Prep football set to kick off

Posted: Friday, August 08, 2008

Camron Wyatt's response was mixed.

On the one hand, he was shocked when asked about the alterations made to the Northern Lights and Greatland Conference playoff formats, with four teams from each side now advancing to the postseason rather than the traditional two -- the structure since large and small schools were divided in 2000.

"I'm really surprised that was the route it went," the Homer football coach said.

He also was thrilled, though, believing teams such as his Mariners squad and other smaller schools are now provided a glimmer of hope of qualifying for the playoffs.

"That's awesome. Either way. What the heck? Why not let the kids play?" he asked. "To be honest with you, let these smaller teams get a chance to go in there and get a chance to play in the postseason. It's not going to hurt anything."

Except perhaps the highly touted schools, such as Soldotna, Kenai and Kodiak, which now have to battle through three rounds of playoffs before being crowned state champs.

Second-year Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. doesn't seem to mind, either, considering he authored the proposal, which he said passed by an 11-3 or 11-4 vote at the region meeting. "It makes for more of a celebration of football in our state," he explained. "It's kind of an exclusive group of teams that have been garnering those four playoff spots.

"The playoffs are like anything else, you get in and anything can happen," he added. "Those kids at Skyview and Homer deserve to be in the playoffs just as much as North Pole and Wasilla and Palmer. It just made sense."

Some may reason, however, that the financial commitment may not be worth it, with the possibility of a fourth-place team from the Kenai Peninsula traveling to Fairbanks to take on what appears to be the Greatland favorite, Eielson, in the new quarterfinal round, and losing by perhaps as many as 40 points.

"For a lot of programs," Brantley said, "it was worth the risk."

Homer is one of them.

A team that finished at 5-3 overall last season and 2-3 in the NLC, losing only to Kodiak, Kenai and SoHi, would have earned the fourth berth had this plan been in place last fall, although Houston replaces Ketchikan this year, while Monroe joins the GLC.

"If I have to put on those shoes at the end of the season, I know that my families are going to have to raise $4,000 to $5,000 dollars to get those boys up to Eielson," Wyatt reasoned. "Some people say that's a lot of money. I would venture to say to them if the families are willing to raise that money to get those boys up there, then we should go up there and play with all we can muster up.

"That's going to be a barnburning game. Not just because it's a postseason game, but all the investment from all the people," he added. "On any given day a team that works hard and is committed can make miracles happen."

Citing Kodiak, a team many coaches picked to contend for the NLC title, and Barrow, as running examples of how communities can rally behind a team, Wyatt said it not only boosts the morale of the squads, but of the schools and areas as well.

"There's a perfect example in Alaska football of how people are committed and they will find ways to support those kids and allow them to attain their goals," he said. "There's a big difference between playing a regular season game and a postseason game. The energy's there. There's more marbles there.

"The schools start buzzing and the fans get crazylike and that's a good feeling," Wyatt added. "It allows the kids to experience what coaches would call a real competitive environment."

Kenai coach Jim Beeson, entering his 19th season at the helm of the Kardinals and unaware the playoff proposal had passed, views it from both perspectives.

His team, too, would have advanced to the playoffs last season after finishing third in the NLC at 3-2, losing only to Soldotna and Kodiak, the latter by one point when his team went for two and failed in the final minutes.

"From the kids' standpoint, it's a good thing," he said. "In terms of actual format, is it watered down? Does it make it not such a big thing to make to the playoffs? I would say yes as well.

"Ten years from now when kids sit down and talk about it and say, 'We made it to the playoffs,' what does it hurt? It just gives more kids a chance to play football.

"I would have been one of the people who voted for it."

Only time will tell, nine weeks from today to be exact, whether the plan was worth it and if is should be continued.

And if, as every coach agreed, the NLC playing field has been leveled this year -- with Kenai losing 2007 Gatorade Alaska Football Player of the Year Bill Chimphalee, the bullish running back who romped for 2,023 yards and 31 touchdowns last season, and two-time defending champion Soldotna graduating its entire offensive line, including Lineman of the Year Josh Denna and Defensive Player of the Year Timo Gleason, as well as two more all-state players -- perhaps teams such as Homer and Skyview can make strong championship pushes.

But as much as he wants to deflect any preseason praise, Brantley surely knows his high-powered offense could carry the Stars to their third straight state title.

"I think there's four teams or five teams that have a legitimate shot," he said. "Eielson could very well be best team in the state. Kodiak, Skyview, Kenai are all very solid. There's too many unknowns on our roster to be in that group of teams at this point."

Prep football set to kick offDon't talk to Brantley about the Stars' 19-game winning streak. He doesn't want to discuss it.

Today's 6 p.m. opener against Nikiski is all he's concentrating on.

"I don't think anyone in our program is thinking about a streak," he said. "Those things are superficial and they don't last. We're just going to try and get through our game against Nikiski."

It's difficult for his team to not be the topic of conversation, considering they're fresh off a 10-0 campaign, during which they won their first nine games by an average of 43 points before earning their second straight small-schools state championship with an equally convincing 47-27 win over Kodiak.

With the loss of their entire massive offensive line, all-state fullback Marvin Tate (868 yards, 14 TDs in nine games) and all-state return specialist Bryce Gardner (1,137 yards, 16 TDs), Brantley insists this is a different team.

"Essentially, it's pretty much, we're in rebuilding mode," he said.

If so, it's a rebuilding mode many local coaches would savor.

Despite the many losses, including returning tight end Jake Jansen to a broken wrist, SoHi does return all-state quarterback-turned-running back Anthony Griglione.

Considered by many to be the top player in the state, regardless of classification, the senior captained the Stars' ship from behind center last season, rushing for 1,223 yards and 20 TDs, including a 271-yard, four-score performance in the championship game.

Instilled as the starter in Game 1 of the 19-game stretch, Griglione has never lost a game for the Stars.

"We're going to lean on Anthony a lot. We're going to expect him to step up and be one of our leaders this year," Brantley said. "Between Anthony and Kyle (Wood), they're going to carry us on their back.

"That's the biggest thing that stands out with Anthony is he doesn't like to lose," he added. "He's a very competitive kid and has been given some very great abilities to go along with that."

Wood also should ease the gaps left by Tate and Gardner, having averaged close to 10 yards per carry with nine touchdowns last season.

"We're going to put a lot of weight on their shoulders," Brantley said of the new RB duo. "We're going to go basically as far as they carry us."

Zayan Aberkane will take over for Griglione at quarterback and should adapt well after receiving valuable playing time during blowouts last season.

"We may have a couple more options in the passing game," he said.

Chris Nolden (FB), Joe Shirley (TE), Tyler Millgilvrary (TE) and Nathan Strieby, Ross Courtney, Zach Daly, Chase Jenson, Jake King and Keith Holm, all offensive lineman, could gel quickly with the successful systems Brantley and his crew instill.

"Lots of new faces," he said, "same brand of football."

And after the way last season finished, coupled with an early season rout of large schools runner-up Palmer, pundits yearned to see how the Stars would have stacked up against powerhouse Juneau-Douglas.

They nearly got their wish in Week 3 this season, too, but the defending large-schools state champs backed out, which Brantley understands.

"They have five road games and have to fundraise for a considerable budget. They're doing what they have to do," he said, adding SoHi would have absolutely welcomed the challenge. "Even if they dump us, it's a chance for us to get better rather than us sitting around for a week."

Small-schools playoff pool expands from 4 to 8

Beeson isn't buying it. He thinks SoHi is the conference front-runner again.

"Just because of their skill-position kids, no question," he said. "A couple kids move in and are playing line where thought they'd have their weakness. ... It doesn't get any better than that.

"They have Griglione at any time. The kid, without any question, is the best football player in the league, maybe even the state. Any time he touches the ball he can score. Kyle Wood playing back. The skill-position kids are as good as anybody's going to have, at least that we're going to play.

"Small schools, large schools, their skill position kids are as good as anybody. Hopefully the ones playing on JV aren't as good as the ones playing on varsity."

The showdown between the two largest schools in the area, according to the ASAA, won't take place until Week 8, when Kenai looks for redemption from last season's 44-0 drubbing at the hands of the Stars.

Meanwhile, Kenai -- which finished 6-2 overall last season -- is focusing on its 7 p.m. date at Lathrop today.

The Kardinals were scheduled for a trip to Valdez the following week, but persistent rain forced the Vikings to book a trip to the peninsula instead.

Beeson isn't complaining.

"Whoever did the rain dance in Valdez, I need to thank them," he said.

Having missed the playoffs the past two seasons after winning four consecutive smalls schools titles from 2002-05, the Kardinals have their radar locked on a postseason berth with 72 kids out for the team this season, compared to just 48 last year.

The loss of Chimphalee and quarterback Daniel Gustkey, along with tackle Kyle Gregg and guard Travis Pierce, should hurt with the increased parity in the league.

Two extra playoff berths will help, though

"That's where we want to be is back in the playoffs," Beeson said. "We played everyone the same amount (at the jamboree) and other than Soldotna ... we kind of held our own. I wouldn't say anything's unrealistic at this point. If we really decided if we want to do it or not, that's the biggest issue."

Stepping in for Chimphalee will be junior Billy Kiefer, while junior Ty Fuller takes the reigns at fullback.

"It is difficult because he was so much a part of our offense. I don't know that any one person is going to do that. It's got to be a collection of guys that are going to do that," he said of losing Chimphalee. "You just kind of take it for granted that you can give him the ball 30 to 40 times and everything is going to be OK."

Beeson is also hoping seniors Zach Rabung (QB) and John Hughes (TE/OLB), junior Donny Dormady (OL/DE) and sophomores Richie Ziehmer (OL) and Kyle Rogers (OL/LB) build off their experiences from last season, while newcomers Cam Borchgrevink (WR/RB) and Matt Barrett (DL), both hockey players for the Kardinals, learn quickly.

"Kind of like last year, we'll be more of a run team than we will a pass team. That's for sure."

Playing in the NLC alongside the likes of Soldotna, Kenai and Kodiak, nothing comes easy for the Panthers.

And coming off a 3-5 season last year, during which they went 1-4 in the conference, it doesn't get any better this year, starting with an early morning flight today to Barrow, where they'll take on the Whalers at 2 p.m. Saturday.

"It's going to set the pace for us, kind of gets your season on the right track," said second-year Skyview coach Jerry Byrne. "That first win's really important. I don't care who your playing."

Byrne is encouraged by what he saw at the All-Alaska Football Camp, held at Colony High School in June.

"Last year we had five. This year we had 22 and just about all of our seniors were there," he said of his team's turnout. "We have a really good group of seniors that really want to get into the playoffs and do well this year.

"That's been their goal since last spring. They've been working hard, lifting weights and show a lot of leadership. So, the team is on a real positive high."

Included amongst that group of upperclassmen is Matt Meade (QB/DE), Adam Byrne (TE/LB), Brad Lapp (RB/CB), Kenny Mahan (center), Marcus Quint (FB), Joe Ramirez (OL/DL) and Zach Hibbert (WR/CB).

"They're a good group of leaders," Byrne said.

Also looking to contribute are juniors Jeremiah Berzanske (OLB), Freddie Pollard (FB/LB) and Bryce Wilson (HB/S), sophomores Brenton Martin (QB) and Vlad Ferderer (HB/LB/DE) and freshmen Tyler Marcuson (QB/LB), Auston Tennis (HB/WR/S), Jonathan Meade (OL), DJ Diaz (OL) and Jordan Jones (WR).

The Panthers' numbers are up, too, from 51 at the start of last season -- although they ended up with a little more than 30 -- to 57 this season, including 35 freshmen. Only five freshmen turned out last fall.

"We're really excited. It's a big boost to our program," Byrne said. "It's making things look really good down the road and we've got some really good athletes out of that group."

Skyview is one of the teams hoping to benefit from the shift in the playoff format.

"We're looking to be in the playoffs this year," he said. "If we can stay healthy, stay eligible and stay out of trouble, those are the three keys. Those hurt us last year."

And while Byrne admitted Soldotna is probably still the team to beat, he thinks the gap in talent has narrowed a bit.

"We're all kind of in the same boat," he said. "Some guys lost so they're rebuilding. Some are coming up. So we're all kind of in that middle level there. So, I think it will be a fun year. I think we're all kind of equal."

When members of the Mariners set their goals for the upcoming season, not a single player mentioned becoming a state champion.

"They want to play 11 as one," Wyatt recalled. "They said, 'No. 2, we will never give up coach,' and the third thing that they said is, 'We're going to take one at a time. We're not going to look behind us. We're not going to look in front of us.'"

"In the offseason we talked about being realists," he added. "I think they finally settled down and said, 'We want to show the rest of the league that we can do this.'"

With 47 players currently out for the team, and about four more still working on boats, Wyatt estimates he'll field close to 60 players in an attempt to make the postseason for the first time since 2005.

"I may sound crazy, but just with the heart and soul these kids have shown and the great progress they've sort of demonstrated from the SoHi camp to the jamboree, I really think we're going to be sitting pretty solid in the second or third seed in our conference," Wyatt said, adding their Week 2 showdown at Kodiak will be one of the toughest tests of the season. "We're going to go across the water and we're going to hook up on their part of the world. It's going to be interesting because I really believe we have a lean and mean team on our hands.

"I'm just really excited to see how this smaller team that has a lot of energy ... responds to a stronger team," he added. "They're going to be bigger but I just think we've got ourselves a good ballgame coming our way."

He, too, isn't downplaying Soldotna's massive presence within the league.

"They're not that sort of man-child team that they had the past two years," Wyatt said. "Folks should not take them lightly at all and the reason why is because I know that Galen and their staff over there are technicians. Regardless of the kids that they have in their program, they're going to teach technique and those kids will be ready to play football and play SoHi football from the very start."

Replacing Cory Sutherland, Gordon Parker and Courtney, who transferred to Soldotna, will be a challenge, but Wyatt believes his young crew can accomplish just that.

He mentioned seniors Dean DeVaney (WR/S), Brady Quinn (FB) and Patrick Lane (OL), juniors Matt Tyrell (RB), David Craig (RB), Jeremiah Carr (RB) and Anthony Resetaris (DL) and freshmen Devon Kennetly (WR) and Dyllan Day (RB) as players who could make an impact at any time.

"It's like I told the kids, 'Just because they're large doesn't mean you can't beat them, it just means you have to work harder,'" Wyatt said. "They'll always be the underdog and we knew that from the first day that we entered into this season.

"As a result, we have to play harder. We're going to have to be more organized and more committed about our football ... because of the position we're in. And that's OK. The kids are very excited about that."

In his second year at the helm of the Bulldogs, Ted Riddall sees a bright future.

An assistant coach on Nikiski's championship teams in 2000 and 2001, he knows what it takes to attain greatness.

And having been the odd team out of a three-way coin flip to determine which two teams advanced to the playoffs two seasons ago and again missing out on the postseason last year with a 2-6 overall record and a 2-4 GLC mark, Riddall has his sights set high this time around.

"I'm going to say if we end up in the top two (in the Greatland Conference) we'd be really happy with that," he said. "We're expecting that at least."

Eielson, according to some coaches, could be one of the top teams in the state, let alone the conference.

Nikiski hosts the Ravens in the sixth week of the season.

First, though, they have their hands full tonight with Soldotna and again with Kenai in Week 3.

And Riddall wouldn't have it any other way.

"I'm glad it kind of landed like that," he said. "We'll be able to get into the film room and look at what we're doing that's good and the things that are not so good. ... If you can do that early on, when you hit the conference opponents, it can help you. If you play a Soldotna or a Kenai later in the season when vying for a spot and you have injuries, it's a little more detrimental to what you're trying to do. So I like it.

"We're hoping to get back to that level of play," he said of their earlier title teams, "and the only way to do it is to play teams like that."

With the return of a slew of key starters, there's a chance they might rise to the occasion this year.

Seniors Beau Calderwood (RB), Evan Holloway (WR), Wiley Bennett (QB) and Tommy Tschida (OL/DL) should anchor what could be a potent offense.

Calderwood is fresh off a season in which he netted all-conference honors after rushing for 11 touchdowns and 1,238 yards, second only to Chimphalee during the regular season, while also catching five TDs.

"He usually makes the first guy miss. Unless there's a couple of guys tackling him, he can get quite a bit of yardage out of it," Riddall said. "A lot of times last year he could carry the team on his back. This year we're looking to see if he can continue that."

Holloway garnered all-state and all-conference honors after hauling in 27 passes for 522 yards and four TDs, while Bennett led the peninsula with 845 yards through the air and 11 touchdowns.

Riddall said his burgeoning QB-WR tandem traveled together to a football camp in California over the summer and he's hoping their chemistry carries over to the season.

"His arm looks a little stronger. He probably threw thousands and thousands of times at the camp," he said of Bennett. "If we can get those guys to hook up in the air, it should be good and will open it up for the run."

He said the addition of senior tight end Matt Thompson should relieve some of the pressure Holloway may be feeling as the standout wide receiver.

"We should be in the thick of things," Riddall said. "We're going to have to play well to make it happen. The kids are going to have to respond in some adverse situations."

Had the new playoff structure been in effect last season, the Seahawks also would have garnered a postseason berth.

Seward finished 3-3 in the Greatland Conference after pulling off a thrilling 40-39, overtime win over Nikiski in the final week of the season, an improbable victory as the Bulldogs led 24-17 entering the fourth quarter on their home turf.

The Seahawks now look to top that mark, as well as their 3-5 overall record from a year ago, by making the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

And it will be difficult from the get-go, as they open at Kodiak on Saturday at 2 p.m., travel to Barrow for the second straight year the following week and then head to Valdez in Week 3.

And while they do get a pass this season on Soldotna and Kenai, the Seahawks do host Homer in Week 6 and journey to GLC favorite Eielson in the seventh week before closing their season with a home tilt against Nikiski.

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