In their search of a sixth straight state football championship, the Soldotna Stars will have to rely on a deep roster and a slew of playoff experience.
It’s what’s gotten them here before, and it will have to be what pushes them over the hungry Palmer Moose.
“Palmer’s the hunter,” said a focused Galen Brantley Jr. on Wednesday afternoon during football practice. “It’s nice being the hunter.”
In a rematch of last year’s title bout, the Stars and Moose will meet 3 p.m. Saturday at Machetanz Field in Palmer to decide the Division II champion.
Brantley Jr. has guided the Stars to a astonishing 106-5 record in his 11-plus years as head coach, and has coached SoHi in a state championship game all but one of those seasons.
Even with the annual success, Brantley Jr. said it can be difficult to keep the mood relaxed and the practice vibes where they typically are.
“It’s anything but normal,” he said. “It creates problems for them you didn’t even know existed.”
At 9-0 this year and 58-0 over the past five, SoHi is an obvious favorite to win it again, but Palmer, like every opponent that the Stars face these days, is hungry to break The Streak. Palmer is the last team to have beaten Soldotna, in the 2012 season opener.
Plus, the Moose may feel a bit shortchanged when it comes to outside observers making the call on who may win. Palmer got off to a slow start this year with a heavy schedule against several of the state’s top teams, including North Pole and Colony, that left the Moose 1-4 and out of the weekly rankings.
Brantley Jr. said staying focused and prepared for any challenge is what has kept SoHi’s record streak going, and the team will need to double down this weekend.
“You just have to avoid complacency, which creates selfishness,” he said. “We have to be ready to play physical.”
Leading the team as signal-caller, senior Brandon Crowder has heard the call to keep The Streak going at least one more game, but said the team has brushed the pressure aside as the wins have piled up.
“We just put it all aside and not talk about it,” he said in between drills at Wednesday’s practice.
Crowder is experienced and playoff-tested, but last year missed the postseason after an injury in Week 8 against Kenai Central ruled him out.
In his place went senior Jace Urban, who started the state semifinal against North Pole with very limited varsity experience at QB and had trouble under center with five fumbled balls, three that went for turnovers.
The sloppy semifinal led to Brantley Jr. naming then freshman Jersey Truesdell the starter for the championship finale against Palmer.
Facing a similar Palmer team two years in a row will make things tough for the Stars, Brantley Jr. said.
“That was a different kind of adversity,” Brantley Jr. said about last year’s challenge against the Moose. “Last year we were panicking.
“We’re certainly not panicking this time.”
As the fastest coach to 100 career wins, Brantley Jr. is facing a true rival across the field. Palmer head coach Rod Christiansen moved by Alaska coaching icon Buck Nystrom this fall when he became the all-time winningest coach in state history with a win over Kenai Central Sept. 23. The victory, his 151st, cemented Christiansen’s status as a coaching legend, and the Palmer stalwart now owns 153 heading into Saturday’s game.
Brantley Jr. said Christiansen’s Palmer squads always play the Stars tough, and it was one of SoHi’s toughest games this season that showed how talented Palmer could be.
SoHi prevailed 28-10 in a conference meeting with Palmer Sept. 8, but had to sweat it out as the Moose trailed by just four points at the start of the fourth quarter.
Crowder hit Galen Brantley III for an early touchdown pass, then ran in two more himself, finishing the day with a team-high 78 rushing yards.
Crowder said Palmer’s trio of running backs — Larry Cutsforth, Jeff Glynn and Jared Oviok — all bring something different to the table, and the way the Moose kept their regular-season meeting with SoHi close was by gutting the SoHi defense with hard-earned yards and sitting on the ball to drain the clock. Cutsforth had 101 yards himself that day.
“They’re a hard, downhill-running team,” Crowder explained.
This fall, Crowder has stayed healthy to post a 47 percent completion rate and 11 touchdown passes to four picks. Crowder has also scored five touchdowns on his feet this year, a key component with a changing offensive line in front of him.
Getting snaps from a 6-foot-6, 305-pound center Eli Lovelace has been a dream, Crowder said, as the big man gives opposing defenses trouble with QB protection and by making holes for the SoHi runners to streak through.
“We’re just an execution team,” Crowder said. “We want to run our game against Palmer and run the ball down their throats.”
In an out-of-state Week 4 clash against Crater (Oregon) High School, the Stars fell victim to the injury bug with the loss of Lovelace, who went down in the first half with a knee injury.
Lovelace returned in Week 7 and said he is anticipating a big challenge from Palmer.
“I’m bigger than them,” Lovelace said. “I can handle them.”
Another beneficiary of the ferocious offensive line is senior Brenner Furlong, who was recently named NLC Offensive Player of the Year. Furlong averaged 151 yards rushing per game this year thanks to a year-round fitness regimen and the precision of the front line, which also helped him pile up 16 touchdowns. Last week against North Pole in the semifinal round, Furlong tallied four scoring runs.
“He’s one of the fastest kids I’ve ever known,” Lovelace said.
Crowder added that Furlong is as talented a runner that he has ever played with, and that is a list that includes former NLC Offensive Player of the Year and SoHi star Drew Gibbs, who now competes at Division II Northern State University (South Dakota).
“Drew was one of the best of them,” Crowder said. “Brenner is up there with him.”
With two closely matched teams going head-to-head Saturday, SoHi’s “pound the rock” mantra is likely to get one of its greatest tests.
“It’s going to be who wants it more,” Lovelace said.