In a season full of blowout victories and dominating performances, the Soldotna Stars pulled off the biggest win of their year to top Juneau-Douglas 56-49 and win the 2013 First National Bowl medium-schools state football championship at Anchorage Football Stadium on Saturday.
The Stars trailed the Crimson Bears for most of the game, but thanks to two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, Soldotna was able to defend its 2012 state championship and clinch its sixth state title in the last eight years. It also capped an 11-0 undefeated season.
“What a game!” said senior Jake Kooly. “That was just a hard game. Difficult. I don’t even know what to say. We definitely underestimated this team.”
On a day when offense was the catalyst for the many spectacular plays, it was the Soldotna defense that keyed the Stars to the victory.
With the game tied at 49 apiece in the fourth quarter, and Juneau attempting a third down on its own 30-yard line, Drew Fowler perfectly read the eyes of Juneau quarterback Dorian Isaak to pick an interception out of the air for a 20-yard return and set up the Stars for the go-ahead score with 7 minutes, 18 seconds, remaining.
“I just tried to read the quarterback’s eyes,” Fowler said. “I wasn’t doing a great job getting my hook-to-curl game because I was so focused on (Juneau’s Demetrius) Campos, so I got my hook-to-curl and read the quarterback and made the play.
“It was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had. We got the lead and I thought if we could get a stop we could get it back.”
Ultimately, it took 991 yards of offense from the line of scrimmage and 15 touchdowns between the two heavyweight schools to decide a winner in the second-highest scoring game in state football playoff history. (Coincidentally, Soldotna also won the highest-scoring game three years ago when the Stars beat Kenai 77-42.)
After SoHi scored the winning touchdown — when quarterback Colton Young pushed through on a 4-yard run — Juneau turned the ball over on downs on the ensuing drive when their star running back Campos could not find the extra yardage near the sideline on a screen pass from Isaak, thanks to tackling from Max Conradi and Brooks Furlong.
From there, the Stars methodically worked their way down the field, starting from their own 45-yard line and ran the final 4:42 out with running play after running play. When Young took a knee for the final time on the 3-yard line to clinch the win, the senior took off sprinting down the field to celebrate with the onrushing sideline.
“This is the greatest feeling,” Young said. “When I took that knee I knew we had a state title so I couldn’t be happier right now.
“I was really nervous but I didn’t want to show it because I’m a leader of this team, and I didn’t want them to panic. It’s just a great team victory.”
Young had a big day himself, claiming 202 rushing yards on the day and two touchdowns to lead a rushing attack that had 461 yards total. Young also had a touchdown pass to go along with his ground game.
“This team is a bunch of brothers, I wouldn’t want to go down with anyone else,” Young said. “It’s a great team victory.”
Just like a week earlier against North Pole, Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. was surprised with a Gatorade shower from his team after the game. But he couldn’t have cared less.
“I’m about as warm as I could be,” he said. “We’re just so proud of our guys for not packing it in when we got down. I think we just knew a lot of those mistakes were self-inflicted, and if we could just settle things down and get going, we could give ourselves a chance.”
In addition to Young’s performance, Kooly had 65 rushing yards and two touchdowns on Saturday, while senior Drew Gibbs racked up 160 ground yards and three touchdowns.
Campos used his darting speed to get 217 rushing yards to lead Juneau, and Isaak had 193 passing yards, but penalties hurt them throughout the game.
Twice in the first half, Juneau had a touchdown brought back on a penalty. Isaak connected to Eric Nordgren on the very first play of the game for what looked to be an 81-yard passing touchdown, but an illegal man downfield wiped it from the board.
Later in the first quarter, Campos went off on a 58-yard run, but a holding call once again took it away.
“After that, they got us into some third-and-longs in the fourth quarter, and obvious passing downs, that’s not what we’re looking to do,” said Juneau coach Rich Sjorjoos. “We like to dictate the down and distance and stuff, and we were able to do that for a while and keep that two- to three-score distance. But they started creeping back and they didn’t quit. Hats off to Soldotna, they’ve got some good players and they played a good game.”
In the first half, Soldotna’s biggest problem came not in the form of Campos, Isaak or receiver Eric Nordgren, but rather turnovers. Soldotna fumbled the ball twice — both leading to Juneau touchdowns — and Young threw an interception that was erased by a Juneau penalty.
But for all the loose plays Soldotna had in the game, the Stars made up for it with a lack of penalties. Soldotna had exactly one penalty for 5 yards.
“That’s something we really pride ourselves on, is ball security, and we just had a few miscues today,” Brantley Jr. said. “We were able to overcome those and again, it’s one of those things that we try not to get too down.”
Things looked bleak for SoHi early in the game. At one point in the second quarter, Juneau held a 28-6 lead over Soldotna — a lead that was capped with a 47-yard pass that Adam Empson barely caught with inches to spare for a touchdown.
But the Stars kept battling, and after junior Brooks Furlong picked off Isaak on Juneau’s next possession, Soldotna showed what it was made of in the final seconds of the first half.
On third down on Juneau’s 5-yard line, Young got the ball under center and began looking for a receiver, but had to scramble to avoid massive pressure and ended up being pushed back to about the 25-yard line before winging a pass to a wide open Furlong in the end zone with no time on the clock to end the half. The play left Juneau clinging to a 28-21 lead.
“First thing I said to them in the locker room was it feels like we’re behind,” Sjorjoos said. “But we’re not, and we had to play with that same intensity that we had in the first quarter. In the last six minutes it felt like we played like we were three scores ahead.”
Sjorjoos tried a risky onside kick to begin the second half for Juneau, and a fumble by a Soldotna receiver gave the Crimson Bears the ball and the short field they wanted.
From there, the two teams began trading touchdowns, and it wasn’t until a big defensive stop late in the third quarter that the Stars were in position to take the lead.
“Our coaching staff and players knew we had control of the game,” Young said. “The scoreboard didn’t show that, but we never gave up and our linemen did a great job of opening up holes and our backs followed and got into the end zone.”
Brantley Jr. added, “For us, it was what do we need to do to get a first down. They were adamant about not letting us run up the midline and packing three players in there, so we went back to our off-tackle line and used Colton a lot more today.”
Brantley Jr. also added that it was a great way to send off the senior class on the team — some of which he has coached since middle school.
“I couldn’t be happy enough for those seniors,” he said. “I’ve had a longer relationship with those guys than most of the classes that have come through, and I’ve watched them grow from seventh-graders to young men.”
Stars 56, Crimson Bears 49
Juneau 14 14 21 0 —49
Soldotna 6 15 21 14 —56
Soldotna — Kooly 1 run (run failed), 7:12.
Juneau — Campos 14 run (Maake run), 4:37.
Juneau — Nordgren 41 pass from Isaak (Maake kick), :58.
Juneau — Campos 8 run (Maake kick), 10:12.
Juneau — Empson 47 pass from Isaak (Maake kick), 7:53.
Soldotna — Gibbs 1 run (Gibbs run), 3:58.
Soldotna — Furlong 6 pass from Young (Asimakopoulos kick), :00.
Juneau — Isaak 5 run (Maake), 9:42.
Soldotna — Gibbs 37 run (Asimakopoulos kick), 9:00.
Juneau — Campos 52 run (Maake kick), 7:00.
Soldotna — Young 26 run (Asimakopoulos kick), 3:43.
Soldotna — Kooly 1 run (Asimakopoulos kick), 1:08.
Juneau — Sua 78 run (Maake kick), :48.
Soldotna — Gibbs 2 run (Asimakopoulos kick), 9:24.
Soldotna — Young 4 run (Asimakopoulos kick), 7:18.
First downs 17 27
Rushes-yards 36-312 68-461
Passing yards 193 25
Return yards 66 112
Passes 8-14-2 3-3-0
Punts 2-33.0 1-22.0
Fumbles-lost 0-0 6-3
Penalties-yards 4-45 1-5
RUSHING — Juneau: Campos 26-217, Sua 5-90, Isaak 4-6, Nordgren 1-(-2). Soldotna: Young 24-202, Gibbs 21-160, Kooly 19-65, Riley 2-18, Fenton 2-16.
PASSING — Juneau: Issak 8-14-2—193. Soldotna: Young 3-3-0—25.
RECEIVING — Juneau: Hill 3-80, Nordgren 3-51, Empson 1-47, Compos 1-9. Soldotna: Fowler 1-23, Furlong 1-6, Conradi 1-(-4).