It’s been a year of firsts for high school football in Homer. Why not add one more?
Since Alaska’s smallest division of prep football became a realigned entity in 2011, the state championship hardware case has featured just two teams, Nikiski and Eielson, with four crowns going to Eielson and two to Nikiski.
This season, a new champion will emerge at the Division III level, and it is guaranteed to be a championship quencher.
In last week’s semifinal round, Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow) defeated the Nikiski Bulldogs and Homer prevailed over the three-time defending state champion Eielson Ravens.
Homer and Utqiagvik will meet for the Division III state crown 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Machetanz Field in Palmer, the first time the two teams will meet with a championship on the line.
Homer fans will be able to watch a live showing at the Homer Theater. Doors open at 10:45 a.m. and a $2 donation is suggested.
Both the Homer and Utqiagvik football programs have never won state championships in their history. In fact, only the Whalers have made a Division III state final appearance, in 2011 when they lost 52-21 to Nikiski.
Homer is in its third season competing at the Division III level after spending the previous four years at Division II. The Mariners lost to Soldotna in the 2012 Division II championship 62-20, and since then, it’s been a rocky road.
“We knew coming into this season that it was not going to be easy,” said first-year head coach Walter Love. “We had talent, but there was a lot of fundamentals and conditioning to work on. We just worked hard, put the right coaches and the right time in place.”
In its playoff history, Homer has few appearances. Highlights included a quarterfinal win over Nikiski in 2009 at the former small-school level and consecutive Division II championship game losses in 2011 and 2012 to Kenai Central and Soldotna, respectively.
Homer enters Saturday’s title clash after the best season in program history. The Mariners (8-1 overall) finished with one loss in the regular season, against Kodiak in Week 1, which was followed by a current eight-game win streak that has extended to the playoffs. In last week’s semifinal round, Homer ousted three-time defending champions Eielson on home turf.
It’s been a remarkable turnaround for Homer, which finished with just two wins in 2016, a season marred by several key injuries that hampered the Mariners’ hopes.
Enter Walter Love, who arrived in Homer before the 2016 school year from Oklahoma. Love took over the reigns this season and helped turn around the fortunes of the team with a philosophy of steady preseason conditioning and fundamental work.
“It’s easy to have 22 players on a team,” Love explained. “But unless you have the right mojo, it’s hard to have that many players that are part of a team.
“They understand they’re part of this magnificent machine that wins games week in and out, and it’s because of that belief in each other.”
Homer’s rapid rise back to the top of the field has been marked by a big turnover of faces in players and coaches. The lone holdout from the 2012 Homer squad that played in the Division II (formerly medium-schools) championship game is assistant Josh Fraley, who served as Homer head coach the past four years.
Love said Fraley’s presence on the sideline has kept the Mariners trending upward. After the season-opening loss to Kodiak, Homer ripped off seven straight wins to finish the year as conference champs, including four defensive shutouts against conference foes in the final four weeks.
Saturday will be Love’s first time coaching in a championship game.
With Utqiagvik standing in its way of a first state title in school history, Homer will have to buckle down and run the ball against a “big and physical” team, Love said.
“I think it’s perseverance and toughness,” he said. “The team that can persevere and weather the storm will win. We’ve got to play four quarters of football and never give up.”
In a 26-14 win over Utqiagvik on Aug. 19, the Mariners made the most of their rushing game with 288 rushing yards on 33 carries. Noah Fisk cashed in big with 135 yards on just 12 carries, meaning Fisk was moving the chains on average with every touch of the ball.
Love said after taking a licking from the Whalers in recent years, he wanted to prove a point that the Mariners could play with the best of Division III schools.
“I wanted to show them and the rest of the conference that we’re here and for real,” he said.
Even after the Week 2 win over the Whalers, Love said he still did not feel the respect from opponents until well into the season. It was just last week when Homer toppled the winners of the last three state championships, the Eielson Ravens, in a semifinal clash.
“I think people still thought we were a flash in the pan, a bunch of cupcakes,” Love said.
In that game, Love said he opened his playbook to keep Eielson off its feet, but added he still has a few tricks up his sleeve.
“Pure joy,” Love said about seeing his players overcome the Ravens. “Just to see their faces, as a coach, a father and a teacher … to see the relief, the joy, the payment for the hard work to come back and settle in. It was just pure joy.”
With quarterback Teddy Croft likely to get the start Saturday — Love said it’ll be closer to game time when that decision is made — Homer is as close to wrangling in that elusive state title as it’s ever been.
Croft has been exceptional under center with a 54 percent completion rate and 12 touchdown passes to zero picks, numbers that helped him earn Peninsula Conference Offensive Player of the Year.
Croft has been backed by Dawson Felde, who has shared QB duties with a 60 percent completion rate and eight scoring passes. Together, Croft and Felde have combined for 1,185 passing yards this year.