Week 3 is already casting its shadow over the Alaska high school football landscape, and when it’s over, every Northern Lights and Greatland Conference team will have a conference game under its belt.
In the Northern Lights Conference, Soldotna and Kenai will face an NLC opponent for the first time, as the Stars head north to play Houston today, and Saturday the Kards head south to face Homer, a team that lost its first NLC game against Kodiak last weekend.
Nikiski will be making the biggest trip, as the Bulldogs travel north to play Barrow on Saturday for their first Greatland Conference contest.
The Skyview Panthers were scheduled to host the Monroe Rams, but the Fairbanks team has canceled the event, leaving the Panthers (1-1 overall) to focus on Homer in Week 4.
Soldotna at Houston, 7 p.m. Friday
If the Stars plan on winning their first Northern Lights Conference game of the season on Friday, they better find a way to slow down running back Waylon Soptick.
The Houston senior has racked up 557 yards on the ground in two shutouts this season — a 47-0 win over Seward and a 37-0 win over Skyview.
Of course, Soldotna presents a much more formidable challenge, as the reigning medium-schools champions are also 2-0 this season so far and are coming off a big win over large-schools opponent Colony.
“He’s the key to our defense, all week, if we can stop him, we’ll be sucessful,” SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. said about Soptick. “If he gets going, and runs up a bunch of yards, then we’re in for a long day.”
Brantley Jr. noted that as big as the Colony victory was for building confidence, Friday’s game against Houston is more important, being the first conference game for the Stars.
“It’s finally a game that means something for us. That’s important,” Brantley Jr. said. “They’ve gotten off to a good start, they haven’t given up a single point this year, and that’s also important for us to focus on.”
Drew Gibbs played a big part in the 47-24 win over Colony last Friday, rushing 251 yards for four touchdowns, but the SoHi defense also deserves credit for covering the Knights’ passing attack. Gibbs, Blake Riley and Tyler Howell each caught an interception off the Colony offense, and Howell had another pick that was called off due to a penalty.
Brantley Jr. said that if Houston decides to switch up its offensive schemes, the Stars will be ready.
“Part of being a good defense, is being able to adapt and change,” he said. “They’ll have a few new wrinkles for us, and we’ll have a few new wrinkles for them.
“It’s won or lost on whether our kids can make those key blocks and tackles.”
Houston is also the co-holder of the top spot in the NLC with Kodiak, since the two schools each have a conference win, so a SoHi victory would also give the Stars at least a share of the lead.
Brantley Jr. also held belief that Soldotna’s game will be sharper and crisper, after looking at the film from the Colony game. The SoHi backfield missed a number of key blocking assignments, according to him, along with a few spacing issues.
“It was nice to come away with a win at that game, but we left a lot of plays on the table,” Brantley Jr. stated. “We spent a lot of time this week focusing on us. We didn’t hold defenders with fakes as well as we could have, so we need to shore those up so we don’t go through a game making mistakes.”
Kenai at Homer, 3 p.m. Saturday
The Kards are coming off an upset victory themselves — a 17-14 triumph over Wasilla, another team from the large-schools division — a game that was delayed for almost an hour for a rare Alaska lightning display.
“This is my 26th year, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Beeson said after the game on Friday. “We played a game at Lathrop one year and there was a snowstorm. It was a snowstorm the whole time, but this definitely tops that. It was just really weird. It was the goofiest thing I’ve seen in my 26 years.”
The Kardinals have bolted out of the gate with their running game this year, as a 480-yard effort by Jace Daniels against Nikiski in week one was backed up in Week 2 with a 96-yard rushing game from Chase Logan, a 70-yard game from Daniels and a 65-yard ground game from quarterback T.J. Wagoner against Wasilla.
In the days since then, Kenai assistant coach Jim Beeson said he has seen the confidence level rise for the team that went from going 2-6 a season ago to a team that is now 2-0 in 2013.
“We were going to take time off the clock every time we had the ball and stick with it at halftime,” Beeson said. “Just the fact that we’re coming together more as a team, it’s obvious that winning helps that, and the belief that the kids follow through with what we plan is good to see.
“The first two weeks don’t matter, Nikiski or Wasilla. The important thing is we start for real this week.”
For the Homer Mariners, a 26-8 loss to NLC rival Kodiak wasn’t the result they were expecting in Week 2, but head coach Josh Fraley said he was pleased with how long they managed to stay in the game with only 17 players suited up due to eligibility issues.
“The guys knew it was going to be a tough game going into it, but they held a positive attitude,” Fraley said. “They were pleased with the performance, and we had Kodiak down for three quarters. We had them beat, but we ran out of steam.”
With junior Drew Brown and senior Mario Glosser as wide recievers, Homer’s passing game has taken a big step up after years of playing second fiddle to their well-established running game.
“I think we really had a balanced attack,” said Fraley. “I’ve seen some really athletic plays from a few of my guys, and we expect to win every game.”
Homer quarterback Sheldon Hutt completed 8 of 25 passing attempts for 121 yards, was picked off twice but also had a touchdown. Hutt, a senior, also rushed 42 yards.
Fraley made note that if the Mariners wish to get into the win column, it will be paramount to slow down Kenai’s quick backfield.
“We always got to watch the running backs, they love to make plays from the backfield,” he said. “I’ve been playing or coaching against those guys for a long time, and Dawson and Beeson know how to coach them, rain or shine.”
Beeson’s attitude toward Homer rings true of a longtime coach, seeing as his team will be playing a Mariners squad that is hungry for a win.
“When you play Homer, they show up and play hard, and they’re well coached,” Beeson said. “They have a big athletic kid playing quarterback, which is a lot different from last year’s team. Last year they had a big, strong line of kids playing smash-mouth offense.
“We have to focus on being ready to go, because they’re going to be well prepared. If you’re not ready, it’s a long day for you.”
Nikiski at Barrow, 2 p.m. Saturday
The last time these two teams met was in the midst of an early season Peninsula snowfall, as the Bulldogs shut out the Whalers 57-0 in the last regular season game of 2012.
Nikiski racked up 507 rushing yards on Barrow that day, but 294 of those came from then-senior Stephen Hartley, who has since graduated.
Christian Riddall, a junior this year, contributed 123 yards on the ground that day, including two touchdowns, so another big day could be in store for Riddall on Saturday. Riddall has 126 rushing yards this year already, all during Nikiski’s loss to Kenai in Week 1.
The importance of Saturday’s game is also magnified since it’s the first Greatland Conference game for Nikiski, and after an 0-2 start to the season, the ’Dawgs are looking to rebound with a win.
“We’ve spent most of this week going back to fundamentals,” Nikiski head coach Ted Riddall said. “Playing Lathrop and Kenai exposed things that we weren’t good at, so we’re back to square one.
“Again we’re working with younger guys than last year, and we’re using the first two games to go back and see what we did wrong.”
In Week 1, Nikiski put together a first half against Kenai that looked like they were on the fast track to another small-schools championship, as they led the Kards 16-15.
However, the Bulldogs were outscored 36-0 in the second half as Kenai found its stride in the running game, and last week, Lathrop delivered a 54-0 beatdown against Nikiski. Riddall said it all comes down to not making mistakes at the crucial moments of the game.
“When you’re inside the 20, and get no points because of a penalty or missed assignment or fumble, you’re shooting yourself in the foot,” he said. “I’ve told the guys, ‘Look at this in the film, you’re driving the ball down the field against a first-team defense, and you helped them look better.’”
The silver lining in the clouds, according to Riddall, is that the first two games have brought Nikiski valuable experience against larger teams that are a division or two higher than them. In practice, that means the ’Dawgs should be ready to rumble against the Whalers on Saturday.
“Over the years, the way they line up their defense, we’ve picked up things that we can use to our advantage,” Riddall said. “I think we’re better at sustaining the blocks. We can hit a guy but if they slide off the block, it wasn’t worth much.
“If we get our cross blocks going, we’ll run pretty good.”
Eielson at Seward, 2 p.m. Saturday
Seward started its season off with a 63-0 loss to Monroe last weekend with about 20 players suited up.
Quarterback Seth Brewi orchestrated the Seward offense down to the Monroe 24 at one point during the game, but turned the ball over on downs with no points achieved.
The news doesn’t get any better for the Seahawks, as Eielson stands as the reigning small-schools champion and is coming off a 68-0 rampage over Valdez.
If Seward’s Lasten Williams can get going on offense, Eielson could be in for a surprise. Williams led the Seahawks with 74 yards on 19 carries last weekend.
Valdez at Voznesenka, 5:30 p.m. Friday
Voznesenka will take on the Buccaneers on Friday evening in Homer. Valdez holds an 0-2 overall record this year, while Voznesenka stands at 0-1.