The final week of the prep football regular season has arrived, with the playoff hopes of many teams still alive.
Among the Northern Lights Conference teams that hold postseason hopes in the medium-schools division, only the Soldotna Stars and Homer Mariners have guaranteed spots. Kodiak also controls its destiny, and can get the third and final playoff spot with a victory over Skyview. A Bears loss to the Panthers opens the door for Kenai Central to make the playoffs with a victory over Soldotna.
Nikiski has clinched a small-schools spot in the Greatland Conference, which allows four teams into the postseason, but they are still fighting for home-field advantage in the playoffs, as well as who plays the No. 1 seed Eielson.
Kenai at Soldotna, 2 p.m. Saturday
Saturday has become a must-win for the Kardinals, but even if Kenai does win, there’s still a chance it will not make it.
Kenai is currently tied with Kodiak in the conference standings with 2-2 records, and if they both win or both lose, and are still tied after Saturday, the tiebreaker goes to the winner of their regular-season matchup.
That is where it gets interesting, because the Kards suffered a loss to Kodiak in that game, which was determined on a last-second touchdown pass from Kodiak which gave the Bears the 20-19 win.
“Those are the things that haunt you, you know, if you win that game, you’re in the driver’s seat, and if not then you have to rely on other things,” Kenai coach John Marquez said. “Kodiak made the play when it counted, and they deserved it. They’re a good team.”
Marquez has said that his team is not focused on the playoff picture, but rather on the game against crosstown rival Soldotna.
“The playoffs are not the focal point, we’re not worrying about the mathematical chances we have,” Kenai coach John Marquez said. “All we can do is worry about SoHi, because they’re a top-notch team.”
Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. said the Stars are excited to play the Kards, even though they are in the playoffs already.
“It’s a rivalry game, so we’re certainly excited about that,” Brantley Jr. said. “It’s one of those games where you can just throw out the record book.
“We’re proud of our kids, to be clinched in the playoffs, and it’s a real testament to the kids and coaching staff. We have a great front seven, the O-line has been great, and we’re also really pleased with the special teams this year.”
Brantley Jr. said Soldotna’s only loss this year, a nonconference game to big-schools Palmer, only motivated the team to improve and work on weaknesses. Palmer is currently ranked first in the state for large schools.
After last week’s win over Skyview, coach Marquez said the biggest thing that the Kardinals worked on this week was their mental game.
“We’ve been working on the mental side, and it’s especially important now because you cannot make those mistakes with SoHi,” Marquez said. “The attitude of the team has been fantastic this week, so hopefully we’ll be prepared and give it all we’ve got.”
Marquez also said that if Kenai does pull off a playoff spot, they can go far.
“These kids are the kind of players that go after it, and if we make it to the playoffs, they can refocus and do some good work, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” he said.
Barrow at Nikiski, 5 p.m. Friday
Both teams have locked up postseason berths, but now it comes down to who will play who in the playoffs, and where it will be played.
With Eielson locking up the Greatland Conference title last week with a win over Barrow, the next three spots are up for grabs between Nikiski, Monroe Catholic and Barrow, and the Whalers will be looking to end their regular season with a win; that is, if they can stop the Bulldogs run game.
Nikiski has featured a threatening rushing attack all season, comprised mostly of senior running back Stephen Hartley and sophomore Christian Riddall. With 1,521 yards on the ground this year, Hartley easily leads the Kenai Peninsula, and Riddall is no slouch either, ranked second behind his teammate with 605 rushing yards. Hartley also has 25 touchdowns this season, one shy of the Nikiski school record.
“When you’re playing a conference opponent, you definitely want to win so you’re seeded higher, so we do our studying and prepare for them,” Nikiski coach Ted Riddall said. “We’re treating this like it’s a state championship game. They’re a good team with athletic kids, and they aren’t to be taken lightly.”
Nikiski has also been able to hold their own this year when it comes to the passing game, as junior quarterback Seth Carstens leads the Peninsula with 431 passing yards (21 of 35 completed) this year, and senior wide receiver Tristin Apted has caught 11 passes for 107 yards.
Riddall knows the fact that if Nikiski ends up in a three-way tie in the conference standings, home-field advantage will be determined by a coin flip.
“Moving towards the playoffs, you want to be executing at a high level, and basically adjust to that,” Riddall said. “Everyone knows we run the ball well, but we have the options of passing.”
Eielson will prove to be a real threat in the postseason, if Nikiski finds themselves squared up against them, as the Ravens have averaged 53.8 points a game on offense this year. Nikiski provided the closest game for Eielson, a 57-48 loss for the Bulldogs in Week 5.
According to Riddall, offensive lineman Jesse Cobb is probable for Friday’s game, due to a fractured finger, but the team as a whole is staying healthy.
Houston at Homer,
3 p.m. Saturday
The Mariners are pitted against the Hawks on Saturday, and Homer coach Camron Wyatt said the team is preparing for a mud fest.
“Our fields are underwater,” Wyatt said. “We usually say it’s going to be 3 yards and a cloud of dust, but now it’s 3 yards and a splash!
“Other than that, the kids are healthy and excited, and they seem to like playing in that situation. Hopefully Houston brings their rubber duckies.”
Senior running back Mark McGregor has amassed 578 rushing yards this season, and figures to be a key player again this week, while Quinn Daugharty has had 78 receiving yards on only four catches.
Sophomore quarterback Sheldon Hutt has passed for 120 yards in four games this year.
Because Homer is in the playoffs, Wyatt’s biggest concern is the health of his team.
“When they get wet, they start to get cold,” Wyatt said. “That’s what happens, at the end of the season, it gets cold and it’s easy to get injuries like a pulled muscle or something. That’s going to be our focus, to stay injury-free, but we’re pretty healthy right now. I checked the forecast, and it should be overcast but not too much rain.”
Kodiak at Skyview, 1 p.m. Sunday
The Panthers, hampered by a 0-4 conference record this season, are not in contention for a playoff spot, but will be looking to finish the year off strong with a win against Kodiak.
Quarterback Jordan Jones has thrown for 321 yards (23 of 47 completion) in four games, but Kyle Zimmerman has stepped in recently and thrown 36 of 58 for 313 yards, also in four games.
Running back Brandon Rice has been deadly on the ground for Skyview, compiling 297 rushing yards. Riley Edwards has shouldered some of the load this year too, running the ball for 257 yards.
Although Skyview will not be a playoff team, a win against Kodiak could alter the standings. Should the Panthers pull it off, Kodiak could be in danger of missing a postseason berth, a fight that the Bears are in with Kenai.
Seward vs. Monroe
The Seahawks had to forfeit this game due to illness, injuries and eligibility.