The Soldotna and Kenai Central football teams are playing back-to-back in the First National Bowl medium-schools semifinals Saturday at Dimond High School in Anchorage. SoHi faces North Pole at 4 p.m., while Kenai takes on Juneau-Douglas at 1 p.m.
The only question left is, who will be the remaining two opponents that step onto the field in the championship game Oct. 26?
The depth of the medium schools field this year is arguably the deepest it’s ever been. Just ask Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr.
“I think it’s certainly the deepest semifinal top four that I’ve seen,” he said. “It was a collision course from day one. I could tell it was going to be us and Kenai matched up with (North Pole and Juneau).”
The addition of the Patriots and Crimson Bears to the medium-schools division this year ensured the defending champion Stars would have to truly prove their worth to win it again. Both newcomers stepped down from the large-schools division, and subsequently have run the table on their Southeast Conference opponents with 7-1 overall records.
North Pole (3-1 Southeast Conference) lost to Juneau on Aug. 31 in a 54-20 game, but Brantley Jr. said after seeing some tape of the game, he believes North Pole could have had a bigger shot in that game if not for mistakes and missed opportunities.
“They played most of the game without their quarterback,” Brantley Jr. said. “The score was more lopsided than it could’ve been. I think everything that could’ve gone right for Juneau did, and everything that could’ve gone wrong for North Pole did.
“We certainly have our hands full, they’re an extremely talented team. They’re loaded with athletes.”
North Pole has beaten four large-school opponents this season, and they hold some speedy receivers, which has had Brantley Jr. and the SoHi coaching staff sweating a little more than usual.
“This’ll be our biggest challenge yet,” Brantley Jr. said. “We’re hoping to limit their big plays, they have a really difficult system, it’s a read offense and it’s super complex. But we’re excited to be here, and in our estimation, this is how the playoffs should feel.”
Soldotna’s defense has been absolutely stifling this year against most offenses, which in turn has created offensive opportunities, but in this game, Brantley Jr. considers his team the underdog.
A 55-6 win over Ketchikan last Saturday paved the way for North Pole to make the semifinals, and if SoHi wants to play in a second-straight state championship, it could very well come down to how effectively their defense can handle the Patriots’ offensive game.
“They have a few phenomenal wide receivers, and to win it, it’ll be about who wants it the most and who’s the more prepared team,” Brantley Jr. said.
Brantley Jr. said his offensive scheme hasn’t changed — establish the running game, which might be a little more difficult against a team like North Pole.
Sophomore running back Drew Gibbs is expecting to play after sitting out Soldotna’s quarterfinal matchup with Houston last week, and senior receiver Tyler Howell will also be playing. Both suffered leg injuries in a win against Homer in Week 6.
Kenai vs. Juneau,
1 p.m. Saturday
Juneau captured the Southeast Conference with a 4-0 conference record, and swept the in-state competition as well.
The only loss that marks the Crimson Bears’ resume in 2013 is a 41-22 game against Foss (Wash.) High School on Sept. 14. But Juneau beat Pemberton (B.C.) 72-0 the next week after that, adding to a 26-20 win over Viewpoint (Calif.) on Aug. 23.
Knowing that they have had success over Lower 48 teams this year, Kenai assistant coach Jim Beeson said Kenai will need to control the clock and handle the ball well to have a shot at making the state final.
“The plan is we have to keep the ball from their offense,” Beeson said. “They’re a good football team, and we have to play our best game to have a chance to win.”
With powerful backfield players from Juneau like Demetrius Campos — who has averaged 10.5 yards a carry for 683 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns this year — the Kardinals may be going punch for punch with the Crimson Bears.
“We’re going to run the ball but we’re going to have to throw the ball too,” Beeson said. “If all we do is run, it’ll be difficult to have success.”
Beeson said he thought Kenai had moderate to mild success last week in its passing game, but still thinks there is room for improvement.
Quarterback TJ Wagoner has slowly gotten more reps passing the ball in game situations over the season, and last week against Kodiak, he went 3-for-5 for 65 yards. The only problem is Juneau has a lethal passing game to go along with its ground game.
Dorian Isaak has amassed an impressive 905 passing yards this season as the Juneau quarterback, throwing 15 touchdowns while only tossing six interceptions. Wagoner, on the other hand, had 141 passing yards in the regular season.
“TJ has improved a little each week, and for a first year playing quarterback, he’s getting better making plays because he was a little nervous at first,” Beeson said. “It’s kind of a culminating thing, we might as well start with Juneau since they’re the best. He’ll be fine, if he executes and does what we do, we’ll be fine.”
Beeson noted that defensive end and lineman Nathan Zorbas will likely be back in the field on Saturday after sitting out the Kodiak game for a leg injury, bringing the Kenai squad up to full health.
“I think it’s been the best week in practice this year,” Beeson said. “Practices have been shorter and we’re doing different things. It’s looking good and crisp.”