By the time the North Pole Patriots got moving in their state semifinal rematch against Soldotna, it was too late.
As is the case for many of their foes these days, the Stars overpowered a talented North Pole squad Saturday afternoon in the ASAA First National Bank state semifinals at Machetanz Field in Palmer. SoHi punched its ticket to the Division II state title game with a 35-12 victory over North Pole.
It’s the sixth straight year the Stars (9-0 overall) will appear in the Division II championship, a state record.
“It says we have some very dedicated kids that have given their blood, sweat and tears to make this happen,” said Soldotna head coach Galen Brantley Jr. “We have great parents and assistant coaches that help us.”
The win matched SoHi up with Palmer for the Division II state crown next Saturday at 3 p.m. at Palmer High School. The title game is a rematch of last year’s championship, which SoHi won 49-13. The Moose won Saturday’s other state semi 28-7 over Thunder Mountain.
Saturday’s triumph was also the 58th in the state-record win streak the Stars own.
SoHi ran off almost 400 rushing yards against the Patriots, led by senior Brenner Furlong’s 225 yards. Furlong gutted the North Pole defense with four touchdowns runs of 57, 42, 2 and 19 yards.
“It’s all our offensive line,” Furlong explained. “They open the holes, and I can’t believe they do it.”
Furlong’s praise of the offensive line — consisting of Galen Brantley III, Levi Benner, Wendell Tuisuala, Eli Lovelace, Brennen Werner, Jake Marcuson and Hudson Metcalf — also highlighted the coaching prowess of Brantley Jr. and coordinators Phil Leck and Eric Pomerleau.
Furlong added that with state-record win and championship streaks on the line, every team the Stars face rolls out its best game plan, and North Pole, which nearly toppled SoHi in last year’s semifinal, nearly matched the Stars with total first downs, 16 to 14.
“It says that every team, they want to beat SoHi,” Furlong said. “If I was Palmer, I’d want to break our streak.”
Palmer had a realistic shot at beating Soldotna earlier this season before falling 28-10 in the Valley.
Tuisuala was playing in his second game back after sustaining a midseason injury, but dominated the field as if he never left with a barrage of defensive tackles that stifled the Patriots offensive game plan.
“It was pretty physical,” Tuisuala said. “But it feels great to be out there. I just try to do it for my teammates and my coaches.”
While SoHi built up a 14-0 lead on touchdown runs from Aaron Faletoi and Furlong on its first two possessions, North Pole struggled to make up any ground and punted three straight times.
Following a 42-yard scoring rampage by Furlong that pushed SoHi’s lead to 21-0 with 3:38 left in the first half, the Patriots finally woke up when Bradley Antesberger began to get carries. Antesberger, who finished with a team-high 80 rushing yards, picked up 31 yards and two first downs on a 49-yard drive, helping North Pole get to the SoHi 22.
Any momentum that North Pole had built up was immediately wiped away when Patriots quarterback Craig Borba tossed up a shot to the end zone and Stars defensive back Sam McElroy snagged a game-changing interception to extinguish North Pole’s drive.
“That was a big interception to keep them off the board,” Brantley Jr. said.
Borba, a burly QB listed as 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, finished the day 10 for 24 and 118 passing yards and was continually harassed by the SoHi D-line. Borba was brought down for a sack on the first snap of the day by Benner, then twice more in the first half by Faletoi and Zach Hanson.
SoHi received the ball for the second half and moved 65 yards in 10 plays to score on a 2-yard plunge by Furlong, pushing the lead to 28-0.
As the game shifted to the final quarter, the Patriots came alive yet again, starting with a 10-play drive that finished with North Pole’s first points of the day on a 22-yard bomb from Borba to Jamie Johnson.
However, SoHi answered with a big 30-yard return and subsequent 15-yard North Pole penalty that made for an easy TD drive. Furlong scored from 19 yards out for his fourth TD of the day.
The Patriots responded accordingly with a behemoth 15-play drive that included two fourth-down conversions, but time ran out for a serious threat of a comeback.
Stars 35, Patriots 12
North Pole 0 0 0 12 —12
Soldotna 7 14 7 7 —35
Sol — Faletoi 2 run (Sheridan kick), 2:09
Sol — Furlong 57 run (Sheridan kick), 11:48
Sol — Furlong 42 run (Sheridan kick), 3:38
Sol — Furlong 2 run (Sheridan kick), 8:14
NP — Johnson 22 pass from Borba (pass failed), 9:45
Sol — Furlong 19 run (Sheridan kick), 8:17
NP — Gaines 1 run (run failed), 4:35
First downs 16 14
Rushing 44-398 43-180
Pass yards 43 118
Total yards 441 298
Comp-att-int 4-11-0 10-24-1
Return yards 48 72
Punts 2 5
Fumbles-lost 2-1 0-0
Penalties-yards 7-75 11-70
Rushing — Soldotna: Furlong 15-225, Quelland 7-68, Faletoi 13-75, Crowder 4-2, Hieber 3-25, Medcoff 1-3, Johnson 1-0. North Pole: Antesberger 13-80, Borba 6-(-7), Fontana 12-31, Plunk 2-0, Kirven 7-63, Gaines 3-13.
Passing — Soldotna: Crowder 4-11-0—43. North Pole: Borba 10-24-1—118.
Receiving — Soldotna: Brantley 2-31, Metcalf 1-9, Furlong 1-3. North Pole: Johnson 5-85, Kirven 2-10, Antesberger 1-17, Stewart 1-2, Lovett 1-4.