HOUSTON — When the state’s No. 1-ranked medium schools team faces Alaska’s top rusher, something is bound to give. On Friday, it was the Houston defense doing the giving in a 76-28 home loss to Soldotna.
The Stars’ offense scored early and often, while the defense held Houston running back Waylon Soptick to just 17 first-half yards on 10 carries. Soptick had a strong second half Friday to finish with 137 yards, but came into the game averaging nearly 279 yards on the ground in the Hawks’ first two games.
Along with a swarming SoHi defense, the Hawks were feeling the loss of fullback Billy Etuckmelra, who missed the game with an injury, head coach Glenn Nelson said. Add playing a perennial power program like Soldotna, and Houston had quite a mountain to climb, he said.
“We felt pretty good (going into the game) about our defense,” he said. “We felt we could put some points on the board. Last year, we didn’t get any. We’re a little shocked about what happened to the defense, though. We’ll have to look at the film and see what happened.”
Shocked is a good word to describe Houston’s first half performance. Soldotna received the opening kickoff, and three plays later sophomore running back Drew Gibbs was in the end zone, a 5-yard plunge up the middle. The drive took 35 seconds off the clock and gave SoHi a 7-0 lead.
Less than two minutes later, senior Jake Kooly broke free for a 38-yard touchdown run, the first of his three touchdowns for the Stars. Leading 14-0, Kooly was in the end zone again just 16 seconds later. On Houston’s first play after the kickoff, Kooly intercepted a Nai Saechao pass and returned it 26 yards for another score.
Soldotna led 28-0 off a 20-yard scoring strike from quarterback Colton Young to Trevor Walden and extended the lead to 35-0 on a 3-yard plunge up the middle from Ty Fenton.
Then the second quarter of play began.
“They went right at us at our two weakest spots,” Nelson said of the first half of play. “We were well-scouted and they’re well-coached. … When they shut (Soptick) down, we had to dig deeper in the playbook.”
It didn’t take long for SoHi to find the end zone in the second quarter, scoring on a 36-yard strike from Young to Drew Fowler 26 seconds in.
On the ensuing drive, though, Houston finally found a little rhythm — and a little luck from an early whistle. The Hawks put together a 10-play, 74-yard drive to break the shutout, 42-6. Midway through that drive, though, Houston came a split second from seeing it end badly. Saechao connected with Matt Barron for a 16-yard gain and a first down, but while fighting for extra yards, Barron was stripped of the ball. A SoHi player scooped it up and was sprinting down the sideline toward the end zone when the whistles started sounding.
“Yeah, we did catch a break there,” Nelson said. “That was a judgment call and the quarter landed heads-up, so we’ll take it.”
The long drive, though, seemed to give the Hawks some confidence, the coach said. Compared to when the teams met last year — a Soldotna shutout — putting 28 points on the board can be a moral victory, he said.
“Any team that can put a 12- or 15-play drive across 75 or 80 yards on SoHi has accomplished something,” he said.
In the end, Kooly finished a game-high 151 yards on seven carries, while 11 other players had at least one carry for a Stars rushing attack that piled up 430 yards on the ground. Young only attempted four passes, but completed all four for 110 yards.
Starting the second half in the bottom end of a 56-6 hole, Houston made some adjustments at halftime that got Saechao and Soptick rolling along. After recovering a SoHi fumble, the pair played pitch and catch on the next play for a 37-yard touchdown to pull within 56-13. The Stars, by now running their offense by committee, answered with three more scores to lead 76-13 going into the final quarter.
In the fourth, it was all Houston. The Hawks capped a nine-play, 65-yard drive — all runs by Soptick — and trailed 76-21 after a 2-point conversion. Soptick capped the scoring on the next drive, running in from 32 yards out. Sandwiched between those drives and the end of the game were a pair of drives that saw Soldotna take a knee three times and punt.
“We got him on track in the second half,” Nelson said of Soptick. “He’s just going to get what he gets. Someone may shut him down for a quarter here, a quarter there, but he’s going to get his yards.”
Although the final score was a blowout, Soldotna head coach Galen Brantley Jr. said Houston’s program is going in the right direction.
“I know I was impressed with some of their kids,” he said. “They do have some good football players. The running back, Soptick, is a very talented kid. He runs hard and would play on any team in our conference.”
He also though the Hawks showed a good never-die attitude on the field.
“They kept banking away and showed a lot of character,” he said. “Their coaching staff is doing a fantastic job getting them in the right spots. They’re a small team with 30 kids out, and once they can get those numbers and develop, they’ll get there.”
He also gives high marks on Houston’s new artificial turf field.
“I’m jealous. I have field envy,” he said. “I know we’re starting construction in the spring on ours, and it’ll be exciting to join the turf race with everybody else.”
Contact Greg Johnson at 352-2269 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Soldotna 76, Houston 28
Friday, Houston High School
Soldotna — Gibbs 5 run (Asimakopoulos kick) 11:25.
Soldotna — Kooly 38 run (Asimakopoulos kick) 7:35.
Soldotna — Kooly 36 interception return (Asimakopoulos kick) 7:19.
Soldotna — Walden 20 pass from Young (Asimakopoulos kick) 4:59.
Soldotna — Fenton 3 run (Asimakopoulos kick) 0:55.
Soldotna — Fowler 36 pass from Young (Asimakopoulos kick) 11:34.
Houston — N. Saechao 5 run (kick failed) 6:53.
Soldotna — Gibbs 6 run (Asimakopoulos kick) 5:26.
Soldotna — Riley 1 run (Asimakopoulos kick) 0:15.
Houston — Soptick 37 pass from N. Saichao (Wilbur kick) 10:10.
Soldotna — Kooly 23 run (Asimakopoulos kick) 9:06.
Soldotna — Asimakopoulos 6 run (kick blocked) 5:06.
Soldotna — Furlong 42 run (Asimakopoulos kick) 1:37.
Houston — Soptick 1 run (N. Saechao to Ross) 11:30.
Houston — Soptick 32 run (Wilbur kick) 4:26.
RUSHING — Soldonta: Kooly 7-151, Gibbs 6-87, Furlong 1-42, Riley 3-44, Fenton 4-39, Chavez 2-14, Asimakopoulos 1-6, Lott 1-1, Griglione 1-1, Prior 1-6, Conradi 1-8, Howell 1-0; Houston: Soptick 24-137, N. Saechao 13-34, Rutta 2-3.
PASSING: Soldotna: Young 4-4-0—110; Houston: N. Saechao 4-12-3—90, Soptick 1-3-0—41.
RECEIVING: Soldotna: Howell 2-54, Walden 1-20, Fowler 1-36; Houtson: Ross 1-41, Barron 2-46, Ruta 1-7. Soptick 1-37.