If you hold any rooting interest in a local prep football team, then be prepared for an extra dose of excitement this season.
This weekend marks the first of eight in the high school football season, and with it comes change (as always) with new coaches, players and even new schools.
With North Pole and Juneau-Douglas high schools stepping down from the large schools division to join the chase for a medium schools crown, the quest for a state berth will be considerably ramped up in intensity. Both teams bring championship pedigrees that will likely test the Southeast Conference, which mirrors the Peninsula’s Northern Lights Conference with four state berths.
“It kind of makes it a little more legitimate,” said former longtime Kenai coach Jim Beeson. “If you’re the medium-schools state champion now, it’s an accomplishment. It’s not just Kenai, Soldotna and Kodiak now. We’ve added two quality programs that have been successful in the past. That’ll add to the mix and make it that much more difficult.”
Juneau moved from the Railbelt Conference, which includes Fairbanks and Valley teams like Colony, Wasilla, Lathrop and West Valley. The Crimson Bears have won two state large-schools championships, the last coming in 2007.
North Pole won the large-schools state title in 2004, and is also making the move from the Railbelt Conference.
“Size-wise, they’re the largest animals in the medium-animal division, and they’ve got dynamic athletes,” said Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. “They’re not just a normal school of over 700 kids. They’ve got a lot of tradition, and kind of in the same boat, they’ve had a lot of high-powered kids coming out of the program.”
Brantley Jr. added that “North Pole is right next to the military base, so they’ve got some exceptional athletes from all over the country.”
First-year Skyview head coach Chris Finley said he believes the two newcomers will add depth to the medium-schools field.
“I did watch a film on North Pole from two years ago, and I don’t know what they’re doing this year, but that year they ran a read-option and ran it pretty good,” Finley said.
In order to fit 11 teams into eight state berths, something is going to have to give, and that’s what makes it so entertaining. So let’s sit back and watch it all unfold.
The Stars hold the distinction of reigning state champions in the medium-schools division, having beat Homer 62-20 for the championship last October after going 7-1 in the regular season. That also means other teams will be placing a bullseye on their back.
“Outside of a few guys, it’s a different team with new faces,” said coach Brantley Jr. “That next crop of young men are coming in and making their mark.
“We may be a little more of a running team, it’s hard to say, but we like what we have. We have a pretty good group of young men, and if we’re doing the right things in the classroom, on the practice fields, during our games, and in the community, then we’ll be pretty successful.”
Last year, quarterback Noah Fowler racked up impressive passing numbers, completing 26 of 56 total attempts for 476 yards and 12 touchdowns, while throwing only three interceptions.
However, Fowler was a senior, and has since graduated, but the new guy under center — senior Colton Young — adds another dimension.
Young was a starting halfback last year, rushing for 581 total yards on 55 carries for 11 touchdowns, which averages out to 10.6 yards a carry. But, he only took one snap for a passing attempt.
“(Colton) is going to be way good,” said senior teammate Jake Kooly. “He’s going to be amazing, he’s got a good arm, he’s good at running and can really read blockers good.
“Noah probably had a better arm, but Colton can run the ball, and everybody knows that. It’s like we have another running back on the team.”
Young said although he has essentially zero experience as a quarterback, he thinks he can use his running game to help the squad.
“This is the first time I’ve played quarterback in my life, but this year I’ll probably be just another running back under center,” Young said.
Along with Young, Kooly will be returning as a fullback, and sophomore Drew Gibbs will add even more depth to SoHi’s backfield, which will be lacking the power that Reid Schmelzenbach provided last year. Schmelzenbach accumulated 486 rushing yards last year for eight touchdowns.
Dylan Smith and Daniel Rosin, both seniors, are returning lineman who’s experience should also help.
“Defensively, I think we’ll get some more of the same,” Brantley Jr. said. “Phil Lecks is back again working as a defensive coordinator, and he did an outstanding job for us last year. He has a great gameplan for our boys, and I think we’ll be ready to hit the ground running in week one.”
The Stars start their season with a road game against the Eielson Ravens — last year’s small-schools state champions — on Saturday at 1 p.m., and Brantley Jr. said that’s the only game he’s focused on right now.
“That would be an awesome thing to think about (winning state), but our sights are set on game one with Eielson,” Brantley Jr. said. “We try not to look too far past.”
Other key matchups throughout SoHi’s season include a week two meeting with the Colony Knights, a week six championship rematch with the Homer Mariners, and the always-entertaining friendly rivalry with Kenai to end the season.
“Colony is going to be a big test, because they have some freak wide receivers,” Young added.
A new sheriff is in town for Kenai, as Jim Dawson replaces John Marquez as head coach.
“It’s going to take a while to get reacclimated to the way coach Dawson does things, to the way I do things and the way coach Hull does things,” said assistant coach Jim Beeson. “It’s just different. It’ll take a little while, we don’t have huge numbers, but there’s potential to be a pretty good football team.”
Dawson has been an assistant on the Kenai Peninsula for over 20 years, but never has been a head coach.
Beeson said the teams goal is to clinch a playoff spot, something they failed to do last year after winning the inaugural medium-schools title in 2011.
“We can’t have anybody get hurt, so the key for us will be getting the kids in shape,” Beeson said. “If we can get in shape and avoid injuries, then we should be OK...That’s our goal, to get to the playoffs, because once you get to the playoffs, anything can happen, and we’ve proven that in the past.”
Gone from last year’s 2-6 squad are such players as Grayden Mendenhall, who rushed for 481 yards and seven touchdowns in 2012, and Duncan Brewer, who was a powerful lineman.
Jace Baker returns for his junior season, and will likely spend time under center this year. Last season, Baker completed 10 of 27 pass attempts for 87 yards and two touchdowns in limited action.
Senior Jason Daniels is another experienced player in the backfield that should boost the offense, as he compiled 657 rushing yards a year ago on 116 carries.
“We’ve got a couple kids trying out positions like quarterback, and it’s a matter of figuring out who’s the right answer there,” Beeson said. “One’s really good at running the football and not as good at throwing, the other throws better and doesn’t run as well.”
“But our running back position is as good as it’s been in a long time.”
Junior Chase Logan also brings some needed punch to the backfield as a fullback. Sophomores Taylor Landry and Michael Tilly should compliment him.
“He played a lot last year, and if we’re going to be successful it’s going to be because he has a big year for us,” Beeson said. “He’s got a lot of potential to be successful.”
T.J. Wagoner has also proven to be adept at the quarterback position, according to Beeson, but played as a safety and receiver last year.
“He’s someone who will probably be a senior leader this year.”
The Kards begin their season on Saturday at 2 p.m. against Nikiski, after an Ed Hollier Field rededication ceremony prior to kickoff.
Among the Kards’ season highlights is a week two matchup with the Wasilla Warriors, followed by two road games with Homer and Kodiak, which Beeson said are two pivotal contests.
“After week four, we’ll have a really good idea of where we’re sitting and what we need to do to get into the playoffs,” he said. “Those are two important weeks, Homer and Kodiak, because they are two teams that we are fighting with to get into the playoffs. If we can be 2-0 after those games, we’ll be happy.”
Chris Finley, a 29-year-old assistant coach from last years Panthers squad, takes over the Skyview program in 2013, which will certainly be an emotional one as the school prepares for its swan song.
“Our goal is...it’s the last year of Skyview, so we want to make it the best,” Finley said.
After the 2013-14 academic season, Skyview High will become a middle school, which means current Skyview students will be making the move to Soldotna High, due to declining enrollment.
“We’ve got low numbers, about 25 kids, and no JV program, but I’m very optimistic,” Finley said. “I think we’ve got the right group of kids who are eager to learn and do anything to get better. I think that’ll pay off in the long run.”
Finley replaces Eric Pomerleau, who stepped down from the Skyview football program to concentrate on completing a masters degree in exercise science.
Finley said he hopes some of his experience from his days as a prep player and assistant coach in Oregon pays off.
“We have to play defense to compete with anybody,” he said. “Our focus is defense, we want the kids to hit on every play, we’re stressing that, and hopefully that’ll help the kids to stay healthy and be used to that every day.”
Bailey Jones returns as quarterback for the Panthers for his junior season, after having seen limited playing time under center last season.
“That’s kind of the year where you make the biggest jump, so we’re expecting some good things from him,” Finley said.
Jones said he hopes to top some of the numbers his older brother, Jordan, put up last year. Jordan Jones completed 23 of 47 passing attempts in 2012, racking up 321 yards and two touchdowns.
“I’ve learned a lot this summer on how to throw,” Jones said. “I got a lot better between this year and last year at throwing. And just reading the receivers, which ones are open and which ones aren’t.”
Jones should have some talented hands to pass the ball to, such as Bailey Blumentritt, another junior, as a wide receiver, and senior tailback Brandon Rice, who suffered an injury last year and did not get to play much.
“(Blumentritt) is aggressive to go after the ball, and he did well at the jamboree last weekend so we look forward to him continuing that throughout the year,” Finley said. “(Rice) didn’t get a chance to shine like he should’ve, so I think he’s got a chip on his shoulder.”
The Panthers open their final season on the road against Valdez on Saturday, then return for their first home game against the Houston Hawks in week two. Finley said the matchup he’s looking forward to the most is the first one.
“I just want to see what we do this first week in Valdez, it’s going to tell me a lot,” he said.
Skyview’s homecoming game will be against Homer on September 7.
The scrappy 6-2 Bulldogs squad from last year that nearly won a second consecutive small-schools state championship is missing a few standout players this year — namely running back Stephen Hartley and lineman Lincoln Johnson, who both graduated and now play football in college.
Along with the graduation of lineman Devon Berry, and quarterback Seth Carstens not playing in order to focus his energies on basketball season, Nikiski has some big cleats to fill.
“It’s a younger team compared to past year, but we’re always thinking that we’re going to reload,” said coach Ted Riddall. “We’ve got some young kids that are learning, and hopefully it’ll come together. It’s going to take a little time, but we’re going to go with what we’ve got, and what we’ve got is enough.”
Hartley blew the competition away in 2012 with 1,815 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns in the regular season (averaging 11.5 yards a carry), breaking Nikiski’s school record.
Including the postseason, Hartley compiled 2,056 rushing yards overall, although that still wasn’t enough for the Bulldogs to win a state title, as they lost to Eielson 27-7 in the final.
“A kid like that — after four years of dedicating himself to football, is out playing some college football — that’s hard to replace,” Riddall said. “Hopefully, he’s left some practice habits with the younger guys that they can grab ahold of and carry forward. We’ve got some kids that are kind of on the heels of that, and they could head in that direction.”
Lincoln Johnson’s younger brother, Luke, will be spending more time in the backfield this season, according to Riddall, and will join other names like Michael Stangel, Christian Riddall and Jesse Eide, who all made considerable contributions a year ago.
Senior Garrett Feller will be starting the year at the quarterback position, hoping to produce numbers similar to what Carstens put up last year (23 for 37 with 443 passing yards, five touchdowns).
“If we can get our line to come along, and get that weight and power in the backfield, we could pose some problems to other teams,” coach Riddall said. “Those guys are all over 200 pounds, so I think we’ve got a chance if we can keep getting better each week.”
Nikiski begins its season on Saturday at 2 p.m. against Kenai, before getting a rematch with large-schools opponent Lathrop in week two — a team they narrowly lost to early in last season.
Once the Greatland Conference games begin, Nikiski’s biggest challenge seemingly will be week seven, which will provide an exciting state-championship rematch with Eielson on the road. Eielson and Nikiski battled all year long in 2012 for supremacy in the Greatland Conference.
“Again, we’re young, but if they take advantage of every opportunity in the arena, there’s no reason we can’t be back,” Riddall said. “The state title game is a long ways away, and what we do is we take it one practice and one game at a time.”
The Mariners slogged their way through a 5-2 regular season in 2012, powered through a controversial off-field incident just as the playoffs were set to begin, and still found themselves in the medium-schools state championship game, only to lose 62-20 to Soldotna.
A head coaching change took place over the offseason for Homer, as Josh Fraley now leads the team in place of Camron Wyatt.
Mark McGregor led the team in rushing yards last season, scraping out 578 yards for six touchdowns, and also doubled up with Sheldon Hutt at the quarterback position, but McGregor graduated in the spring and will not be back. Hutt will be a junior this year.
The ‘Hawks made an appearance at the football jamboree last weekend in Soldotna, which provided some much-needed experience for a team that has struggled to produce enough players for a full team in recent years.
Seward finished with a regular season record of 1-7 in the Greatland Conference last year, getting a 33-30 win over the Thunder Mountain JV squad midway through the season.