In a game that saw 1,107 yards of total offense, the Soldotna Stars punched their way to the medium-schools state championship football game with a 63-33 semifinal victory over North Pole on Saturday night at Dimond High School in Anchorage.
The win pairs Soldotna up with the Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears next Saturday for the state championship at the Anchorage Football Stadium at noon. Juneau beat Kenai 42-15 earlier in the day at Dimond to claim their spot.
The game ended on a bit of a somber note with 11 seconds left, due to a scary incident when North Pole quarterback Garrett Sommers received a big hit on a quarterback carry, leaving the sophomore motionless on the ground and requiring a backboard to be used to carry him off the field. Sommers was said to be alert and conscious, but complaining of neck pain.
The Stars were led by senior Jake Kooly, who racked up 345 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Overall, Soldotna accumulated a staggering 581 yards on the ground.
“It’s the craziest feeling ever, I’ve wanted this moment ever since I was eight years old playing Pop Warner,” Kooly said. “The linemen got it done, we got our blocks and got the game.”
For a team that is accustomed to 60-point blowouts over opponents, North Pole seemed to give the SoHi defense one of its toughest challenges all season.
“We knew this was going to be a struggle, we know they’ve got kids going to college,” Kooly said, referring to North Pole receiver Lance Wright, who recently committed to Division I Rice University. Wright had 131 receiving yards and two touchdowns on Saturday.
SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. said he knew North Pole had a number of quick, agile players that were capable of making big plays, but the coach was able to come up with a game plan that worked against them.
“They had different guys on offense, they were changing a lot,” Brantley Jr. said. “We’re pretty old-school, ironman football, and they wore us out.
“We took a couple time outs just to rest our kids. They have a NASCAR pace of snapping the ball as soon as the ref sets the ball down.”
At one point, Kooly had to dash to the sideline to relieve his stomach contents after a particularly big hit to the gut.
A couple plays later, he was running the ball in for another touchdown.
“I got hit pretty hard, but you got to fight through it,” he said. “It’s a battle.”
Soldotna came out firing on all cylinders, scoring on their first two drives with touchdown runs of 35 yards and 28 yards by Drew Gibbs and Kooly, respectively. Gibbs ended with 177 rushing yards. Those points were bookended around a fumble by North Pole quarterback Sommer.
However, North Pole continued to fight, and their efforts were rewarded with a 52-yard bomb from Sommers into the waiting hands of Wright that put the Patriots on the board for the first time, trailing SoHi 14-7 midway through the first quarter.
After SoHi responded with two touchdowns (3-yard Kooly rush, and a 4-yard pass from Colton Young to Drew Gibbs), North Pole showed off its speed once again with a 65-yard dash along the left sideline from Deaundre Campbell that left the Stars defense wondering how he slipped through.
Brady Crane got in on the action with a 3-yard scamper to the outside that closed the gap to 28-20, but that was as close as the Patriots were going to get.
After a halftime lead of 42-27, Soldotna continued to dizzy the North Pole defense with their usual tricks. With 5:55 remaining in the third quarter, the Patriots blitzed a rush by SoHi, thinking they had the runner contained, but Kooly fooled everyone, appearing from the scrum to go untouched for 81 yards and a touchdown to put Soldotna’s lead at 22 points.
With the game in hand, Brantley Jr. was surprised with a shower of Gatorade from his players, and afterwards, said the team is excited to make it to the state finals, and he could not think of a better way to send off the senior class than with a trip to the championship.
“I’ve coached some of these kids sine they were in Pop Warner, and it’s good to see them going to the state championship,” Brantley Jr. said.
Stars 63, Patriots 33
North Pole 7 20 6 0 —33
Soldotna 21 21 14 7 —63
Soldotna – Gibbs 35 run (Asimakopoulos kick), 10:34.
Soldotna – Kooly 28 run (Asimakopoulos kick), 9:36.
North Pole – Wright 52 pass from Sommer (Wollman kick), 7:06.
Soldotna – Kooly 3 run (Asimakopoulos kick), 2:59.
Soldotna – Gibbs 4 pass from Young (Asimakopoulos kick), 11:14.
North Pole – Campbell 65 run (kick fail), 10:55.
North Pole – Crane 3 run (Wollman kick), 7:02.
Soldotna — Gibbs 60 run (Asimakopoulos kick), 5:52.
North Pole – Campbell 6 run (Wollman kick), 2:27.
Soldotna – Kooly 8 run (Asimakopoulos kick), 33.3.
Soldotna – Kooly 81 run (Asimakopoulos kick), 5:55.
North Pole – Wright 73 pass from Sommer (run fail), 5:30.
Soldotna – Kooly 41 run (Asimakopoulos kick), 4:04.
Soldotna – Walden 28 pass from Young (Asimakopoulos kick), 7:20.
First downs 13 20
Rushes-yards 36-263 63-581
Passing yards 198 65
Return yards 39 60
Passes 10-21-1 4-6-0
Punts 3-24.5 1-40
Fumbles-lost 1-1 2-2
Penalties-yards 11-102 9-97
RUSHING – North Pole: Sommer 18-101, Campbell 9-144, Crane 3-8, Wrigth 2-(-8), Davis 3-14, Best 1-4. Soldotna: Kooly 26-345, Gibbs 16-177, Young 8-31, Riley 4-13, Chavez 2-4, Griglione 3-2, Furlong 1-8, Lott 1-(-1).
PASSING – North Pole: Sommer 10-20-1 – 198, Martinez 0-1-0 –0. Soldotna: Young 4-6-0 – 65.
RECEIVING – North Pole: Wright 4-131, McCoy 3-29, Hursh 3-38. Soldotna: Walden 2-42, Gibbs 2-23.