The NFL just played its first regular-season game Thursday, but for Alaska high school teams, the halfway point of the 2013 campaign will be reached this weekend.
It’s that time of the year that teams are finding their identity and their postseason aspirations are starting to sharpen and come into focus.
For schools in the Northern Lights and Greatland conferences, most will be facing up against other conference teams. Kenai travels down to Kodiak, Homer comes up to play Skyview, and Nikiski welcomes Seward. Soldotna is the only Peninsula team playing out of conference, as they travel down to the Panhandle for a date with Thunder Mountain of the Southeast Conference.
The Kards and the Stars have both been red hot lately, scoring a combined 154 points of offense last weekend against conference opponents.
The following is a closer look at this weekend’s games:
Soldotna at Thunder Mountain, 7 p.m. Friday
The Stars continued to bulldoze their way through the 2013 campaign by delivering the Houston Hawks a 76-28 loss last Friday. The opening NLC game only confirmed the fact that the road to the medium-schools championship means going through the Stars.
The Stars scored on all eight of their possessions in the first half against Houston, resulting in a 56-6 lead at halftime.
Drew Gibbs ranks second among Peninsula players with 486 rushing yards, a far cry below the 844 that Jace Daniels from Kenai has, but better than the 296 that Lui Faamasino from West Anchorage has recorded. In the latest ASBN high school football poll, Soldotna stands as the top-ranked team in the medium schools division, over Juneau-Douglas and Kenai Central.
However, Soldotna head coach Galen Brantley Jr. doesn’t see it that way.
“I’d rank us fourth,” Brantley Jr. said. “Behind Juneau, North Pole and Kenai.”
Even with his personal ranking, Brantley Jr. still believes the Stars can realistically challenge any of those ranked teams, which includes the aforementioned Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears, a team that is experiencing its first season in medium-schools play after years amongst the larger schools division.
“It can be any one of us on any day, they’re all extremely talented teams,” he said. “Anyone can beat us if we don’t play our brand of football.”
A week after playing its first NLC game of the year, SoHi will be back to nonleague play with their second-ever matchup with the Falcons of the Southeast Conference in Juneau. For the Stars, the drive to Anchorage and the ensuing plane ride today can be troublesome for game preparation. And Thunder Mountain is no pushover.
“We’re not as prepared as we can be because it’s difficult to get film on them,” Brantley Jr. said. “There’s just not a whole lot on them. We know it’s a big school, bigger than us, so we expect them to have some athletes on the field.”
Soldotna defeated Thunder Mountain 55-20 in the 2010 playoffs, en route to the small-schools championship that year.
“They were easily the next best team in state that year, so we know what they’re capable of in terms of their athletes,” Brantley Jr. said.
Kenai at Kodiak, 2 p.m. Saturday
If the Kards had any preseason doubts over whether they could rebound from a lackluster 2012 season, they have been extinguished with a dominating performance over Homer in Week 3 that saw them score on nine straight possessions in the first half, en route to a 78-6 win.
Kenai travels to the rainy island of Kodiak this weekend with a 3-0 overall season record (1-0 NLC), and hoping to further prove they will be a medium-schools title contender in October. But they won’t be letting their early success go to their heads.
“Right now we’re at 1-0, and that’s all we have to go by,” said Kenai assistant coach Jim Beeson. “I’d say we’re somewhere in the middle of the pack, you know, we still haven’t accomplished anything.
“When you start looking past schools like Kodiak, they’ll beat you. We can’t afford to look any further than the game we’re playing this week, so we hope to be playing our best football at the end of the season.”
Senior Jace Daniels continued to add to his already impressive season with 279 rushing yards against the Mariners and eight total touchdowns. Two of those weren’t even on the offensive side of the ball, as he added an interception return and a fumble return in the second half when the Kenai coaching staff began switching up players on offense and defense.
In addition, the Anchorage Daily News recently reported the confirmation that Daniels’ 488-yard rushing performance against Nikiski in Week 1 was an Alaska state record.
“Obviously Jace gets all the attention in the paper, but our line does a lot of work for him too,” Beeson said.
Kodiak has only one NLC win under its belts this year, a 26-8 victory over Homer in Week 2, but also earned a 54-0 win over the South Anchorage JV squad last week.
Beeson said the team expects to face a tough Kodiak squad, a challenge that is magnified by the mere travel headaches to get there.
Beeson said Kenai’s original plan was to ferry in from Whittier on Thursday morning, but problems with the loading dock nixed those plans. Now the plan is to fly to Kodiak on Friday and ferry back.
“Once we have our travel plans going, we can focus on playing football,” Beeson said. “Of course we have some guys sick, the schoolwork is starting to pile on, we’re getting to the middle season blues kind of thing.”
As far as the team itself, Kodiak features a large, athletic team that Beeson said must be dealt with on a serious level.
“It’s a big game for us,” he said. “Offensively, they run a double wing, and they are probably as good an offensive team as we’ve seen so far.
“They have a talented quarterback, they have more than a couple kids that are strong in the backfield, and of course they have good linemen. It’s going to be our biggest challenge yet, and all we can do is control what we can control.”
Homer at Skyview, 2 p.m. Saturday
The Panthers have been building up to this game — their homecoming game — for over a week now. Literally, they’ve been building up to this game, with a mountain of wood on the Skyview playing fields that will serve as the Panthers’ homecoming bonfire on Friday night.
“Yeah, that’ll probably last until Saturday,” joked Skyview coach Chris Finley.
For Skyview, a team that has started 1-1 overall (0-1 in the NLC), a win is needed to get back on the right track after a 37-0 loss to Houston in Week 2, followed by a unscheduled bye week after the Monroe Rams cancelled its game with Skyview last Saturday.
“We’re concentrating on getting back to doing what we need to do, and recovering from that loss,” Finley said. “We’re concentrating on defense, which was our downfall against Houston. Scoring would’ve helped too but offensively we’re going to be OK. It’s the defense we’re worried about.”
Skyview did play a game against the Nikiski JV team last week that wasn’t counted in the books, which they won 35-0.
One area of concern for the Panthers is that of senior running back Brandon Rice, who received a possible torn labrum in the game with Houston, according to Finley. Rice has piled up 165 offensive yards on the ground this season in 21 carries so far. Finley said junior Austin Craig would replace Rice, if necessary.
If Rice is healthy enough, Finley said this should be a week that will answer a lot of questions for Skyview.
“This week is going to help us out and let us know where we are, and determine our identity,” Finley said. “This week will tell us if we’re higher or lower than the other teams.”
Homer, on the other hand, is trying to stop the bleeding. A promising first three quarters against Kodiak in Week 2 ended with a 26-8 loss to the Bears, and it didn’t get better for the Mariners last week, as Kenai pummeled Homer with 78 points and 460 offensive yards.
“We had several injuries in that game, and we’re trying to get the guys back mentally,” said Homer coach Josh Fraley. “It’s tougher mentally than it is physically. It’ll be good, hopefully, to get a win under our belts.”
Fraley said he believes his Mariners’ squad matches up well with Skyview, as both teams are similar in size with about 25 players.
Homer quarterback Sheldon Hutt has orchestrated the Mariners offense this year, although Fraley said the Kenai game had the players frustrated. Homer’s lone touchdown of the game was when Hutt took off for an 80-yard scramble.
“Sheldon’s taking a lot more responsibility this year, which is what he wanted,” Fraley said. “He’s learning a lot and managing the game a lot better. It’s been a lack of blocking and guys dropping balls, but he’s liking the opportunity.
“I think he was breaking tackles left and right out of frustration on that touchdown.”
Seward at Nikiski, 2 p.m. Saturday
The Bulldogs finally put their names into the win column in Week 3 with a 50-14 triumph over the Barrow Whalers, their first Greatland Conference game, boosting their overall record to 1-2.
The Seahawks, on the other hand, suffered a 59-8 loss at the hands of defending small-school champions Eielson, and dropped to an 0-2 overall record.
According to Nikiski head coach Ted Riddall, his team was buoyed by the win on Saturday, but is still taking Seward seriously.
“Seward is a team that always plays us tough, no matter the record,” Riddall said. “We had a good rivalry in the late nineties and early 2000s. I told our kids every game is a state title game.
“I think we’re right in the middle. We haven’t seen everyone yet, but we’re not looking ahead of ourselves.”
Nikiski reverted back to the basics a week ago in preparation for Barrow, and the tactic seemed to pay off, with Jesse Eide rushing for three touchdowns and 169 yards, and Michael Stangel adding 130 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
This week, Riddall has had the team working in practices on perfecting crisper tackling and blocking.
“There’s lots of tackling at practice, we’re paying attention to little details,” he said. “If you’re in the right spot but miss your guy, then the whole play suffers.”
Riddall’s description of Seward — a scrappy and athletic squad — could also be applied to Nikiski.
“They run the ball more than in the past, and those kids have some good size on the line,” Riddall said.