There are no warm-up games when it comes to Alaska high school football.
Week 1 of the 2010 prep season features a postseason rematch from last year and a Northern Lights Conference matchup. The former includes Nikiski hosting Homer at 1 p.m. Saturday while Skyview travels to defending small-schools state champion Kenai for an NLC game at 2 p.m. Saturday. Last year's small-schools runner-up Soldotna hosts Wasilla today at 6:30 p.m.
The Mariners notched a 24-15 playoff win over the Bulldogs before falling to SoHi in the small-schools semifinals last season. Homer also blanked Nikiski 27-0 to open the 2009 regular-season campaign.
Saturday's game will be used to measure Nikiski, said Bulldogs head coach Ted Riddall. He said the playoff game was hard-fought and he would like to see the same effort put forth this weekend.
"I'm hoping to start where we left off," he said.
After graduating 14 seniors, Homer head coach Camron Wyatt is out to prove the Mariners are still competitive.
"Our goal is to show that our program is solid," he said. "It's gonna be a struggle."
But Wyatt said the team is optimistic.
"We know we're competitive," he said. "Our program is healthy enough to continue to build a team year after year."
Wyatt said building team unity and fine-tuning Homer's game will be important early in the season.
Skyview at Kenai
Though Kenai volunteer assistant coach and media liaison Jim Beeson isn't used to opening the season with a conference game, he's not complaining.
"That's how it goes," Beeson said. "You just play them where they're at."
He said the team must rely on its summer practices early in the season.
"You have to count on what you did during the summer," he said. "Hopefully we'll build upon that and have a good year."
Skyview will use the game as a measuring stick, said Panthers head coach Eric Pomerleau.
"It will be a real good test," he said. "We're hoping to be able to match their execution and intensity."
The summer went well for SkyHi, Pomerleau said.
"We had a good off-season," he said. "The kids really worked hard throughout the winter and the spring and things are really starting to come together."
Wasilla at SoHi
The Warriors will provide a tough season-opening opponent, Stars head coach Galen Brantley Jr. said.
"They spread you out and throw the ball all over the place," he said. "We're gonna have a heck of a challenge this week."
Finding a way to shut down, or at least disrupt, Wasilla's Division I prospect, David Green, will be challenging, Brantley Jr. said.
"We're gonna have to figure out a way to handle him," he said.
For the most part, SoHi is only worried about itself.
"Early in the season we're just trying to become as good a team as we can," Brantley Jr. said. "We are really focusing on us and the things that we do and the attitudes that we have. Hopefully that focus on us will make a difference for our kids and our program this year."
Here's a look at this year's local teams:
The Kardinals have a solid nucleus of returners, but perhaps none more important than junior quarterback AJ Hull.
"On offense, it starts with AJ," Beeson said. "Everything is gonna go through AJ."
As a sophomore, Hull led the Kards in the title game with 142 passing yards and a touchdown, while rushing for 67 yards and a touchdown. He was also named player of the game.
Hull has grown in the off-season, which will help his game, Beeson said.
"He's gonna continue to get better and better," he said.
Richie Ziehmer and Kyle Rogers are other key returners, Beeson said.
"Defensively, those two are huge, huge people for us," he said. "They're leaders on both sides of the ball."
Beeson said SoHi will be the team to beat.
"Everybody lost a lot of people to graduation, but Soldotna will always be the favorite," he said.
SoHi is solid at the skilled positions and has question marks at the line, while the opposite is true for Kenai, Beeson said.
Beeson expects Kenai, SoHi, Kodiak and Eielson to all have good football teams.
"On any given day, anybody can beat anybody," he said.
The Kards have enough returners to be competitive, but need players to fill bigger roles than they did last year, Beeson said.
"We have the potential to be a good football team, but we are one injury away from being a mediocre football team as well," he said. "If we have anybody get hurt, we might be in a world of trouble."
Jeff Baker returns for his second year as head coach of Kenai.
Just five starters from last year are returning this season for the Stars.
"It will definitely be a bit of a rebuilding year with a lot of new faces," said Brantley Jr. "We have a long road ahead of us to, as athletes, develop an identity as a team. We've got to prove ourselves."
He said some of last year's junior varsity team, which finished with a 7-1 record, will need to fill the voids left by those that graduated.
The senior captains, Dakota Elsey, Tate Syverson, Robbie Smithwick and Philip Bennett, are all key returners, Brantley Jr. said. Garrett Bosick rounds out SoHi's returning starters.
Brantley Jr. said he's seen great leadership from his captains this season.
"It's a great group of kids," he said. "The work ethic is there. We're working very hard to develop that culture of hard work."
Tailback Braden Price will not be with the team as he moved to Michigan.
"He'll be a tough kid to replace, but we have other kids that are ready to step up and fill the void," Brantley Jr. said.
The Stars will continue to use multiple ballcarriers in their offensive system, which uses deception and several running backs to hide the ball.
"Same system, new faces," Brantley Jr. said.
Brantley Jr. said losing the state championship last year taught SoHi a valuable lesson: The team with the most talent doesn't always win. For now the team is focused on itself and what it needs to do for success, he said.
Fourteen of last year's 22 starters return for second-year head coach Pomerleau. Most of the team is comprised of juniors -- 17 of the 22 starters -- with just five seniors.
In the off-season, Pomerleau encouraged his team to participate in spring sports. Several SkyHi football players made up this year's boys winning team at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Track Meet.
"We like them to compete year-round," Pomerleau said. "We saw some success in track and hopefully it will carry over into football this year."
Quarterback Jordan Jones will lead the team's offense and linebacker Vlad Ferderer is the defensive leader, Pomerleau said.
Kenai and SoHi remain the top teams, Pomerleau said.
"Until they get knocked off, they start the next year as the teams to beat and what everybody else is trying to measure up to," he said.
Pomerleau's goals include improving each week and making the playoffs. Should the Panthers accomplish the latter, it would be the first time making the postseason since moving to the small-schools large-schools format.
Having so many returners has made preparing for the season much easier, Pomerleau said.
"It's amazing how much faster you can move along," he said. "They're able to just get into it and go."
Quarterback Colton Anderson returns to lead the Bulldogs on offense.
"He's gonna be a big factor in what we're doing," Riddall said.
Kaden Spurgeon, Lincoln Johnson and Garrett Coreson are other key returners, Riddall said.
With a young team last season, Riddall said he'll look to build on that experience. He said Nikiski should be as good if not better than last year. Homer knocked Nikiski out of the first round of the playoffs, 24-15.
"We're hoping to push through and maybe win a conference championship," Riddall said. "Things will have to go pretty well for us to have that happen."
He said Eielson is typically solid and Seward has athleticism. Barrow and Valdez are less predictable, Riddall said.
"Numbers is always key," he said.
This year Nikiksi has about 50 players on the team.
"That will help us late in football games," Riddall said.
Riddall is teaching his squad to approach the game with a one-play-at-a-time mentality in order to simplify it, he said.
"You have to win the play before you win the game," Riddall said.
If the team stays healthy, it should have success, he said. Having the same coaching staff back is another positive for the Bulldogs, Riddall said.
The "Midget Mafia" might need a new nickname.
The Mariners, which were referred to as the "Midget Mafia" last year due to their small size, have added 850 pounds to the team with three players. Ninilchik's Trevor Steik, a 6-foot-4, 350-pound sophomore, joins the team via ASAA's amended Cooperative Schools Program bylaws, which were altered in April. The new rules state that any school with fewer than 451 students may co-op with another school with fewer than 451 students for team sports so long as one school does not have sufficient numbers to field a team.
Senior Richard Munoz, 6-foot-4, 300 pounds, transfered to Homer from California. At 6-foot-8, 200 pounds, Mariners basketball player Devon Kennelty rounds out Homer's big three. While the team has added size, it still resembles last year's team with smaller players and quickness, Wyatt said.
The Mariners rode a skinny playbook of just five plays all the way to the small-schools semifinals last year. This season, Wyatt said he's looking to expand the field.
"We're hoping we have a team where we can go north, south, east and west," he said.
Key returners include Ross Kalke, Cody Shealy, Mitch Wyatt and Jonathan Jester, Wyatt said.
Due to graduating 14 seniors, much of the team hasn't played together, Wyatt said.
"The big challenge for us as a small school is can we get together as a team early on in the season," he said. "Teamwork and communication are going to be the critical elements for us this year."
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