Coaches have a mantra that they repeat all year long that goes something along the lines of, “Every game is a must-win game.” If a team holds hopes of making the playoffs, every game is important, but starting this week for Alaska high school football teams, that saying becomes a complete reality.
The postseason is truly a frantic time for teams, as a single loss will end the season right on the spot. Week 8 of the Alaska football season presented some real challenges for Northern Lights and Greatland Conference squads on the Kenai Peninsula, and three schools were left Saturday holding playoff berths.
Starting today, Soldotna, Kenai Central and Nikiski begin their quest for a state championship. The following is a closer look at this weekend’s games:
Eielson at Nikiski, 4:30 p.m. Friday
Last week was homecoming for the Bulldogs, and what Nikiski coach Ted Riddall saw on the field left him wishing the homecoming celebrations were put off for another day.
Nikiski let an early 15-0 lead slip away to a 37-27 loss against Monroe, which ultimately proved to be the difference between a first round game against Barrow and one against Eielson.
“It was homecoming, we go up 15-0, then it’s like everything you did all year is gone,” Riddall said. “Our guys were doing stuff we don’t usually do, just simple mistakes. I think it had a lot to do with not playing well.”
Nikiski gave up 195 passing yards to Monroe last Saturday (as well as 192 rush yards), while Nikiski had 336 rush yards on offense, but only 43 passing yards.
Riddall said after last week’s loss against Monroe Catholic — which left the two teams in a three-way tie with Eielson atop the Greatland Conference standings — the coin flip to decide the seeding for the playoffs was done at Nikiski, with Eielson coach Dave DeVaughn listening in on a conference call.
Monroe won the toss and was subsequently given the top seed, meaning they will host fourth-seeded Barrow this weekend. Nikiski got the second seed and Eielson the third.
The Bulldogs will be getting another crack at their rivals up north today, and with the luck of a coin flip, they will get to battle them in front of their hometown fans and supporters.
If you’re a Nikiski fan, then you know that any matchup between these two schools can provide some entertainment. Last year, Eielson beat Nikiski 57-48 in a regular season bout that saw the two teams score 15 touchdowns for 105 combined points and 1,316 combined yards of offense.
If that’s not enough to get you excited about this game, Nikiski pulled out a 35-20 win over the Ravens just two weeks ago that clinched a playoff spot for the Bulldogs, which gives Nikiski coach Ted Riddall confidence that his squad can do it again.
“We’re probably glad that it’s a home game, because going up to Eielson this time of year isn’t as fun,” Riddall said. “We’d do it, but we would’ve liked to play Monroe. But hey, what’re you going to do?”
Riddall said his team and Eielson have played each other enough times now in the past few years that they know most of each other’s strategies and tactics.
“It always comes down to the end for us,” Riddall said. “Right now, we’re both like two wounded animals playing each other. The game we played up there, there wasn’t a lot of offense.
“It’s one of those things, it’s like a chess match, when you know they have a great move coming. You try to counter each other, and we know each other’s tendencies.”
Houston at Soldotna, 12 p.m. Saturday
If regular season scores are any indication, the Stars seem to have the easiest matchup of the three Peninsula schools in Week 1 of the postseason, but that’s what happens when you are the top seed in your division.
SoHi ended their regular season with another exciting crosstown rivalry game with Kenai last Saturday, and handled the Kardinals rather well in a 58-10 victory.
Senior Jake Kooly amassed 241 rushing yards and quarterback Colton Young had 208 yards on the ground for a combined 449 yards between the two. All together, SoHi put up 619 rushing yards against Kenai. Obviously, the Stars are in prime condition for a second straight medium-schools state championship.
“Our goal is to be playing our best football heading into the playoffs,” said SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. “We’re pretty happy with our performance, and hopefully we have momentum.
“I think the key thing is we can’t let that win be the highlight of our season. We have to continue to work really hard.”
According to Brantley Jr., senior Drew Gibbs will be in the lineup on Saturday, but receiver Tyler Howell will likely still be out with a leg injury.
Perhaps the biggest advantage the Stars hold over other teams in the medium-schools division is the number of threats they have. The team has run up 3,272 rushing yards this season, and also leads the Northern Lights Conference in passing with 589 yards.
All that air time has come from Young, who has been a thorn in opponents’ side this year with 11 touchdowns and only one interception. His ground game is lethal too, as 597 yards will prove.
“We don’t just wave a magic wand week to week,” Brantley Jr. said. “A lot of times, our defense dictates who will carry the ball. We’re in a good situation, we have multiple kids who can carry us if we’re in a bind.”
But coach Brantley Jr. isn’t crowning his team champs just yet. According to him, there’s still Juneau and North Pole of the Southeast Conference out there.
“I’ll be honest, I don’t think there’s an easy way to the title game,” Brantley Jr. said. “North Pole and Juneau are tough teams, you know, they’ve beat teams like Lathrop and West Valley and Colony. We don’t want to underestimate them. That would be a big mistake.”
If SoHi wins on Saturday, they will advance to the semifinals against the winner of Saturday’s game between North Pole and Ketchikan. That’s when the action should really pick up.
But for now, Brantley Jr. said the Stars are only focused on Houston and the Hawks’ major threat, senior running back Waylon Soptick, who is fresh off of breaking his school’s single-season rushing record with 1,351 yards, and if anyone can handle a powerful running game, it’s the Stars.
“In the build-up (to last Saturday), we were driving there, and the first thing sitting out there was a ‘game of the year’ sign,” Brantley Jr. said about the Kenai game. “Unless we meet again this year, which is possible, you don’t mind having 365 days of bragging rights.”
Kodiak at Kenai, 3:30 p.m. Saturday
If the Kardinals are looking for some momentum after the loss to Soldotna last week, this week may not be the best time to find a resurgence.
When Kenai visited Kodiak on September 7, the Kards barely escaped with a 22-21 win, a game that was decided by a botched extra-point attempt by Kodiak. Kenai led 22-7 at halftime in that game.
“We’re looking forward for a chance to redeem ourselves,” said Kenai assistant coach Jim Beeson, referring to both the Kodiak game and last week’s game. “Obviously we thought we had a good game plan, we knew we’d have success either at shutting them down, or we would get run over.
“It is what it is. Our two choices are to sit around feeling sorry for ourselves, or we can go out and play football.”
If Kenai defeats Kodiak, the Kards will face Juneau — the No. 1 seed from the Southeast Conference — a team that went 7-1 this season, with their only loss coming against a team from Washington state.
“Everybody starts all over again in the playoffs,” Beeson said. “Unfortunately we’ve had years where we beat a team and they came back and beat us in the playoffs, so obviously you just got to focus on things in the present.
“Now it’s going to be a matter of who can make the better adjustments and stop what the other team does.”
Beeson mentioned that hosting the Bears is a big difference in itself. The trip to Kodiak via ferry often leaves visiting teams sluggish, which would have dire consequences in a playoff game.
Another aspect of Kenai’s game that Beeson said needs attention is the passing game. The Kards have relied heavily on running backs like Jace Daniels and Chase Logan all year long with much success, but against a powerhouse like Soldotna last week, those passing weaknesses were exposed.
Quarterback T.J. Wagoner complete 3 of 11 passes last week for 70 yards, which doubled his passing numbers for the entire season in one game.
“We’ve been practicing throwing the football all year long,” Beeson said. “(Soldotna) brought everyone up to the box, and we had some people open that just didn’t catch the ball.
“If we’re to continue to have success we’ll have to extend the pass more. We’ll be keeping it simple and doing some basic things.”
Beeson also noted that the only injury Kenai is dealing with heading into the playoffs is a leg injury for tight end and defensive lineman Nathan Zorbas, who has dealt with the problem for a number of weeks now.