As the prep football regular season winds down, the playoff picture has continued to sharpen as the contenders separate themselves from the pretenders.
Although there are clear disparities between Kenai Peninsula teams in the Northern Lights Conference, the standings are tight. Soldotna and Kenai are deadlocked atop the standings with perfect records, and the fight for a state playoff spot — the top four teams qualify — is intense.
For SoHi, all that stands in the Stars’ way from achieving a perfect regular season are games with Skyview and Kenai. Perhaps even more impressive, stretching back to last years’ regular season and playoff schedule, the Stars are currently on a 15-game winning streak. Their last loss came against Palmer in week one of 2012.
Kenai’s winning streak isn’t that long, but they too share an undefeated season with SoHi in 2013 with a 6-0 overall record (4-0 in the NLC). On Wednesday, the Kards were surprised with an unexpected bye week when Valdez decided to cancel its Friday game with Kenai, as the struggling Buccaneers (0-6 overall) hardly have enough healthy, eligible players left on the roster.
Houston and Homer are the two schools that currently comprise the divide between a postseason berth, and both teams face a tough opponent this week. Houston travels to Kodiak and Homer welcomes nonconference opponent Lathrop.
In the Greatland Conference, all Nikiski (4-0 league, 4-2 overall) has to do to clinch home-field advantage in the small-school playoffs is to win one of its two remaining games — on the road at Eielson on Saturday, and at home against Monroe Catholic next week.
It all makes for intriguing action this weekend.
Skyview at Soldotna, 2 p.m. Saturday
This game marks not only Soldotna’s homecoming celebration, but also the final time that the two schools will meet each other on the gridiron. The Panthers leave behind a strong, friendly rivalry with the Stars, and most of the players and students at Skyview will join forces at Soldotna next year.
Despite many close games over the years, Skyview owns just one victory over Soldotna since Skyview opened in 1990. That came in 1998, when the Panthers edged the Stars 13-12 when junior running back Kyle Johnson scored with 35 seconds remaining. Johnson rushed 33 times for 193 yards in that game, including 15 times for 83 yards in the fourth quarter.
Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. said that while he’s sad to see the Skyview program ending, he is excited to see many of their players making the transition to Soldotna next year.
“It’s going to be a little bittersweet,” Brantley Jr. said. “It’s going to be kind of sad because it’s the last time we’ll play Skyview, and even though some of the outcomes have been kind of one-sided, there’s been some great games.
“I’m just so excited and happy that (Skyview coach) Chris Finley stepped up and kept football alive for them. They’ll come into our program not sitting out a year of football. He’s a standout guy.”
Finley said through the tough year that Skyview has had (1-4 overall), the players have kept a cheerful attitude.
“Right now for us, it’s about pride,” Finley said. “I think we can be proud of the school and the year, because we’ve been able to just improve on every play.”
Both teams will be missing key players for Saturday’s game. Soldotna was dealt a blow last week against Homer when sophomore running back Drew Gibbs and senior wide receiver Tyler Howell were both sidelined from leg injuries.
Brantley Jr. said both players will be out this weekend.
Gibbs has been solid for the Stars this year, gaining 634 yards on the ground for 10 touchdowns, both records listed at second-best in the Northern Lights Conference behind Kenai running back Jace Daniels, who has 1,177 rushing yards for 19 touchdowns.
Howell has dominated the conference in receiving yards with 308 on 12 receptions, including two touchdowns. In five games that he has caught a ball, Howell is averaging 25.7 yards a reception from quarterback Colton Young.
“We’re certainly not in panic mode, other men have stepped up and done a good job,” Brantley Jr. said. “I’ve been rotating halfbacks and continuing to move guys around to make up for it.”
Brantley Jr. said Howell hurts the Stars more on the defensive side, so he will be replacing him with Brooks Furlong at defensive back.
Finley said his team knows the Stars will be one of the toughest challenges they’ve faced this year so far, so his game plan is the same one he used against Kenai last week — keep the ball and manage the clock.
“I’m pretty sure they’re the best team in the state,” Finley said. “They’re pretty good, and pretty well-coached. It’s going to be tough.
“Offensively, we just need to take care of the football. We didn’t turn the ball over against Kenai, and we didn’t win but we didn’t lose by 50 either.”
Finley said junior wide receiver Bailey Blumentritt and senior running back Brandon Rice are both done for the season. Blumentritt broke his hand last week against Kenai and Rice has had a nagging shoulder injury, according to Finley.
“It’s unfortunate, but we want to compete, every week and every down,” he said. “We’re down to really low numbers now, so as long as we continue to fight, I’ll be happy.”
Lathrop at Homer, 3 p.m. Saturday
The Mariners are battling the Houston Hawks for the fourth and final playoff spot in the NLC. Houston currently holds the spot with a 1-2 NLC record, while Homer trails a half game behind with a 1-3 record (1-4 overall).
This week, both teams face a tough challenge, as Houston travels to the island of Kodiak, and Homer hosts a tough large-schools opponent for their homecoming game — the Lathrop Malamutes (4-2 overall) — who are coming off two losses to Railbelt Conference rivals Colony and Palmer.
If Homer loses to Lathrop on Saturday, it won’t be the end for the Mariners, since it’s a nonconference matchup. But, it does set the stage for what might be a shootout between the Mariners and the Hawks in the final week of the regular season. The winner of that game will likely be the one going on to play in the postseason.
“We’ll match up pretty good against them,” Homer coach Josh Fraley said about Lathrop. “They have a size advantage, but they also have a similar style offense to us.”
After last week’s blowout loss to Soldotna, Fraley said it’s been a struggle for the Mariners since the offensive line is constantly changing, and quarterback Sheldon Hutt has had difficulty finding a consistent core of receivers. Hutt still managed to record 122 passing yards last week, and his height is a commanding presence on the field.
Receivers Mario Glosser and Drew Brown missed action last week trying to nurse injuries. Both players present an intimidating duo for Hutt to throw the ball to, but Fraley had Joseph Cardoza and Josh Fisk (both running backs) as replacements against SoHi.
Fisk led the Mariners against Soldotna with 83 all-purpose yards, and Cardoza totalled 34 receiving yards.
“This game, the No. 1 thing is to make sure we clean up plays that we’re having issues with,” Fraley said. “The goal is to stay healthy.”
Nikiski at Eielson, 1 p.m. Saturday
If the Bulldogs hope to threaten for not only a small-schools playoff spot, but also home-field advantage in the semifinals, then it is important that they make a statement against the defending champions.
Eielson outclassed Nikiski 27-7 in last year’s small-schools championship game at Chugiak High School, and the presence of star running back Anthony Griffith was felt, as the sophomore racked up 220 rushing yards that day on Nikiski’s stout defense.
“He does a lot of stuff, but you can’t sell your defense on one person,” said Nikiski coach Ted Riddall. “You need to come up with schemes to keep your guys offset.
“With that said, (Griffith) is a great enough athlete he’ll make you pay, he has a different speed.”
Earlier in the 2012 season, Nikiski went punch-for-punch with the Ravens in a barnburner game, only to fumble the ball late in the game, allowing Eielson to score a touchdown that put the Ravens out of reach in the end.
Riddall said the solid play of his team over the last few weeks has him encouraged, but it will take some work to upend Eielson.
“It’s kind of like the other games, but we hope to take a bigger step than last weekend,” Riddall said. “We definitely got a tough opponent, and they’re usually in top one or two in our conference. Hopefully, the earlier games against Kenai and Lathrop helped prepare us.
“You can’t make mental errors against them. You can’t shoot yourself in the foot. We can’t make mistakes, so we need to keep penalties down to a minimum.”
Nikiski quarterback Dennis Anderson has improved in the four games since Nikiski started the year 0-2 — passing for 387 yards and four touchdowns — but the engine of the team remains in the hands of running backs Michael Stangel and Jesse Eide.
Stangel has accumulated 600 rushing yards this year for seven touchdowns, while Eide has rushed 435 yards for seven touchdowns as well. Eide is also averaging 14 yards a carry.
“There’s an added amount of pressure and we’ve got to make sure we’re prepared,” Riddall said. “We’re going against a great opponent with a great tradition with that school. (Eielson coach) Dave DeVaughn does a great job with his kids.”
Barrow at Seward, 5 p.m. Friday
Barrow is fighting for a spot in the small-schools playoffs, which qualifies the top four teams. Voznesenka currently holds the fourth and final spot with a 2-3 record after losing to Monroe 54-0 on Wednesday.
If the Whalers (1-3 conference) can leave Seward with a victory, they will take over that final playoff spot, having the head-to-head advantage against Voznesenka.
The Seahawks are teetering on the edge of the playoff picture with a 1-4 Greatland Conference record (1-5 overall). They still control their own destiny, but will need to grab a win against Barrow to continue their playoff push.