2017 Football Season Preview: Who can knock off the Stars?

These days, it seems like everyone wants to take a shot at knocking off the mighty Soldotna Stars football team from their throne.

 

As the weight of The Streak — Soldotna currently holds the Alaska state record of 49 straight wins — weighs heavier and heavier on SoHi each year, it seems the Stars hold stronger and stronger, fueled by their “Pound the Rock” attitude.

As it did last year, the 2017 high school football season kicks off with a championship-caliber bout between Soldotna and West Anchorage, although this time, the Stars are headed to “The Nest” to test their talent.

The Stars opened their 2016 campaign with a 49-30 victory over the Eagles on their home turf at Justin Maile Field, but this year, SoHi will take their act on the road. Tonight’s opener will kick off at 7 p.m. at West Anchorage.

“Like the last couple of years, it’s going to be a tremendous challenge,” said head coach Galen Brantley Jr. “It’s going to take a complete team effort.”

Last year’s heavyweight duel was set up via phone when West head coach Davis asked Brantley Jr. for the opportunity to play the record-breaking juggernaut on the peninsula, but Brantley Jr. replied that the Eagles had to make the three-hour trip down south to do it.

“They deserve a chance to play us at their place, it’s only fair in the scheme of things,” he said. “We felt it was a great game for both of our programs, and it made both of us better.”

The road to a sixth straight medium-schools state crown and 12th straight Northern Lights Conference title will not be easy, as this season may be SoHi’s toughest yet. After tonight’s season-opening clash with West, the Stars play a pair of home contests against Dimond and South Anchorage before heading on the road to Central Point, Oregon, where they will face Crater High School, a Class 5A team in a state that boasts its highest division at 6A, on Sept. 1.

“It’s one of those schedules you look at, there’s no easy weeks,” Brantley Jr. said. “There’s no week we can step back and take a breather.

“If we can get through healthy, we’ll be in good shape.”

On the peninsula, SoHi will find new changes in their old rivals.

Kenai Central has found a new coach in an old place. Former Nikiski stalwart Ted Riddall has risen to take on the helm at Ed Hollier field, representing the third coach in three years for the Kardinals.

Riddall said he was ready to take on the challenge of trying to topple SoHi, something that Kenai hasn’t done since a 2011 playoff victory over the Stars. The last time Kenai beat SoHi in the regular season was 2005.

“SoHi’s great, they’ve established what they’re doing and everybody wants to beat them,” Riddall said. “I know it’s cliche but we’re taking it one game at a time. If we don’t do that, I wouldn’t be doing my job as a coach.”

The five-team Northern Lights Conference sends two squads to the medium-schools state playoffs. The top two seeds in the conference are matched up with the top two from the Southeast Conference. The medium-schools semifinals are scheduled for Oct. 7 at Palmer, where they returned to last fall. The state title game will be Oct. 15 at Palmer.

Like the medium-schools division, the five-team Peninsula Conference also sends two teams to the small-schools state playoffs, matching the top two seeds with the top two from the Aurora Conference. The small-schools state title game is set for Oct. 15 at Palmer.

Homer is getting a new coach as well, one with a lot less Alaska experience, but still with the right pedigree. The Mariners have tasked Oklahoma native Walter Love with head coach duties.

Love will have previous Homer head coach Josh Fraley to help in his new role as defensive coordinator, and said he hopes to bring the Mariners the resources they have been lacking in recent years.

“(Fraley) has been out there trying to do it all himself,” Love said about his new crew. “I’m nowhere near where I want this team to be, but with hard work, these kids can be great.”

Elsewhere, Paul Nelson returns for his second season as head coach at Nikiski and Kelly Cinereski is back for his 11th campaign in Seward.

The following is a closer look at each team:

SOLDOTNA STARS

The numbers are staggering for the Stars, and they continue to build in astonishment each fall. Five straight medium-schools state championships, four straight undefeated seasons, a 49-game win streak that is on the precipice of hitting the golden mark of 50.

But living by their “Pound the Rock” mantra, Brantley Jr. and the Stars are focused on the little things, the details that often go unnoticed but provide crucial structure to creating the juggernaut that SoHi has become.

Brantley Jr. has taken the Stars to four straight undefeated seasons, and his entire tenure, which began in 2007, has resulted in a 97-5 record thus far.

But for all the accolades the team has accomplished, The Streak takes on a whole new perspective when the realization is made that SoHi’s current crop of seniors were entering seventh grade the last time the Stars lost a game in Aug. 2012.

“It all seems really surreal to me,” Brantley Jr. said. “I’ve said this before, but we never started out to get on some kind of streak, it just happened on its own.

“We’ve been lucky along the way, we’ve caught some breaks, managed some big injuries, but it’s a credit to the commitment level of the kids, the administration and the parents.”

While SoHi has tallied victories over West, Dimond and South over previous seasons, the biggest test The Streak will receive could come Sept. 1 in Oregon. Crater High School enrolls over 1,550 students, similar to most high schools in the Anchorage area, and 64 players were out for early season practices, according to the team Facebook page.

In typical fashion, however, Brantley Jr. didn’t offer any implications that SoHi is worried about Crater.

“There are no kids in our program that are talking about playing out of state right now,” he said. “West is the only game on our minds.”

Coming off another 10-0 season, SoHi has most of its key starters back in their vaunted offensive attack. Senior Brandon Crowder returns to lead the offense at quarterback, one year after hitting 49 percent of his throws for 15 touchdowns with only two picks.

Crowder broke his foot in last year’s regular-season finale, forcing the Stars to use their other options. After a slim state semifinal win over North Pole with senior Jace Urban under center, SoHi chose to go with freshman Jersey Truesdell for the state championship against Palmer, which the Stars won 49-13.

Truesdell performed admirably in the biggest game of his life, connecting on a touchdown pass without a single turnover. Brantley Jr. said that while Truesdell will be getting some snaps under center this year, the starting job is completely safe in the hands of Crowder.

Also returning is 2016 NLC Offensive Player of the Year Brenner Furlong, now a senior. Furlong had five touchdown carries and 270 rushing yards in the state title game against Palmer, and capped last spring with a state track and field title in the 400-meter dash.

“Brenner put a great offseason in, had that state championship in track, so I’m excited to see what improvements he’s made,” Brantley Jr. said.

SoHi is also getting back the 2016 NLC Defensive Player of the Year Wendell Tuisuala, who Brantley Jr. called a “force to be reckoned with.”

“He is a 220-plus pound lineman who makes excellent reads, takes good angles to plays and arrives there with a nasty disposition,” he said.

SoHi’s third award recipient, 2016 Lineman of the Year Kyle Marcuson, graduated. So did 6-foot-4 tight end Andy West.

Marcuson and West aren’t the only big pieces gone from the formidable Stars line. SoHi also graduated Bryce Martin, Alex Goodermote and Aseli Finau, but in typical SoHi fashion, the Stars have replacements waiting in the wings.

Offensive tackle Jake Marcuson, center Eli Lovelace and tackle Levi Benner, all seniors, will join Tuisuala on the front line. Marcuson, Lovelace and Benner have varying levels of varsity experience due to past injuries.

Completing the defensive rotation will be Cody Quelland and Furlong at linebacker and Cy Updike and Crowder at the corner positions.

KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS

New coach, old tricks.

The Ted Riddall era at Kenai officially kicks off tonight at 5 p.m. with a scrimmage against his old team Nikiski. Riddall enters this year in replacement of Davis Lowery, who guided Kenai to a 3-5 record in his only year with the school. The Kardinals missed the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

Because the Bulldogs decided to forfeit Friday’s originally scheduled nonconference contest, Kenai will officially start the year 1-0. Kenai’s first official game of the year will be Aug. 19 in North Pole.

The schedule doesn’t get easier from there. Kenai hosts Juneau in Week 3 before settling down with a road game in Eagle River in Week 4. After a road contest against Kodiak in Week 5, Kenai will host large-schools opponent Chugiak before finishing the year with home games against last year’s two title contenders Palmer and Soldotna.

The most recent meeting between Kenai and Nikiski finished with historic applause. As head coach at Nikiski, Riddall led his Bulldogs to a brand-new Ed Hollier Field in August 2013 to help the Kards rededicate the turf. Riddall guided Nikiski to a 16-15 halftime lead, but a key defensive injury led to the Kardinals stomping out the Bulldogs in the second half en route to a 488-yard rushing performance by Kenai running back Jace Daniels that stood as a single-game state record for one year. It still ranks second on the state record list.

Riddall said he hasn’t forgotten that game, but added that game is a perfect example of what losing one player at the small-schools level means.

“As a coach, you want to see your best athletes on field,” Riddall said. “If they go out, it could impact it in a big manner.

“It was one of those days where if your kids could stay on the field, you think you could’ve had a shot at going toe-to-toe with them.”

Riddall said coaching at Kenai will give him a slightly bigger pool of athletes to choose from, and is approaching tonight’s contest as a learning tool, one that he expects will expose the team’s weaknesses, as well as their character.

“We tell our kids, winning and losing on the scoreboard is only part of it,” he said. “If you go and stink it up and win, you still kind of lost.

“We want to see where our improvements need to come from.”

Notorious for burying opponents with an aggressive Wing-T style of offense in his time at Nikiski, Riddall said he doesn’t plan to make drastic changes from the similar scheme the Kards ran last year.

“You kind of have to adapt to the kids,” he said. “You can’t just say this is all I’m going to coach. They’ve had three coaches in three years, that’s difficult too, so we’ve settled in at the Wing-T and see where it goes.”

Riddall said watching games from the sidelines last year proved to be a nice break from the daily grind and pressures that the job brings, but added he’s looking forward to jumping back in and helping out with his team and his two sons in the program, Rykker and Titus.

Riddall said the team is currently heavy with upperclassmen, including 10 seniors and 12 juniors.

Kenai’s depth chart will sport a variety of changes this year. Last year’s senior class included a pair of All-Conference First Team defensive members in lineman Jonathan Delgado and inside linebacker Nick Beeson, as well as utility man Avery Heiber. The Kards also graduated quarterback Chase Gillies, receivers Heiber and Tristan Landry, linemen Craig Garrett, Matthew Zorbas, Jonathan Hawkins and Ryan Williams.

The list of heavy impact players returning includes senior Zack Tuttle, an NLC First-Team wideout and kicker, as well as Rykker Riddall, a First-Team defensive back.

Coach Riddall said junior Conner Felchle will be making his debut this year at quarterback. Felchle has minimal varsity experience under center, but Riddall said he has gotten reps at the JV level over the past two seasons, and expressed confidence that Felchle will fit in well.

“He’s taking a huge step,” Riddall said. “There are kids that have done it and are a little more accustomed to it, and quarterback doesn’t come naturally to all kids.

“But it’s not the most athletic kid all the time (that plays quarterback), it’s the kid that is most knowledgeable and doesn’t fall under pressure.”

Felchle shouldn’t have too much trouble with Tuttle in his huddle. Tuttle led all peninsula schools with 580 receiving yards last year, hauling in four scoring passes along the way and averaging over 21 yards per catch.

Riddall finished second on the team last year with 150 receiving yards, but led the Kards in rushing with 313 yards. Tuttle and Riddall combined for 60 percent of Kenai’s ground game in 2016. Senior James Siamani and junior Tyrone McEnerney will also get their share of carries from the backfield.

Coach Riddall said Felchle will have a stout line in front of him, including senior captains Seth Kruse and Riley Atwood. Joining the pair of captains will be senior Dawson Baker, senior Byron Dunham and junior Bailey Maxson.

HOMER MARINERS

Walter Love, 46, takes over coaching duties in Homer for Fraley, who spent three years at the head coaching post. Love said after living much of his life in Sooners country in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, he feels he can take the Mariners to the next level up in the small-schools division.

“There’s a lot of flex across the peninsula and other teams will have issues that will crop up, and we’ll try to beat you with those issues,” he said about the current landscape in the Peninsula Conference.

After missing out on the small-schools playoffs last fall with a 2-6 record, Homer opens the 2017 season Saturday at 2 p.m. against nonconference opponent Kodiak at home. The Mariners schedule includes a road game against Barrow, home game against Valdez and a trip to Ketchikan at the midpoint of the season. Homer finishes its season with conference games against Seward, Nikiski, Redington and Voznesenka.

In Oklahoma, Love coached at the youth football and eighth- and ninth-grade levels. After showing up in Homer one year ago, he said he was surprised to see the meager shape the Mariners football program was in.

“It was an eye-opener to see the quality of football at this level, the basic tenants of the sport,” he said. “In Oklahoma, it’s always been fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals. When you look at these other schools, you can see that translate to healthy athletes, good athletes and excellent games being won, and I didn’t see that here.

“When the opportunity came, I decided to step in and help out.”

Love spent last year as a shop class teacher at the school, and got to know many of the players on the team through classes he taught. Love said the low turnout rate for the size of the school was not what he expected, and the play was “not up to standard.”

With 26 on the current roster, Love said he hopes to continue building up the lineup as players finish up summer jobs on fishing boats and grade eligibility kicks in.

Love said one of the goals the team set was to finish the year with less than 200 points given up. Last year, Homer allowed 259 points over eight games, meaning the Mariners will have to cut over a full touchdown given up in each game this year.

“If you can keep the other team to four touchdowns, we may be able to beat that,” Love said. “We’ll play some different defensive looks, but we’ll definitely look to keep the scoring low.”

Last year’s 2-6 campaign was doomed with the loss of quarterback Teddy Croft, who made it three weeks before falling with a broken leg in Week 4 against Juneau. Croft had 422 passing yards and a 55 percent completion rate before his season ended, which left senior Jaime Rios to take over under center for the Mariners. Rios finished the year with a 25 percent completion percentage and 10 picks.

This year, Love said quarterback duties will again fall on a healthy Croft, but added that senior Dawson Felde will get snaps as well.

Also returning is junior fullback Noah Fisk, who led the Mariners with 662 rushing yards and eight touchdown runs last year, and senior receiver Joe Ravin, who led the team 475 yards and six scoring catches.

On defense, senior middle linebacker Sean Love will patrol the field along with linebackers Chris Cudaback, Kyle Wells and Jack Heimbold and Fisk and Croft in the defensive secondary.

The line will consist of tackles Levin King, Wells and Austin Dash, with the remaining spots yet to be named.

Croft was announced as offensive team captain this year while Felde will be the special teams captain. The defensive team captain role was given to middle linebacker Sean Love.

SEWARD SEAHAWKS

The defending Peninsula Conference season champions are back to defend their first conference crown, beginning Saturday with a home game against Valdez at 2 p.m.

The Seahawks won their first outright conference title last fall with a 5-3 record, beating Nikiski 22-8 in the regular season finale to clinch it. Seward had shared the former Greatland Conference in 2001 with Nikiski, but 2016 was the first outright title they have held.

“It was big for the seniors,” said head coach Kelly Cinereski. “It was big for the program. Nikiski’s always a good team.”

After an 0-3 start to the year, Seward had to earn it. The Seahawks went on a five-game winning tear to finish the season and wrap up the crown, including wins over Homer, Monroe and Nikiski.

Now in his 11th year as head football coach in Seward, Cinereski is looking for a repeat, but said defending the conference crown will be tough after the loss of several key seniors.

“We lost 12 seniors,” Cinereski said. “For a school our size, that’s a lot.”

Cinereski said the team currently has 17 on its roster, but he hopes to boost that number up to 26 or so by the midseason point.

Gone from last year’s team is quarterback Nik Pahno, tight end Rhett Sieverts and fullback Nick Woodard.

Cinereski said he has gotten seven kids turning out for football that have never played at the game in their life.

“We’ll push really strong to have a good program,” he said. “Those main ball carriers have played, it’s not like it’s their first time, but we’re going to be OK.

“The goal is not to get anybody hurt.”

Stepping up this year to the quarterback spot is junior Chris Kingsland. Cinereski said Kingsland will have a variety of backfield teammates that will get carries, including junior Beau Freiberg, senior Brandon Lynch, junior Gage Schrock and sophomore Shayne Sullivan.

Cinereski said he expects a rise in players coming in off summer fishing jobs and grade checks that will hopefully have the team humming by midseason.

Until then, he hopes the Seahawks can weather the storm in August. Seward’s schedule includes a pair of early challenges against Eielson and Houston, the two defending state championship contenders, in Weeks 2 and 3.

“I think Eielson is ranked No. 5 in all the state,” Cinereski said.

From there, Seward’s slate gets a little more reasonable, as the Seahawks get Homer, Redington, Monroe and Voznesenka in succession.

“I tell them to take it one week at a time,” he said. “The goal right now is Valdez, then it’s Eielson, then Houston. I tell the kids focus on what they can do, what they can do to make themselves better and improve.”

NIKISKI BULLDOGS

Last year, the Bulldogs finished 4-4 and missed out on the small-schools championship tilt for the first time since 2010, ending a five-year run of title appearances that former coach Ted Riddall helped bring to the program as head coach.

Second-year coach Paul Nelson said he wants to keep the Bulldogs trending in the right direction.

“I don’t really look at this as rebounding from last season,” Nelson said. “There were a lot of positives that came out of last year. … I’m just looking to rebuild off that and looking to keep going.”

Unfortunately, a lower turnout meant the Bulldogs had to forfeit their opening nonconference game of the season to Kenai, opting instead to hold a scrimmage tonight at 5 p.m. at Kenai. Nelson said the team is currently at about 22 to 24 players, with a few more expected to show up soon.

“We’re just too thin to give (Kenai) a game,” he said.

Nikiski boosted their standing in 2016 with a four-game win streak through the middle portion of the campaign, but ended with consecutive losses to Eielson and Seward to drop to the second playoff seed out of the Peninsula Conference.

The Bulldogs will play their first official game of the year at home against Monroe, then take to the road against medium-schools opponent Ketchikan.

Nikiski won’t see defending state champions Eielson until Week 7, which Nelson hopes by then will see the Bulldogs humming.

“They’re the defending state champions, and they’re going to be those guys until someone beats them in a state championship,” Nelson said. “They’re well-coached, they run their stuff sharp, they know what they’re doing.

“Historically have good speed, so it’s about getting a block on the edge, and it’s see you later.”

Nelson said the program has experimented with adding another defensive lineman on the edge this year in hopes of containing opposing offense, which they will need in full force against the speedy Eielson backfield.

On offense, the Bulldogs are a changed unit. Gone from last year are running backs Patrick Perry and Matthew Minium, who combined for 882 rushing yards, or 93 percent of the team’s ground game.

However, returning to the team is quarterback Ian Johnson, who enters his senior year as capable as any Nikiski player out there. Johnson will also serve as a linebacker on defense.

“I expect great things,” Nelson said. “He’s worked hard in the weight room, attended a lot of camps, a few out of state, so he’s a smart kid. He knows what he’s doing.”

Joining Johnson in the backfield will be junior receiver Cody Handley, who served as the team’s second option behind Perry last year and averaged over 17 yards a catch. Nelson said Handley will also see time as a tight end and wing back as well.

The two returning starters on the front line are junior center Dustin Mullins and senior guard Tyler Litke.

Nelson said the team goals include winning back the top seed from the conference the Seward took from them last year. The No. 1 seed from the Peninsula Conference matches up with the No. 2 seed from the Aurora Conference, and with Eielson pegged as the favorite to win the Aurora’s top honor, Nelson would like to avoid the Ravens in the semis.

“We wanted that last year,” he said. “Instead, we had to go up to Fairbanks and meet Eielson.

“Everyone is very against doing that again.”

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