When a high school sports team makes the move into a conference designated for smaller schools, the incumbent squads may see the changes as unwelcoming at first, like a big fish invading a small pond.
Such was the case last season, when Juneau-Douglas and North Pole both stepped down from the large schools division and took on Kenai Central and Soldotna of the medium-schools Northern Lights Conference, which also houses Peninsula squad Homer.
But after the kind of breathtaking display that the 2013 medium-schools championship game saw between Soldotna and Juneau, fans of the game don’t have much to complain about now.
“Juneau certainly made it more competitive,” said SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. “It certainly brought way more legitimacy to our program. I think for many years people thought it was the Soldotna-Kenai show.
“North Pole returns probably the two best athletes in the state in their quarterback (Dorian Isaak) and (running back) Demetrius Campos. I think they’re two of the best athletes in the state.”
“A lot of people were like, ‘What are they doing?’” added Kenai Central coach John Marquez. “I tell my players, it’s phenomenal, accept the challenge.”
The intensity seen in the 2013 playoffs was undoubtedly increased, with Juneau getting by Kenai in the semifinals to meet Soldotna in the title game. The Stars finished off North Pole in the other semifinal.
The big change in the Northern Lights Conference this season is the absence of Skyview High School, which closed, and Houston High School, which dropped out to become an independent team. With an annual enrollment of just over 400 — numbers more comparible to schools like Nikiski — Houston in recent years was simply unable to keep up with the bigger schools in its conference, such as Kenai and Soldotna.
The Hawks will still play nonleague games against Homer and Seward, as well as a JV contest against Kenai.
The loss of Houston and Skyview leaves the NLC with only four teams, and since the quarterfinal round was cut out this year, only the top two qualify for the postseason. The top seed from the NLC will face the second seed from the Southeast Conference, and vice versa.
The medium-schools championship game is set for Oct. 18 at 12:30 p.m., with the small-schools title game following at 4 p.m. Both games will be contested at picturesque Dimond High School.
The small-schools playoff picture is similar. The Greatland Conference that houses Nikiski and Seward is the lone conference in the division, and so the top four will move on to the small-schools semifinals, with the top seed playing the fourth seed, while the second and third seeds square off.
In Alaska high school state football history, Soldotna has a pretty black and white record.
After a two-decade span that saw the Stars go 0-7 in state championship games, SoHi has since been in a championship game seven of the last eight years, winning six of them.
It’s no secret that the Stars are looking to go all the way again this year. As the two-time defending medium-schools champions, it comes with the territory. But with the kind of numbers SoHi put up last fall, can opponents expect to see similar domination this year?
“We have some talented kids this year, but most of those kids were second-year starters,” coach Brantley Jr. said. “This year, for most of them is their first shot, and there’s a learning curve.”
Soldotna completed an undefeated 11-win season in 2013 with a state championship against a similarly talented Juneau-Douglas squad. In the title game, the two teams produced an epic battle that featured 1,169 all-purpose yards on offense, 15 total touchdowns and 29 plays from scrimmage that went 10 yards or more. In the end, the Stars escaped with a 56-49 victory to capture their second-straight crown.
The season as a whole saw some jaw-dropping numbers as well. SoHi averaged 60.4 points a game against opponents, while allowing only 16.5 points on defense. At one point in the season, the Stars went three full games without allowing a single point.
SoHi also enters 2014 on a 20-game win streak, dating back to August 2012 in a loss to large-schools opponent Palmer. The school record is 29 straight wins, but that mark hasn’t even graced Brantley Jr’s mind.
“At this point, we don’t hold much to it, because it’s a different group of kids,” Brantley Jr. said. “The reality is all those stats belong to different teams. This team is gonna have to work hard and establish its own win streak and own identity.
“We’re excited, there’s a lot of excitement in our program.”
Brantley Jr. said a lot of that eagerness is due to the merger of the Soldotna and Skyview. According to him, the transition has been seamless.
“A lot of kids already knew each other,” he said. “They did youth sports together, they hung out together, so we really haven’t seen a lot of major change. It hasn’t been a major adjustment, I think the kids have fit in like they’ve been here.”
The merger also couldn’t have come at a better time. SoHi will get to debut its brand-new sports facilities this year, which include a new turf field and track.
“The kids are excited to be playing on a really nice field,” Brantley Jr. said. “We’re going from practicing in the mud, holes and rocks, to a top-of-the-line facility, and it’s a huge step for our program.”
After two road games against Eagle River and Palmer to start the season, the Stars will get to christen their new turf with an Aug. 30 game against medium-schools opponent Thunder Mountain of the Southeast Conference. The rest of SoHi’s schedule consists of conference games with the exception of West Valley in late September.
Brantley Jr. said his team has already seen a bit of action at the Chugiak Stampede, a training camp last week that included scrimmaging against teams from Bartlett, Seward, Kenai and Eielson.
With many of last year’s top players gone due to graduation, Brantley Jr. will have to do some shuffling to find the type of chemistry that the 2013 line had. Headlining the departed list is quarterback Colton Young, running back Jake Kooly and linebackers Dylan Smith and Daniel Rosin.
“We lost a lot of really good players, there’s no way of disguising that,” Brantley Jr. said.
Young led all Kenai Peninsula quarterbacks with 589 passing yards in 2013 and 11 touchdowns, with only one interception. Young also proved adept on his feet with 597 rushing yards.
Kooly ranked third among Peninsula players in 2013 with 736 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.
Fortunately, SoHi didn’t graduate all of its backfield talent. The Stars return two All-Tournament Offense Team members in running back Drew Gibbs and Trevor Walden, both juniors that received additional praise from Kenai coach John Marquez.
“I think those two are the best players on the Peninsula,” Marquez said of Gibbs and Walden.
Gibbs ran for 728 yards last year and 11 touchdowns, and averaged a staggering 15.2 yards a carry, and while Walden had only four receptions last year, all of them were for touchdowns.
On defense, the Stars return Drew Fowler and Brooks Furlong as All-Tournament Team members. Brantley Jr. made the decision to promote Furlong to the starting quarterback position, adding that the senior has previous varsity experience under center.
“I expect him to have a good year, he’s done a lot of good things in the offseason,” Brantley Jr. said. “This is his fourth year playing quarterback in our offense, he’s worked up through the ranks and has made a couple of huge plays before.”
The eighth-year head coach rounded out the depth chart with Dalton Best at center, with a trio of tackles vying for a spot on the front line, including Adam O’Guinn, Sage Steele and Matt Trammell. O’Guinn is a former Skyview player. Austin Crowder, Bryce Martin, James Gallagher and Adrian Gomez are all trying out for a guard position. Bailey Blumentritt, also a Skyview transfer, will add further depth to the backfield and to the receiving core.
Defensively, many of the same names will still be around, with Furlong, Bailey Jones and Dylan Ackerman all competing for a spot in the defensive secondary, and Fowler, Crowder, Ty Fenton, Gibbs, Eli Damon and Jared Chavez looking for roles as a linebacker.
The Kards went 6-1 last season and made the playoffs, a year after missing them entirely, but the championship dream ended early.
Juneau beat Kenai 42-15 in a state semifinal matchup was that closer than the score indicated. The Crimson Bears scored on their first possession of the game with an 80-yard run, which was followed by a fumbled handoff on Kenai’s possession. Kenai also had an offside penalty on a Juneau fourth down.
“I’ve preached to these kids, you play one game at a time,” said coach Marquez. “They believe they’re gonna win every game, and they’re focused on Juneau right now.
“We take it one week at a time, and give it everything that Kenai has.”
Of course, Kenai’s opening game will give the Kards a chance at redemption right away. A road trip to Juneau is scheduled for Aug. 16, which will be followed up by a trip to Fairbanks to take on large-schools opponent Lathrop. The remainder of Kenai’s schedule includes games with Palmer and Wasilla.
“Our schedule is tough throughout, I don’t see a weakness,” Marquez said.
Of course, a regular season on the central Peninsula would not be complete without the annual clash between the Kardinals and the Stars. This year, Kenai and Soldotna meet at SoHi on Oct. 4, the final regular season game. Last year, both teams met in the final week with undefeated records, and SoHi came away with the win.
The Kards have a tough task ahead of them when it comes to filling out some holes in the offense. Kenai’s star running back in 2013, Jace Daniels, was lost to graduation.
Daniels opened last year’s campaign with a run into the record books, rushing for 480 yards against Nikiski in a Week 1 victory that set the all-time Alaska state single-game record. Over seven regular-season games, Daniels carried the ball the most with 1,293 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns.
“We lost probably the best running back on the Peninsula,” Marquez said. “But we bring back a trio of backs, and that will be the focal point of our offense.”
Marquez said losing Daniels is tough, but instead of one star ball carrier, the Kards will feature three good backfield players in senior Chase Logan, Chase Gillies and senior Kyle Foree. Marquez said Logan — the main blocking man for Daniels last year — will likely be getting the most carries. This year, junior Andrew Welborn will be a key blocker.
“You don’t replace a guy like Jace Daniels, and we’re not going to replace him with one guy, we’re going to replace him with four guys,” Marquez added. “That’ll keep these guys rested, and it’ll be a lot harder for teams to focus on four guys rather than one.”
Kenai also lost TJ Wagoner, its starting quarterback, so Marquez named senior Jace Baker as this year’s leading man under center. Baker was a starting quarterback two years ago as a sophomore, under Marquez’s last year as head coach.
“His maturity level has come a long ways, and he’s become a team leader,” Marquez said. “Physically he’s become bigger and stronger, and he has the experience at the position too.”
Marquez said the Kards are returning three of the four starting offensive linemen from last year in senior Kyle Hunter, junior Zach Koziczkowski and senior Chris Lawson.
The Bulldogs have the privilege of carrying the banner of defending champs this year, and, with a little old time Nikiski scrappiness, hold a good shot at retaining their title belt.
But they still have to work for it. Greatland Conference rivals Barrow, Eielson and Monroe Catholic have all had a shot in the small-schools state championship game in each of the past three seasons. The only thing that’s stayed consistent is Nikiski as their opponent.
The Bulldogs have sandwiched a 2012 state championship loss to Eielson with triumphs in 2011 and 2013 over Barrow and Monroe, respectively.
“This is just like every other year, it’s a new season,” said Nikiski coach Ted Riddall. “You’re not state champs this year, and we might’ve been last year, but it doesn’t affect this year.”
After finishing the 2013 regular season 5-1 in the GLC (5-3 overall), Nikiski held a share of a three-way tie atop the Greatland Conference standings. Monroe received the top seed in the playoffs on a coin flip, with Nikiski getting second and Eielson third. Nikiski disposed of Eielson in the semifinals to claim its third straight state title game berth, leading to the finale against Monroe. In that game, the Bulldogs had to rally from a 12-point second half deficit.
Riddall said 2014 is no different, and that it will take the same determination and resiliency to claim a fifth state crown.
“It’s gonna take a lot of discipline, like always, kids buying into what we’re telling them,” he said. “We gotta have some luck and stay injury free, and as always be well-coached.”
Scott Anderson returns as offensive coordinator and Bill Thompson and Tim Johnson as assistants.
Riddall said the Bulldogs attended a football camp in Wasilla earlier this summer, which allowed them to improve and tweak a few things, but said there will be no tweaking to the team’s core plays.
“We’ll still run that wing-T (offense),” he said. “We’ve been running it for a long time, and it’s hard to defend, and we’re good at running it.”
Perhaps the player the Bulldogs will miss the most in their offensive scheme is running back Michael Stangel, who amassed 842 yards on the ground a year ago — ranking him second among Peninsula rushers — and 11 touchdowns.
But junior Christian Riddall returns after putting up 540 rushing yards last season, and Nikiski returns three of its four All-Tournament team members form last year. Riddall said there is currently about 34 on the roster for now, with more expected, and many of those players are upperclassmen with varsity experience.
Returning at the quarterback position is junior Cade Anderson, who managed to balance Nikiski’s running attack with a passing game that accounted for 552 yards last year. Junior Luke Johnson will add some heavyweight talent in the defensive backfield and on offense as a running back, along with senior Nico Castro and junior Nathan Carstens.
“Those kids will be shouldering most of the load,” Riddall said.
On the offensive line will be three seniors — Ben Carstens, Jacob Williams and John McCormick, as well as Garrett Dohse.
Nikiski will open its season against Thunder Mountain of the medium-schools Southeast Conference, before diving into conference action with Monroe.
There’s no doubt that Homer coach Josh Fraley is looking to turn around a Mariners squad that went 2-6 and missed the playoffs last year. The good news is that the Mariners only graduated four players, which has left Fraley feeling good.
“Last year I was pretty realistic on expectations,” Fraley said. “This year we need to make a push, the expectations are high this year to get back into the playoffs and contend.”
The bad news is that of those four departed seniors, running back Joseph Cardoza was one. Cardoza got the majority of the carries with Homer’s running attack.
“We were pretty young last year, but this year we’re very senior heavy,” Fraley said. “We’re gonna have to run the ball more effectively.”
Homer broke a bit out of its mold in 2013 with an improved passing game, something that the nose-to-the-grindstone Mariners are not known for. But with 6-foot-4 quarterback Sheldon Hutt, it was hard to pass up the opportunity.
“We threw the ball more than we ever have last year,” Fraley recalled. “It was kind of an anomaly, because we didn’t have a solid line. We didn’t have anybody that could open up a good hole, and they weren’t really honoring the run anyway, so you might as well open it up as much as you can and use the pass game with screens and passes.
“We’ll probably go back to control football and play on the ground more this year.”
Fraley said 25 have come out for the team this year, and 14 to 16 of those players are seniors. Hutt returns for his senior year with juniors Michael Swoboda and Josh Fisk in the backfield as well. Fisk will double as a tight end with Connor Seay and Ian Lowe.
Fraley said that his squad worked with Soldotna at a football camp earlier in the summer, and mentioned he believes Homer should provide a bigger challenge against one of the NLC’s best teams.
“I really would like to see what we can do against Soldotna,” Fraley said. “I think we’re going to match up better.
“I think we just have a much more favorable schedule, so the guys are excited.”
Like SoHi, Homer will be breaking in a fresh turf field this year, one year after the track surrounding the field was completed. The first week of the year will see the opening game on the field, when Homer hosts Eielson. The Mariners follow that up with road games against Kodiak, Barrow and Valdez. Weeks 6 and 7 will see big games against Soldotna and Kenai.
The tiny community of Voznesenka will be competing with a full squad this year, one season after going 2-4 and missing the small-schools playoffs.
Head coach Justin Zank returns to guide the team, which lost five players to graduation last year, most notably quarterback Avraam Kalugin and fullback Dennis Martishev.
“We have a lot of young guys who need to step up this year to fill some holes,” Zank wrote in an email. “We bring back our entire starting O-line and D-line from last year which will we key. We were weak on both last year but look to improve this year.”
Zank tabbed Kalugin’s senior brother, Gavril, as the starting quarterback this year, adding that the senior will be getting solid support from linemen Misael Martushev, Safron Kusnetsov, Markian Polushkin and running back Kiril Sanarov.
“While we don’t have anyone now to match (Dennis Martishev’s) size, Kiril Sanarov should plug in nicely at middle linebacker,” Zank wrote. “We might do some things differently on offense to compensate for the lack of a true fullback. And we have several young guys who will need to contribute early.
“We made a huge mistake last year relying too much on our offense. We will look to our defense this year to make plays.”
The Cougars open their season with road games against Valdez and Eielson, followed by two home games against Barrow and Monroe. Two road games against Nikiski and Seward will end their regular season.
Seward finished 2013 with a 1-7 mark, and Kelly Cinereski returns to coach a team that made the trip up to compete at the Chugiak Stampede.
The original online story was corrected to read Chase Gillies will be a key figure in the Kenai Central backfield this season.