon University, a Division II team in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.
Even with the loss of seniors, Marquez said the current lineup is dangerous.
Senior Andrew Barcus was the team’s junior varsity quarterback last season, and will step up to fill the position vacated by Hull this year.
“He is a solid, smart quarterback, he’s tough, he can run, he can make things happen,” Marquez said. “We’re going to be under the center with him, because that’s where he handles better, and he has great accuracy with the short routes.”
The defensive line will be anchored by three powerful guys, Marquez said.
Grayden Mendenhall, Duncan Brewer (previous All-State offensive and defensive linebacker), and Brad Smithwick will all add power and be a force on the field.
“We’re hanging our hats toward leadership, but with experience and leadership, Grayden, Duncan and Brad and those guys will help us tremendously with leading the team,” Marquez said.
Marquez said it’s important that the team forge its own identity, in order to succeed this year, and not look back at last year’s successful group.
“There’s a time and place when you have to step off the coattails of people in front of you, and that has nothing to do with wins and losses, so our current group of guys need to step up and take a leadership role,” he said. “They can take the reigns and build a legacy program again on their own.”
Kenai’s first game of the season is today against East Anchorage, a school with a strong successful history.
“East is going to be hard to contain, because they have athletes,” Marquez said. “They were in the quarterfinals last year with Juneau (at state) and we were watching the film and they can run, they’re big, but we just do what we’re supposed to do on offense, stay in their face, we’ll grind the game out.
“We need to control the clock offensively and keep their high-power, fast-scoring offense off the field.”
Kenai plays East at 6 p.m. at home.
The Soldotna squad, like Kenai, is losing a number of talented seniors from last year, but likely will not feel the impact as much.
Head coach Galen Brantley Jr. said the returning members have been putting in a lot of practice hours over the offseason and hope to be right in the mix this fall.
“I’m really pleased with the effort we’ve gotten so far the first couple weeks, and if we can stay healthy, we have the ability to be right in the hunt by the end of the season,” Brantley said. “I think we’re pretty balanced, we’ve got a solid group of front, a couple of talented tight ends, some good running backs, we just don’t really have a hole in the lineup.”
Tight ends Zane Miller and Troy Strife, both seniors this year, will be returning. Both players also will be lining up as linebackers on the defensive end.
“We have a great linebacking core, but we’re not too deep,” Brantley said. “We’re going to be a team that plays really good defense and runs the football.”
Senior Noah Fowler will be returning to play the role as quarterback for Soldotna, and Brantley said he has been putting in a lot of work over the offseason and expects good things from him.
Fowler completed 27 of 55 passes last year for 599 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“We need to get a couple of games under our belts and face up against adversity before we know what kind of team we’re going to be for certain,” Brantley said.
Soldotna plays Palmer at home on Saturday at 2 p.m., and Brantley said the game will be a good start to figure out what needs work and what doesn’t.
“We’re going to look at our tendencies and see where we need to line our kids up so they can make enough plays to win a ball game,” he said. “But, I think the road ultimately goes through defending state champ Kenai.”
Skyview will be without 21 of the 22 starters from last season, according to head coach Eric Pomerleau, but expects to have some players in reserve that may surprise people.
“The guys we have, have been in the program for a few years now, and they’ve been lifting their weights and doing what they need to do, so I think they’re doing a really good job and were a lot more solid than people will expect,” Pomerleau said. “Even our younger kids that were successful last year were showing leadership, and so we’re sticking to our philosophy the same way did with last year’s group.”
Albert White, one of Skyview’s top receivers with 340 yards, graduated, as did linebacker Alex Rodriguez, but Pomerleau said the offensive line will be a strength, including junior running back Brandon Rice, junior wide receiver Tyler Howell, and senior Kyle Zimmerman as quarterback.
Jordan Jones led the conference in passing yards last year with 988 total, but Zimmerman has experience with the team that could easily rocket it to success.
“We got to get out there and execute and do what we do well, and hopefully we’ll have a chance to be in the game,” Pomerleau said. “I have a pretty good idea of what the team is going to look like through the season, but each game does not tell how good of a team you are or how good you’ll be next week.
“The biggest goal is just getting better every single day, improve and work hard.”
Skyview plays Colony at home at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
It seems to be the same story for Homer as it is with the other schools, with 16 seniors leaving after last year.
“We have six returning starters, mostly linemen, we lost a lot of technique guys, and some people say we’re rebuilding, but I think we’re going to be right in the middle there,” Homer head coach Cameron Wyatt said. “We’ll be competitive with everyone in our league.
“If you look at Kenai, SoHi, Skyview, we’ve already seen them a little bit, and in all honesty I think we’re going to be competitive with them, we just need to pay close attention, because we don’t have a lot of kids this year.”
Wyatt said the team will be lucky to have 16 players on the roster this year, down from the usual 24 or so.
“We have to be very cautious about that,” Wyatt said. “But we run a different type of football program down here, it’s not complex, it’s about keeping the kids safe and keeping them productive so when we put them in they are successful.”
Wyatt said while other schools may have the upper hand when it comes to speed and technique, Homer may have the upper hand when it comes to the size, which could benefit the Mariners.
With most of the backfield gone, Wyatt said senior running back Mark McGregor, who didn’t see a lot of time last year, will be back. McGregor only had seven carries last year, but averaged 6.1 yards per play.
Senior Willy Deaver at center, senior All-State guard Drew Raymond and senior Joseph Resetarits make up just a portion of the offense that could be potent.
“We’re going to run that ball forward and just work them, using just blue-collar toughness, blocking, running to the hole, and priding ourselves on the ability to get the yardage when nobody else can,” Wyatt said. “We want to control the clock, keep the ball on our end and eat the clock up, and execute perfectly, and allow the defense to come on the field and play junkyard football.”
That simplicity that Homer uses could work to its advantage, according to Wyatt.
Tight end Zach Fraley will also be much appreciated for adding force and brute strength, according to Wyatt.
Homer will face up against Eielson at 1 p.m. on Saturday in Fairbanks.
“We’re going to go to Eielson to find our big playmakers, but I think our strength is going to be our line, and controlling the line of scrimmage,” Wyatt said. “A lot of people say that’s how you win ball games, when that little kid in the back gets scared and runs through the hole.
“This group has a lot of brotherhood, they stick together, and that can go a long way when we face adversity.”
One year removed from a small-school state championship title, Nikiski opens its season against Lathrop at 6 p.m. today at home, after a schedule change.
“We’ve got several starters returning from last year, but our biggest issue is going to be depth,” assistant coach Scott Anderson said. “Right now, we have about 14 full-time varsity guys, and they’ve been lifting weights and getting into playing shape.
Colton Anderson, last year’s quarterback, was lost to graduation in the spring, as well as Kaden Spurgeon, an adept running back who racked up 864 rushing yards for 10 touchdowns last year.
Anderson said the team’s biggest asset is speed.
Three others also graduated, leaving a significant hole in the line, but Anderson is confident that can be replaced, as junior Seth Carstens and Stephen Hartley return, and sophomore Christian Riddall returns as running back, and Tristan Apted as fullback.
“For the guys that are coming back from last year’s team, I think that championship has built confidence for them, and they have their own goals in mind, and it’s going to take good play every week to win,” Anderson said.
Nikiski will be sticking with a run-based offense, as they have for years now, Anderson said.
“We also have the ability to throw the ball as well, so hopefully we could use that if it comes down to it,” Anderson said.
“We feel like this group listens well, they do anything we ask them to, and if they perform, we can be successful.”