Whether or not the rest of Alaska wants to accept it, the Soldotna football program keeps pounding away at the rock.
Led by a cast of experienced stars and fresh faces, the Stars captured their 50th consecutive win Friday night at a soggy West Anchorage football field with a dominating 21-0 nonconference victory over the Eagles to extend their Alaska state record, a streak that dates back five years.
What must make opponents quake in their cleats is the team’s continued success in raising up younger talent. While the senior leaders that have the most experience on the team got their fair share of the ball, the game’s biggest plays were made by some of the newest varsity members.
On offense, sophomore Aaron Faletoi led the Stars with 121 yards on 15 carries and put an exclamation point on the night by scoring the game’s two final touchdowns.
“I’m thanking (Brantley) and the team for giving me the opportunity,” Faletoi said. “All I can ask for is to believe in God and he gave me the opportunity for this today.”
And on defense, junior Cy Updike reeled off two highlight plays, one in the first quarter when he hauled in an interception on West quarterback Qyntyn Pilcher, and one in the fourth quarter when he got his fingers on a long fourth-down pass to the endzone that surely looked like was going in for a game-tying touchdown.
Instead, Updike’s tipped incompletion forced a turnover on downs that gave SoHi the ball at midfield and in position to put the game away.
“I was beat to begin with,” Updike said about chasing West receiver A.J. Su’esu’e. “I just had to go back to fundamentals and get my eyes back on the receiver, try to track him and do the best with what I had.”
After getting limited varsity snaps last year, both Faletoi and Updike were making just their second career varsity start each on Friday, making head coach Galen Brantley Jr. quite proud of the continued development of the program.
“For Cy to come out of nowhere and make that play … to me, that was the play of the game,” Brantley Jr. said. “It wiped six off the board, it was going to be a touchdown.
Brantley Jr. lauded both Updike and Faletoi for their breakout games, adding that Faletoi could be one of SoHi’s best by the time he graduates, high praise by someone who has sent off several college players.
“Aaron doesn’t know how good Aaron can be,” Brantley Jr. said. “I think he has the potential to be one of the best players we’ve ever had in our building.”
2016 Northern Lights Conference Offensive Player of the Year Brenner Furlong flashed some early-season muscle by eating up 96 yards on a team-high 20 carries.
Overall, SoHi rushed 50 times — like their win streak — for 255 yards, while holding West to 58 total yards of offense, most of that through the air.
Senior quarterback Brandon Crowder threw a touchdown pass but also two picks in his first game back from a broken foot sustained last season. Crowder connected on 3 of 10 passes for 22 yards.
Faletoi’s breakout party on varsity didn’t come easy. The sophomore was relegated to the sideline early in the first half after getting knocked down on a big hit. Faletoi was checked out for a concussion but was given the green light to return later in the second quarter following a lengthy absence.
“I was rocked,” Faletoi said. “But my team motivated me to come back. They pumped me up, and things changed.”
After combining for 79 points last year in a football game that resembled a track race, the Stars and Eagles found it much more difficult in reaching the endzone Friday as a relentless rain fell, but the intensity remained high.
“Any game like this is fun,” Updike said. “A high-pressure game like this is good.”
After trading punts and turnovers in the early going, SoHi finally put together a long drive that ate up 68 yards and most of the second quarter. The mammoth 16-play possession featured two fourth-down conversions, including a crucial fourth-and-12 play in Eagles territory that was preceded by a SoHi false start penalty. Crowder rolled out of the pocket and hit sophomore Jersey Truesdell in stride for a 16-yard pickup to keep the drive alive.
Eventually, Crowder connected with Cody Quelland on a third-down fade toss to the endzone to put SoHi up 7-0, a lead that lasted to the halftime break.
After matching each other with short punt possessions in the third quarter, SoHi finally began to break West down with another long drive, this one going 50 yards to the West 27-yard line, but ending with a Crowder interception by West senior Savon Bell, who returned it to midfield.
The ensuing Eagles possession finally gave the home squad some life, as West drove down to field-goal territory but found itself starting at a long fourth down from 34 yards out.
Although he got beat on the route, Updike had enough hop in his step to reach up and graze the football that was on a trajectory into the hands of Su’esu’e for a sure game-tying touchdown.
Instead, the pass was tipped incomplete and SoHi took over with nearly the entirety of the fourth quarter to play.
“Our defense was on today,” Updike said. “Our coverage was good, our linebackers were playing good, and the line was getting good pressure on the quarterback.
“Once we get rolling, it’s on.”
Su’esu’e got his revenge when he picked off Crowder on the third play of the next Stars possession, but three incompletions by Pilcher forced West to turn it over on downs again.
From there, SoHi traversed 48 yards on three sweeping plays by Faletoi and Furlong, and on the fourth play, Faletoi burst into the endzone to put SoHi up 14-0 with just over eight minutes to go.
The final minutes of the game saw 2016 NLC Defensive Player of the Year Wendell Tuisuala recover a West fumble on a bad pitch, which set up Faletoi for another touchdown run to effectively ice the game.
Stars 21, Eagles 0
Soldotna 0 7 0 14 —21
West 0 0 0 0 —0
Sol — Quelland 3 pass from Crowder (Sheridan kick), 3:25
Sol — Faletoi 1 run (Sheridan kick), 8:05
Sol — Faletoi 9 run (Sheridan kick), 4:00
First Downs 15 4
Rushing yds 50-255 10-4
Pass yds 22 54
Comp-Att-Int 3-10-2 13-30-1
Return yds 8 142
Punts 4 5
Fumbles-lost 2-0 2-0
Penalties 2-15 3-19
Rushing — Soldotna: Faletoi 15-121, Furlong 20-96, Crowder 10-19, Quelland 4-19, Updike 1-0. West:
Passing — Soldotna: Crowder 3-10-2—22. West: Pilcher 13-29-1—54, Mendoza 0-1-0—0.
Receiving — Soldotna: Brantley III 1-16, Furlong 1-3, Quelland 1-3. West: Su’esu’e 5-31, Bell 5-(-4), Gladney 2-22, Martinez 1-5.