Soldotna High School will defend their Small Schools State Championship this season.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Entering his 18th season as head coach of the Kenai Kardinals, Jim Beeson knows a thing or two about local football.
So, when the topic of Soldotna comes up, he's not afraid to speak his mind.
"In my mind, everyone's playing for second place," he said.
The way the Stars played last season, winning their first Small Schools State Championship in the program's 26-year history, combined with the talent they return for the upcoming 2007 campaign, it's hard to argue with him.
Coming off a spectacular season during which they went 7-1 before destroying Houston in the first round of the playoffs and edging Kodiak, 29-20, in the championship contest, the Stars return 13 starters, seven on the offensive side of the ball, when they host North Pole at 6 p.m. today.
One key loss, however, is that of head coach Sarge Truesdell, who stepped down in the offseason, handing the reigns over to former offensive coordinator Galen Brantley Jr.
Beeson, though, doesn't think that will make any difference.
"He won't be completely away from it. I'll guarantee you that," he said of Truesdell. "They wont miss a beat. They'll be solid."
Brantley said Truesdell will assist the team when he can, but acknowledged he has some major shoes to fill.
"His enthusiasm and his leadership is definitely missed. You just can't replace a guy who's poured 10 years of his heart and soul into a program," he said. "He's going out like John Elway or one of these guys who wins a championship and rides off into the sunset. It's left us in a pretty tough spot."
Not too tight, though.
While the Stars did lose fullback Mike Reed, who rushed for 904 yards and nine TDs last season, they do return halfback Marvin Tate, now the new fullback, senior offensive linemen Josh Denna, Ryan Shelton and Les Baker, senior tight end Timo Gleason, senior halfback Bryce Gardner and junior QB Anthony Griglione.
"Obviously the expectations are high," Brantley said. "We've got enough kids returning from that group that if we can stay healthy and we can work as a group, there's definitely a possibility"
Discounting Beeson's theory that they're already one of the elite teams within the Northern Lights Conference, Brantley does recognize his team has an immediate target on its back.
"There's no question that everybody that we play, we're going to get their best game and we expect that," he said. "We're ready for it."
The big question, though, is can the newcomers mesh well enough with the returners to capture back-to-back state crowns?
"The possibility is we have the athletes to repeat. Whether or not we'll be a good enough team to repeat, we'll have to wait until October to find out," Brantley said. "The team with the most talent doesn't always win the state championship. The best team wins."
Don't count Kenai out just yet, though, as they do return one of the best running backs in the conference, perhaps even the state, in senior Bill Chimphalee.
"Everything that we're doing is revolving around him pretty much on the offensive side of the football," Beeson said.
And for obvious reasons.
Chimphalee rushed for a Kenai Peninsula-best 18 touchdowns last season while racking up 1,004 yards and gets his first crack at the end zone when the Kardinals host Houston at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
"We don't have very much depth. We're not that talented of a football team. But we collectively do things together, because we do have Bill who can score anytime he touches the football," Beeson said. "We're going to have a chance as long as we can find ways to get him the football. We'll just have to find ways to do that."
Seward also has an exciting season in store.
After squaring off with Homer at 2 p.m. on Saturday, the Seahawks will travel to Anchorage later in the week to catch a flight to Barrow where they'll help make history as the Whalers' first opponent on their new artificial turf field.
Second-year Seward coach Kelly Cinereski said ESPN and NBC's the "Today" show will be in attendance to cover the historical event on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.
"We're looking forward to that. That'll be good," he said. "(Barrow's) been out practicing all summer, so who knows what to expect.
"It's hard to get film from Barrow," Cinereski added with a laugh. "I don't know much about their kids at all."
There is one drawback, however.
"The only problem with it is we can only take 22 kids with you," he said, adding the game is motivating his team. "The kids are talking about it a whole lot, but right now we're focusing on Homer and their crazy offense."
Skyview and Nikiski will meet at 6 p.m. today at the home of the Panthers, both teams consisting of roughly 45 players and first-year coaches Jerry Byrne at Skyview and Ted Riddall at Nikiski.
"It will be a tough one ... They've got some really good kids over there," Riddall said of the Panthers. "I think we'll have our hands full with them. They've got some pretty good kids in skill positions and on defense." Here's a more in-depth look at the remaining Kenai Peninsula teams.
Shooting StarsSkyview Panthers
SoHi looks to defend its Small Schools State Championship
Matthew Carroll can be reached at email@example.com.
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