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Week 5 prep football preview: Playoff race picks up

Posted: September 12, 2013 - 10:45pm

Another six days have gone by and suddenly Week 5 of the Alaska high school football season is set to kick off with an abundance of exciting matchups.

Kenai Central leads the Northern Lights Conference with a 2-0 record (4-0 overall), but Soldotna has been equally stout with a 1-0 record (also 4-0 overall). Kodiak and Houston remain deadlocked for the third position with 1-1 records, while Homer (1-2) and Skyview (0-2) fill out the remaining spots.

In the small-schools Greatland Conference, defending champion Eielson leads with a 3-0 record (3-1 overall), while Monroe Catholic and Nikiski share the second spot with 2-0 records.

Both conference playoff chases remain wide open, and each will likely come down to what happens in the final game of the regular season. That means the second half of the 2013 season, which begins today, will be a vital stretch for contending teams.

The following is a closer look at this weekend’s games:

Palmer at Homer, 4:30 p.m. Friday

If the Mariners expect to compete with the Moose from the Railbelt Conference, it will be of utmost importance to stay away from penalties. Homer accrued 60 yards of penalties on 10 infractions last Saturday against Skyview.

“We need to make sure to get rid of mistakes, so there’s been a lot of repetition in practice,” said Homer coach Josh Fraley. “There were several procedural penalties, some were my fault, and sometimes it wasn’t clear what I wanted them to do. We need to make sure everyone understands what is going on.”

A young line of players contributed to the excess of penalties, as excitable as they were leading 30-0 at halftime against Skyview last week, but Palmer is a different animal. Granted, Palmer suffered a 42-7 loss to Woodinville, Wash., last weekend, but the Moose carried a 3-0 record going into that game, having beat teams like East and Bartlett of the Cook Inlet Conference.

“We know we’re going to have our hands full,” Fraley said. “We just need to make sure we play within ourselves. We’ll be playing a league above ourselves so it’s important we don’t make the big mistakes of having an interception or fumble. We need to play to our skill sets and strengths.”

Palmer’s James Nisbett is known as a talented running back, but the senior suffered an injury recently, and didn’t even play against Woodinville, leaving Vincent Aumavae to step up and gain 42 yards on the ground.

Fraley said the win against Skyview, the first of the year for Homer, was a relief and the good vibes could be felt in the Mariners’ practices this week, but with a few players out due to concussions, the team is only buckling down for more.

“We’re 2-2, exactly halfway, and the focus has changed a little bit, partly due to injuries,” he said. “After Palmer, we’ve got SoHi and that’ll be tough, then Lathrop ... it’s a tough schedule, and I find it hard to put our schedule against others in the state.”

Houston at Kenai, 5:30 p.m. Friday

The Kardinals are finally returning home after a three-week road trip that resulted in wins over Wasilla, Homer and Kodiak. The win over Kodiak was decided by a single point, which had the Kenai coaching staff feeling pretty relieved to get off the island with a perfect record still intact.

“The reality is we were pretty lucky to get out of that game with the win,” Kenai assistant coach Jim Beeson said. “We played well for the first eight or 10 minutes, and then I don’t know, we just quit playing. We were up 22-7 and from there we just hung on. The important thing is that we found a way to win, even when things don’t go your way. We could’ve let them score a couple times, because we fumbled and they got the ball at our 30-yard line, but we held them.

“It was a little tense, but it’s good to play those kind of games.”

The game was decided on a botched extra point.

Kenai quarterback TJ Wagoner finally earned his first passing touchdown of the season with a 9-yard toss to Jace Baker in the second quarter against Kodiak, proving that the Kards aren’t just a ground-based team.

Jace Daniels has rushed for 919 yards and 15 touchdowns through the first half of the season — eye-popping numbers for a medium-schools team — but the senior running back suffered an injury against Kodiak in the second quarter that limited him to only 75 yards, and is tabbed as unlikely to play against Houston, according to Beeson.

No problem for Kenai, however, as a stacked backfield can make up for Daniels. Chase Logan led the Kards last week with 148 rushing yards, including a touchdown.

“The good thing is that some kids are going to get the opportunity to play,” Beeson said. “Hopefully they step up.”

Chris McKinstry and Nathan Zorbas are also dealing with injuries, but Beeson said they should be ready to play.

The important thing Kenai needs to focus on, Beeson said, is containing Houston running back Waylon Soptick, who has been a thorn in the side of most opponents this year and last.

“We just hopefully try and slow him down a bit,” Beeson said. “He’s obviously a good athlete, and they have other athletic kids. But if we do our jobs and do what we’re supposed to do and not what we’re not supposed to do, we should be fine.

“We need to control the football, keep them inside and not out on the corner, and the thing that they do is play hard all the time. That’s the sign of a well-coached team. If you watch them play, without looking at the score, you can’t tell what the score is.”

Beeson also knows that there is a good chance that the bid for the NLC’s top seed for the postseason will likely come down to the final game of the year against Soldotna. Both teams are undefeated thus far.

“It has in the past, and the most important thing is we want to be 3-0 at the end of this weekend,” Beeson stated. “It’ll put us in front of the league right down to the playoffs. Anybody can see that the potential is there for us and Soldotna to be playing for the top spot, and that’s the beauty of us playing every year, and there’s a good chance it’s going to happen this year.”

Nikiski at Valdez, 1 p.m. Saturday

The Bulldogs seem to be back to their old selves with a dominating win over Seward last weekend, moving to a 44-6 score after one quarter of play.

Even though Nikiski started their season with two losses, those games came against nonconference opponents, and therefore Nikiski stands at a perfect 2-0 Greatland Conference record.

“The bottom line is wherever you go, whoever you play at any given time, they could beat you,” Nikiski coach Ted Riddall said about the team’s outlook. “We need to take a step in the right direction.

“We’re going to a place where they’ve had torrential downpours this year, and a play here could turn into a play that could cost you the game.”

It’s no secret that Valdez is a wet place, and when it comes to the Buccaneers’ football team, which is winless in 2013, Riddall said the loss of older athletes has hurt them.

“Lee Cockerham is the head coach and he does a great job with the kids,” Riddall said. “They have a mix of young talent, and year after year it seems like the juniors and seniors stop playing, you know, it doesn’t come to fruition. It’s hard when it’s raining and you’re playing in the mud to generate excitement, but they’re a gritty group of kids.”

Riddall said the conference championship and state title game is still the goal for Nikiski, but with Weeks 7 and 8 presenting matchups against Eielson and Monroe, the Bulldogs are looking to get every point they can muster right now.

Michael Stangel and Jesse Eide have contributed big time on the Nikiski offense the past couple of weeks, each recording at least one 100-yard rushing game and numerous touchdowns. Stangel had three rushing scores in the first quarter alone against Seward.

Skyview at Barrow, 1 p.m. Saturday

The Panthers are surely looking forward to the second half of the 2013 season, and coach Chris Finley said the team is preparing for a new beginning after a 1-2 overall start.

“Offensively, we’ve been working on new plays this week,” Finley said. “But really it’s just the same old story for us. Each game is a mental challenge.”

Last weekend in their homecoming game, Skyview gave up points pretty quickly to Homer, giving up a touchdown pass on the Mariners’ first offensive play of the game. This week, Finley said it’s all about getting off to a quick start.

“It’s going to be everything,” he said. “The only game we showed up in the first half we won. It kind of decides football up here.”

Skyview’s lone win of the year came against Valdez in a 42-0 shutout. Since then, they’ve been the ones getting shut out.

It also doesn’t help that senior running back Brandon Rice has a shoulder injury. Finley said Rice will be a game-time decision this week, so many carries will likely go to Austin Craig and Khelbie Miller.

The Whalers, according to Finley, run a spread offense, which enables them to quickly move the ball down the field, as they did against Nikiski (even though they came up with minimal points).

“The way they play they’re fast, athletic kids,” Finley said. “Some stuff they do is pretty unorthodox. But we’re going to stick to what we do, and not get caught up in that. We’ll be OK, but they’re frantic.”

Kodiak at Soldotna, 2 p.m. Saturday

The Stars finally got all their nonconference games out of the way, so from here on out, SoHi will be looking to beef up its NLC record.

Standing at 4-0 and with seemingly winnable games on tap for the next three weeks, the final game of the regular season on Oct. 5 against Kenai is shaping up to be a wild one, as both teams hold perfect records. But SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. is never one to look past the next game.

“It’s a possibility, but right now we’re focused on Kodiak,” Brantley Jr. said.

Faced with a home matchup with Kodiak on Saturday — the first home game in three weeks — the Stars need to win in order to keep the Bears from leapfrogging them in the NLC standings.

“Going into the season, we didn’t know what to expect from them, but they certainly got our attention playing Kenai to a one-point ballgame,” Brantley Jr. said. “Kenai is one of the top teams, so if they almost beat Kenai they’re certainly good enough to beat us.”

Kodiak’s biggest threat comes in the form of their running backs. Melvin Javier had 120 rushing yards against Kenai last week, and Kerry Powers added 72 yards on the ground.

“We’re going to try and shut down their running game,” Brantley Jr. said. “They did an excellent job running traps over Kenai. Javier ripped off some long runs, and we know what kind of speed he has, it’s lightning speed.”

But if any team can stop a strong offense, it’s the SoHi defense. The Stars have allowed an average of 19.25 points per game this season, which pales in comparison with their average points haul of 60.5 per game.

“(Kodiak is) actually a more modern version of us,” Brantley Jr. said. “They try to flash and trap, and they’ll run their QB, they do some nice things, but it always comes down to us. We’ve got to figure out a way to shut down their running game.”

The only questionable starters for Saturday’s game are Ty Fenton in the backfield, who is sitting out this week due to illness, and Jake Kooly, who is questionable with an injury.

Seward at Voznesenka,
1 p.m. Saturday

The Seahawks are hitting the road for a matchup against the Cougars in a game that will represent tiny Voznesenka’s homecoming game.

“It’s the first homecoming festivities the village has had, so we’re getting geared up for this,” Voznesenka coach Justin Zank said. “We’ll be having a parade in the village, and then we’ll play some football in Homer. Everyone’s super excited about it.”

Voznesenka sits smack dab in the middle of the Greatland Conference standings with a 1-1 record, while Seward is last with an 0-3 league record, 0-4 overall.

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