The pressure cooker known as playoff football is about to receive a healthy dose of intensity. Three Kenai Peninsula teams have qualified for the 2012 football playoffs and look to find glory on the other side.
The Soldotna Stars and Homer Mariners finished first and second, respectively, in the Northern Lights Conference. The Stars enter the medium-schools playoffs with a 5-0 conference record and 7-1 overall, while the Mariners begin the postseason 4-1 in the conference and 5-2 overall.
In the Greatland Conference, the Nikiski Bulldogs finished second with a 4-1 conference record and 6-2 overall. The Bulldogs are the second seed in the small-schools playoffs, behind Eielson.
at Soldotna, 12 p.m. Saturday
The Stars have played Kodiak earlier this season, a 41-7 win in Week 6, which should give Soldotna the edge it needs to stay alive for the championship game.
According to Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr., the Bears were missing a few starters in the final few games of the regular season.
“We have a little film on them, but it doesn’t help a whole lot, because they were missing players, and when they played Skyview they had players missing,” he said. “They’re going to be reloaded and hungry, and committed to a run at the state title game.”
Soldotna defeated Kenai last week 35-13 in a game that was much closer than the score indicated.
“We got a little bit of a wakeup call last week, we didn’t execute the way we wanted to going into the playoffs, but we’re here and we’re right where we want to be,” Brantley Jr. said. “We’ve had a good week of practice, the kids are focused, and we know what happened before doesn’t matter now. We learned that lesson last year, that just because you beat someone in the regular season, doesn’t mean you’re going to beat them in the playoffs.”
Soldotna has averaged 49.4 points a game in conference matches this year, while only allowing an average of seven points on defense. Those are big numbers for a team looking to win the medium-schools state championship.
Of course, the bitter pill of being upset by Kenai in the first game of the playoffs last year is still on the minds of this year’s seniors.
“Fortunately for us, we were young and had a lot of juniors, and that sour taste is still there, and they have something to prove,” Brantley Jr. said. “We have a countdown block on the wall, and today I think it was like, one day and 19 hours. We’d love nothing more than to put icing on the cake, and we won’t get a chance to play in the championship game if we don’t win this first one.”
Homer at Thunder
Mountain, 7 p.m. Friday
Homer will travel down to Juneau to take on the No. 1 seed in the Southeast Conference, the Thunder Mountain Falcons, a team that went 4-0 in that conference and 5-3 overall.
Thunder Mountain has not played Homer this year, but they have played two of Homer’s NLC opponents this season — a 14-13 win against Kodiak in Week 4 and a 27-20 loss to Skyview in Week 5.
Homer coach Camron Wyatt said the team has been working on polishing up its plays and working on a higher level of consistency, as they work on returning to the medium-schools state championship game.
“It’s a championship situation, and we’re familiar with it,” Wyatt said. “We’re going to stick with our game plan, which is to run the ball between the guards and tackles, and we have to keep Thunder Mountain in front of us, because they’re faster than us, and as a coach, going into a game like this, those are the things that will get you.
“We’ve been working on our footwork, staying positive and hopefully coming home with a win so we can get to the big show again.”
Homer and Thunder Mountain have gone to great lengths to prepare for each other, even swapping game film to know what to expect.
“We know their style and they know our style,” Wyatt said. “They know they’re in for a good game, those kids are well-coached, and it’s a tremendous facility. This is unfamiliar territory for our younger players, so we’re going to lean heavily on the older boys to help the younger kids.”
Homer is coming off a Week 8 win over Houston in which running back Joseph Cardoza notched 194 rushing yards and teammate Mark McGregor ran for 124 yards. Homer had 519 overall offensive yards in the game.
“Cardoza ran hard, he is as healthy as anything, and McGregor is in the same boat,” Wyatt said. “Also, Konstantin Reutov is our speed back and I’d like to see him and Joe hit it hard.
“Cardoza and McGregor are going to be our north-south guys on the field, while Konstantin is going to be our east-west threat.”
Wyatt mentioned that this will be a big game for the younger athletes on the team.
“The No. 1 thing is to play as a team, and to play your spot, not someone else’s spot,” he said. “We’ll let the chips fall where they may, because they’re a pretty good team, and we’re going to have to battle.”
Wyatt also thanked the community of Homer for the support during the season.
Monroe Catholic at Nikiski, 4 p.m. Saturday
Nikiski has been the running team of the Kenai Peninsula this season, racking up 3,059 total rushing yards this season, 1,815 of those coming from senior Stephen Hartley.
When a team has a runner like Nikiski has in Hartley, opponents are naturally going to be targeting him, but Nikiski coach Ted Riddall said that they have multiple options on the offensive line.
“In the wing-T, most teams know that your halfback is your best runner, and so they go after him,” Riddall said. “(Hartley) was an all-state caliber kid last year, and he’s a kid that they know going into the season that they would have to stop him.
“When he’s posting those numbers, it’s hard as a defensive coach to not watch him, and he’s got a lot of yards, but there’s been a lot of great blocks thrown from our O-line. If they load up against Stephen, you’re leaving yourself open, because the other two can do it too. It’s hard to stop the whole thing.”
Sophomore Christian Riddall has racked up 728 rushing yards himself, and Tristan Apted has 332 yards.
The Bulldogs haven’t been entirely invincible, however, losing to large-schools opponent Lathrop 44-41 in Week 1, and dropping a thrilling game to Eielson 57-48 in Week 5.
Riddall points to the Eielson game as one of the motivating factors to Nikiski stepping up its defense, having allowed 704 yards to the Ravens that day.
“After the Eielson game, we challenged the kids,” Riddall said. “When you can keep teams out of the end zone for 48 minutes, you know you have something good going on, and we asked the kids what they want to be. Do you want to be a team that wins by a touchdown or a team that can dominate on both sides of the ball?”
In conference games this year, Nikiski has averaged 51.2 points a game. On defense, the Bulldogs have allowed an average of only 12.6 points a game, so the numbers are in their favor.
Nikiski has played Monroe this year, putting together a 49-0 beatdown on the Rams in Week 7. However, according to Riddall, Monroe was missing a few key starters that week.
“This week, we’ve talked to the kids about the fact that this is a new team that we really haven’t played, because when we played them the first time, they didn’t have some starters and their best player, so for our kids to get overconfident, we’re not going to do that,” he said. “We’re going to need to play our best football, and mentally, locking on and paying attention to all the details.
“There’s an old adage that says offensive teams win games, but defensive teams win championships.”