Astonishingly, the prep football season is already hitting hump week. After this weekend’s slate of games, the 2014 campaign will be on the downhill path and teams will be closer to the playoffs than Week 1.
The recent passing of Week 3 saw Soldotna continue to steamroll its way through the state, as the Stars demonstrated their superiority with a 62-point blowout over fellow medium-schools opponent Thunder Mountain of the Southeast Conference. The Stars were originally scheduled to play Colony in Week 4, but after that matchup was pulled, a late scramble to set up a date with Houston fell through, and thus SoHi will be taking a bye.
Kenai took advantage of its Northern Lights Conference opener with Kodiak to snap a losing streak, but now face even greater challenges in the next two weeks against Railbelt Conference schools Palmer and Wasilla, which may leave the Kardinals feeling as if they just took a ride on the “Gravitron” at the state fair.
Perhaps the most anticipated game of the year in the Greatland Conference will be Saturday when Nikiski lines up against Eielson in a heavyweight bout of the two unbeaten rivals.
Palmer (1-2) at Kenai (1-2), 6 p.m. Friday
Kenai is riding high after Saturday’s 56-8 conference rout over Kodiak, the Kards’ first win of the season. But Palmer is on a similar high as well, having beaten North Pole a week ago in a wild 54-49 thriller.
In that regard, tonight’s game may be won by the team that is best able to harness the wave of good energy and momentum. Kenai coach John Marquez believes that his team can be the one.
“They’ve been waiting to explode, and it happened to be (against) Kodiak,” Marquez said. “They deserved that win and enjoyed it, but they understand it’s gone, and the win is chalked up to the win column.
“We’re gonna step our game up, we feel strong and there’s no reason to think we’re not going to win this game.”
Marquez said that the pressure to beat Kodiak after starting the season 0-2 had intensified in the week leading up to it, so when the Kenai defense stepped up and held the Bears to 56 yards, Marquez knew he had a team that can make a comeback for the postseason.
“Of course there’s pressure, every day is like that,” Marquez said. “The way it works, we gotta win the games that will put you in the playoffs.”
After opposing teams averaged 182 passing yards on the Kards in the first two games of 2014, Kenai held Kodiak quarterback Melvin Javier to eight.
“Our offensive line stepped up last week,” Marquez admired. “It was a great win but Palmer’s not Kodiak.”
The biggest threat the Moose hold on offense is that of Chase Ferris, a running back that rushed for five touchdowns and 291 yards against North Pole last week.
Prior to the win against North Pole, Palmer was dealt a 33-0 loss by Soldotna, meaning that in a span of two weeks, the Moose have been sharpened and pushed to the edge by talented teams and are likely running on all cylinders.
“Right off the bat, teams like that are gonna be a real challenge,” Marquez said. “This’ll be the best-coached team that we’ve faced so far. Do they have good athletes? Yes, but they’re so well coached that they make no mistakes, and they’re fundamentally right.”
When asked how he hopes to contain Ferris, Marquez answered that it’s best to plug the middle up as much as possible.
“The good thing about containing him is they run that dive option,” Marquez said. “We want to make the quarterback run the ball and keep it from (Ferris’) hands. We want to focus on the dive, not the pitch, and want to keep him between the tackles and not let him run to the outside.”
In three games this year, Kenai’s defense has proven capable of stopping the run, averaging under 88 rushing yards a game from opponents. Much of that brute force has come from linebackers Zach Koziczkowski, Andrew Welborn, Kyle Foree and Chase Logan, as the quartet combined for 33 tackles.
Eielson (3-0) at Nikiski (2-0), 3 p.m. Saturday
A week after meeting the team that they played in the 2013 state title game — Monroe Catholic — Nikiski will match up with the team that they met in the 2012 state title game — Eielson.
Nikiski coach Ted Riddall said the annual battles between his Bulldogs and the Ravens have become the closest rivalry for his squad.
“Yes. I would say this is it,” Riddall said. “For the most part, we’re neck and neck with them most of the time. We watch what they do week to week, and I’m sure they watch us. The last few years it’s ended up being for a playoff spot.”
Eielson, the leading team in the Greatland Conference standings, is coming off a crushing win over Voznesenka, a lopsided 77-0 rout of the small team from the Homer area. Eielson’s Anthony Griffith ran wild on the Cougars, rushing for 424 yards and seven touchdowns on only 11 carries. It was enough to rank him among the state’s best single-game performances.
However, coach Riddall holds a different opinion of Griffith’s feat. After hearing of the type of game the talented senior had, Riddall questioned why Eielson coach Dave DeVaughn left his starters in as long as he did and allowed the score to be run up.
“Honestly I don’t like it,” Riddall said. “I don’t like starting running backs scoring in the fourth quarter when the score is that big.
“It’s great for (Griffith), he got his yards, he got to have some time in the sun, but honestly I’m a little embarrassed for them.”
Riddall added that while he enjoys competing against DeVaughn’s team and is friendly with the veteran coach, there are different coaching styles that differentiate the two.
“I respect Eielson’s coach very much, he’s a great coach, but we just have different philosophies on how things should be done,” Riddall said.
As for Saturday’s matchup, Nikiski will have its hands full with Griffith and the rest of the Eielson backfield, and if past history is any indicator, it may come down to which team has the ball last.
The Bulldogs are averaging 528 yards on offense in the two varsity games they have played, and are averaging over 400 yards on the ground. Nico Castro and Christian Riddall have over 200 rushing yards each in 2014.
Last week against Monroe, Nikiski’s defense put on a suffocating display, holding the Rams to 2 yards on offense, including a negative rushing total of 24 yards. Monroe was also held to three first downs.
“It got out of hand quickly, so we started kicking field goals, which we found out we weren’t very good at,” Riddall said.
Containing the explosive Eielson offense — led by Griffith — will be the No. 1 task for the Bulldogs, and Riddall said it comes down to how effective they can be in barricading the line of scrimmage.
“We can’t allow him to get cutbacks,” he said. “We need to make him go more sideways than north and south, because we know he’s the fastest in the state.
“We’ve schemed things in the past that have been successful, and running him to the sideline is the key. Once he hits the open lane, it’s pretty much over.”
Homer (1-2) at Valdez (1-2), 1 p.m. Saturday
The Mariners got their first win of 2014 last week in a 30-12 game over Barrow, and for the third time in four weeks, Homer will be facing a small-schools opponent.
“If I had my choice, I’d rather play Nikiski or somebody like that in a small-schools matchup, but I’m not complaining,” said Homer coach Josh Fraley with a laugh. “It’s better than last year when he had games against Palmer and Lathrop.”
Homer opened its season with a 41-16 loss to small-schools team Eielson, so Fraley knows better than to overlook a seemingly lesser opponent.
The biggest moment in the win last Saturday came when Barrow was driving downfield in an attempt to score and take the lead, but ended up making a costly mistake. Sheldon Hutt managed to intercept a jumbled pass from the Barrow quarterback and ran the ball 99 yards for a return touchdown, breaking the Homer school record, previously held by Noah McWilliams with a 96-yard return.
“Sheldon is a great leader on and off the field, and he has great mechanics as a quarterback,” Fraley said.
Hutt also created the biggest play on offense, connecting with Connor Seay for a 66-yard scoring pass. Standing at 6-foot-5, Hutt’s playmaking ability with Seay and running back Josh Fisk has made for an imposing attack against defenses.
“We’re lucky that Fisk is only a junior,” Fraley said. “And Connor is a dynamic player, he’s the fastest kid on our team and a good kick returner.”
Valdez lost to Houston 36-6 last week in a nonconference game. The Buccaneers’ lone win came against Voznesenka. It gives Fraley a lot of confidence heading into Saturday.
“Our defense has played awesome, and I’m learning I can rely on them,” Fraley said. “It makes it more defined on what I can and can’t get away with. I’m confident with our defense to make plays and make holes.”
Barrow (2-1) at Voznesenka (0-2), 5 p.m. Friday
Voznesenka coach Justin Zank is simply looking to find some positives after last Saturday’s 77-point loss to Eielson.
However, unlike Nikiski coach Ted Riddall, Zank didn’t put any blame on the Ravens running up the score.
“That’s on us, we couldn’t stop them,” Zank said. “I don’t feel like they ran up the score, it’s just that simple that (Griffith) was unstoppable. He had 11 touches and seven were for scores.”
Zank said that the Eielson starters were in the game until midway through the fourth quarter, but remained adamant that the inexperience of his defense allowed mistakes that let Eielson score.
“I guess the biggest positive is that it was a game that gave us experience,” Zank said. “We were in town practicing with Homer today, and to give you an idea, the guys I have playing have never played before this year.”
With both Barrow and Voznesenka coming off losses, the motivation to get back on to a positive streak will be high for the two schools. Zank said he’s had his players practicing hard on defense.
“Barrow comes out with the spread, they do a lot of four wide, and they’ll try to get a ground game going, but they can throw,” Zank said. “Our biggest focus is tackling. We love to arm tackle, so we’ve been working on getting full body tackles.”
Monroe (0-3) at Seward (1-2), 2 p.m. Saturday
Monroe is still looking for its first win of the year, while Seward is looking to get back on track after two consecutive losses.
The Seahawks lost to Ketchikan last Saturday in a 61-30 game, but led 14-8 at the end of the first quarter, getting a 4-yard run from quarterback Alex Pahno and a 2-yard run from Ben Miranda. Zach Martin ended the day with 136 receiving yards.
It’s a good showing that they can score, but the question remains with the defense.