The final weekend of the high school football regular season arrives with a few big games on the agenda. Many football teams’ postseason hopes or playoff positioning hinge on one game this weekend, and every play will count to win it.
The medium-schools Northern Lights Conference has been dominated by two teams this year — Soldotna and Kenai, who have combined to go 13-0 this season. Every other team has at least two losses on their record. Kodiak and Houston hold the final two playoff spots, but Homer can push its way in with a victory.
The small-schools Greatland Conference is in a bigger scramble than the NLC. Nikiski currently stands on top of the division with a 5-0 conference record, but Eielson and Monroe both are in position to challenge the Bulldogs with 4-1 records, should they win this weekend. If there is a tie for first place in the conference after this weekend, a coin flip will determine who hosts who in the playoffs.
The following is a closer look at this weekend’s games:
Soldotna at Kenai, 2 p.m. Saturday
For these two teams, it all boils down to this game. One game that will decide the Northern Lights Conference.
What looks to be the most intriguing matchup of the year for both teams is simple. Both are undefeated (the only two teams in the state that hold a spotless record), and both are hungry for the Northern Lights Conference regular season title, a crown the Stars are looking to keep.
Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. is pulling no punches, saying that his team is ready for one of their toughest opponents that they’ve faced this season.
“We’re excited about it, this is a game we look forward to every year,” Brantley Jr. said. “There’s a couple tough games down the road for us, but this one, it’s about bragging rights.”
Kenai assistant coach Jim Beeson said that both sides know that much more is at stake than the top seed from the NLC.
“Anytime you play SoHi, it’s not just another game,” Beeson said. “Is it life or death for us? No, we’re guaranteed a home game. Is it the most important thing in the world? No. But does it have other implications? Yes.
“The winner gets to avoid Juneau until the finals, and that adds to it.”
The two crosstown rivals always bring in supporters of each side, and the new turf at Ed Hollier Field looks to put on its best game yet. Both schools feature high-powered offenses — Kenai is averaging 42.8 points per game this season, and SoHi has averaged 59.7 points a game.
Much of that offensive firepower for both teams can be attributed to strong running games. For Kenai, senior Jace Daniels has compiled a staggering number of rushing yards (1,177 in five games, and 19 touchdowns). For SoHi, Drew Gibbs has led the ground game with 634 yards on 42 carries and 10 touchdowns.
“Jace is an extremely talented running back, and he’s going to get some yards,” Brantley Jr. said. “It’s a matter of limiting their big plays, because they’ve got some great backs with good speed.”
Brantley Jr. said the Stars’ focus on defense is stopping Daniels, Chase Logan and quarterback TJ Wagoner, in that order.
“They haven’t thrown a ton, but it’s something you have to respect. You know they’re capable of it,” Brantley Jr. said.
Brantley Jr. also said Gibbs and receiver Tyler Howell, both of whom sat out last week due to injuries, will be game-time decisions Saturday.
Beeson said the Kardinals’ unexpected bye week has left the team rested and healthy for the Stars with no injuries. And they’re going to need every player they can get.
SoHi quarterback Colton Young is a versatile athlete who can run SoHi’s diverse offense better than anyone. The senior has racked up 565 passing yards for 10 touchdowns this season with a 21-for-46 completion percentage, while running for 389 yards on 35 carries.
“For us, that’s the beauty of this game,” said Brantley Jr. “Neither one of us will throw away our current schemes. The team that establishes the run game will probably win.
“We spread the ball out, it’s no secret, and Colton’s going to get carries. That’s what we do, we try to eliminate defensive pursuit, and (Kenai coach Jim) Dawson’s going to have 11 players in the box and we have to overcome that.”
Beeson said that stopping SoHi’s tricky offense will naturally come down to each player doing his job.
“Eveyone has a job to do,” Beeson said. “They need to do their job. Everyone is assigned to take care of people on the field, and the real question is, will our kids make plays when they’re in position?
“We’re going to have to throw the football some. We’re going to have to have some success running and passing, and taking time off the clock so their offense is off the field.”
Homer at Houston, 7 p.m. Friday
The Mariners are also preparing for a big game Homer will get one last shot to qualify for the medium-schools playoffs when they travel to Houston today to battle with the team they are tied with for the fourth and final postseason spot.
“It’s win or go home for us, it’s big, and we’re geared up and pretty excited,” said Homer coach Josh Fraley.
Unfortunately for Homer, they’re going to have to do it without receivers Mario Glosser and Drew Brown. Both are tall and versatile players that make quarterback Sheldon Hutt’s job easier, but Glosser left the team by his own decision, and Brown is sidelined with a shoulder injury.
“Palmer beat us up,” Fraley said, referring to the 46-0 loss Homer had to the Moose in week 5. “As much as we’re going to try, we’ve still got musical chairs on the line.”
Fraley has been putting running backs Joseph Cardoza and Josh Fisk in the slot receiver spots for the last three weeks, but Homer might need to go back to their run game if they wish to beat Houston.
“It’s going to take no penalties and turnovers on our part to win,” said Fraley. “I think we’re pretty evenly matched, so it’s going to come down to the little things.”
Homer and Houston are both knotted up in the NLC standings with 1-3 records, and if the Mariners want to win, they need to figure out a way to slow down Houston running back Waylon Soptick.
“You’ve got to stop the run, our focus will definitely be on him,” said Fraley. “Our defense has played well, kept us in ballgames, so hopefully that’ll be enough.”
Skyview at Kodiak, 2 p.m. Saturday
The Panthers are mathematically out of the playoff picture with an 0-4 NLC record (1-5 overall), but for Skyview as a team, this game marks their final appearance in purple, before the school shuts down next year.
“We’re going to make sure we have a good time,” said Skyview coach Chris Finley. “It’ll be cool to end our program with a road trip, it’s cool to go somewhere else, but we’ll have some fun.
“We have nothing to lose, and we’re going to play that way.”
Finley, a first-year head coach for the Panthers, said the tone in practice this week hasn’t been much different than it has been throughout the season, but once Skyview steps onto the field on Saturday, that could change.
“I’m stressing to them, this is the last time you’ll wear a purple jersey,” Finley said. “Hopefully it clicks. Our goal to get these kids to like football more was there, because at the end of last season they didn’t want to be here. I think we changed that for them. I hope they enjoy the game.”
Finley said he plans to use tailback Tim Duke more this week to help control the clock and move the ball. Duke was put in the backfield for the first time all season last week against Soldotna, and managed 28 yards in limited play.
“He showed us something last week at the end of the game,” Finley said. “There were no holes there and he was still gaining ground.”
Skyview quarterback Bailey Jones will likely share time with backup Dustin Beurkel, who also received some playing time under center last week.
Monroe at Nikiski, 1 p.m. Saturday
After starting the year with two nonconference losses, Nikiski has reeled off five straight wins, including a big win over reigning small-schools champ Eielson last Saturday.
The 35-20 victory proved to be a game changer for the Bulldogs. It lifted them to the top spot of the Greatland Conference standings with a 5-0 record, dropping Eielson into a second-place tie with Monroe. Both schools have 4-1 records.
If Nikiski loses to Monroe, and Eielson takes care of Voznesenka, then the top three teams will be deadlocked atop the conference with 5-1 records, which will lead to a coin flip to decide the positioning.
But, if Nikiski can avoid a coin flip decision by winning Saturday, they will be guaranteed a home-field semifinal playoff game on Oct. 12, which could lead to a third-straight berth in the small-schools state championship game.
Eielson at Voznesenka, 1 p.m. Saturday
The Cougars surprisingly still hold a shot at making the Greatland Conference playoffs, but in order to get it, they will need a monstrous effort against Eielson.
Voz was shut out by Monroe Catholic 54-0 last week on Wednesday, and subsequently dropped to a 2-3 record, putting them on equal ground with Barrow. The Whalers currently hold the tiebreaker due to a 46-6 win over Voznesenka earlier in the year.
Eielson was upset at home last weekend by Nikiski, and with potent players like Anthony Griffith leading their ground game, it will take a complete effort by Voz to contain the Ravens. Voz Quarterback Avraam Kalugin has shown flashes of brilliance in running the ball.
Colony JV at Seward, 2 p.m. Saturday
The Seahawks will be missing the playoffs after a 20-6 loss to Greatland Conference opponent Barrow last weekend, but Seward can still improve upon their 1-6 overall record when they host the Colony JV team on Saturday.