About midway through the third quarter of last Saturday’s medium-schools semifinal matchup against North Pole, the Soldotna Stars came to the realization that the road to another state championship will not come easy.
Senior running back Jake Kooly was vomiting on the sidelines after a massive hit to the gut, others were on their backs getting tight hamstrings stretched, and a number other than zero was displayed on the opponents side of the scoreboard.
But the Stars (10-0) powerful offensive unit continued to plow through the Patriots defense, and now SoHi is on the precipice of a sixth state football championship in eight years.
They are currently standing at five out of the last seven, and can add to that stat line when they face off with the Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears (8-1) at noon Saturday at Anchorage Football Stadium.
For some, that may be considered a dynasty. But for Soldotna head coach Galen Brantley Jr., it’s business as usual, even after the First National Bowl medium-schools division was formed in 2011 by the Alaska School Activities Association.
“I don’t know about that,” Brantley Jr. said. “I still think it’s silly that we lost our identity when the Greatland (Conference) broke away and all of a sudden we’re the new division. I thought we were still the same division, but I guess I was wrong.
“I noticed that when ASAA took all the state titles off the trophy and gave us the new one last year.”
Since 2006, the only years Soldotna has not won the state title were 2009 — when they lost 21-10 in the championship game against Kenai — and 2011, when they lost again to Kenai — this time in the semifinals — 28-12.
Before that, the Stars played in a state championship game seven times (including the years before a small-schools division was created) without winning once. It seems the floodgates have opened.
“It’s a lot to live up to,” said senior tackle Daniel Rosin about the school’s championship pedigree. “Every guy has a certain job and they’ve got to do it just as well as the guy next to them.”
After last week’s semifinal win over North Pole, it was obvious that the team was reeling after one of their toughest opponents they’ve seen all year.
“There’s no question, on Monday we had some sore bodies,” Brantley Jr. said. “But this is state championship football, there’s no time to stop and worry about how we feel. We have to get ready to go. They’re not going to take a day off worrying about us, and we can’t do the same.”
Senior Dylan Smith, one of the pieces to Soldotna’s fearsome line, said the Stars had to put in a full 48 minutes of work to win that game.
“It was one of the craziest games we’ve ever played,” Smith said. “Best team by far I think I’ve played in my four years of football.
“We got to get really focused and really pumped up. There was a point when we were up by only eight points and we really had to come together as a team, and really focus on our blocks, and we did and we succeeded.”
Rosin added that, “It was kind of an eye-opener. We’re not used to giving up 33 points.”
Smith and Rosin make up a portion of the Stars’ offensive line — which is responsible for the kind of numbers put up by players such as Drew Gibbs, Jake Kooly and quarterback Colton Young. Soldotna runs only a few offensive schemes, but they run them so well that the defending players seemingly spend more time just looking for the ball carrier on each play.
Brantley Jr. said he doesn’t plan on changing a thing. Establish a running game, and let the defense take care of rest. He said there is no reason to change things up this late in the season.
“It’s one of those things, some coaches come up with a great game plan and make adjustments during the week,” Brantley Jr. said. “We’re just not that kind of football team. We’re going to show up and try to execute the plays that we run perfectly, and if we do, our kids will make the plays and win the game.
“I had one coach tell me it’s the KFC philosophy. You’re only going to do one thing, but you’re going to do it well. I guess I took that as a compliment.”
Brantley Jr. said he expects Juneau to know every move the Stars pull on them Saturday, since both teams have game film of each other. For Soldotna, the biggest Juneau offensive threat comes in the form of running back Demetrius Campos.
“He’s the best running back we’ve seen in years,” Brantley Jr. said. “With that kind of speed and ability to make people miss, he’s a really special athlete and he’ll be a major challenge for our program.
“I think this is the best football team we’ve seen in a couple years. Better than anyone we’ve played last year or this year. They’re just loaded with athletes and extremely well-coached.”
2013 marks the first year that Juneau and North Pole have competed in the medium-schools division. Both have won large-schools championships — North Pole in 2004, Juneau in 2005 and 2007.
Demetrius Campos had 208 rushing yards and three touchdowns in last Saturday’s 42-15 semifinal victory over Kenai. Campos had an 80-yard touchdown run on Juneau’s first play from scrimmage in the first quarter, then added an 85-yard kickoff return to start the second half and a 46-yard run early in the fourth quarter.
Kenai assistant coach Jim Beeson knows exactly how powerful the Juneau backfield is after the Kards’ loss last week, and said he had his offensive line taking as much time off the clock in the first half, a strategy that worked for a while. But ultimately, against a team like Juneau, that only held up so long.
“They have speed and some good athletes,” Beeson said after the game Saturday. “Juneau is a great football team, they’re well-coached, and they have some good players.”
Rich Sjoroos is the Juneau head coach, and commented after Saturday’s game against Kenai on how happy he was about his defense containing the Kenai backfield.
“I don’t think anyone’s been able to stop (Kenai running back Jace Daniels) all year long,” Sjoroos said. “I mean, Soldotna only held him to what, 130 yards? I think that says a lot about what we were able to do.”
The Crimson Bears held Daniels to 160 rushing yards on 43 carries (only 3.7 yards a carry), which is below average for the dynamic running back. It remains to be seen whether the Juneau defense can do the same against a Soldotna offense with multiple threats.
Campos is a different type of athlete. In the regular season, he compiled 683 rushing yards on 65 attempts — an average of 10.5 yards a carry — and 11 touchdowns.
“For us the biggest challenge is being able to run fit properly, so that he doesn’t find a cutback lane,” Brantley Jr. said. “That’s one of the things he did so well against Kenai, the play would get strung out and he’d put his foot in the ground and slice back against the grain and 90 yards later, you’re down six more points.”
Quarterback Dorian Isaak is another threat. His 402 rushing yards on 51 carries means he has made plays outside the pocket, and can do it again at any time.
“We can’t overpursue on the backside,” Brantley Jr. said. “I think Kenai did a good job containing them early, but they had a couple of special teams breakdowns that blew the game wide open.”
Smith said he and the rest of the Soldotna linemen have practiced and trained to execute every play to perfection, which is how they were able to put up 63 points on North Pole last week.
“Our offense is really tricky,” Smith said. “We have really good fakes and people don’t catch them so we give ourselves credit.”
Rosin added that the team’s defense works every day to become more tenacious and aggressive. But the identity of the Stars remains the same.
“We don’t ever like to look ahead or underestimate anyone by any means, but we knew they were both going to be a big challenge, so we’ve focused on them hard this year,” Rosin said. “Now we just play football. Just go out and play good, hard SoHi football.”