Last year, prep football games like Skyview vs. Palmer and Wasilla vs. Soldotna had major playoff implications.
This year, as the Kenai Peninsula football scene opens Saturday altered radically by conference realignment, those games mean nothing in the playoff races.
Instead, previously meaningless games like Homer vs. Ketchikan and Sitka vs. Seward will impact who goes on to play in the state's new playoff format.
In the first year of new conference format, Southeast school Ketchikan and peninsula schools Homer, Skyview, Soldotna and Kenai will compete for the two playoff spots in the Northern Lights Conference.
Meanwhile, Nikiski, Seward, Houston, Anchorage Christian Schools and Sitka will compete for the two playoff spots available in the Great Land Conference.
The playoff teams from the Northern Lights and Great Land conferences will then compete for the first sanctioned small-schools state championship.
Jim Beeson, the coach at Kenai Central, said the realignment has added some excitement to football on the peninsula. In recent years, Matanuska-Susitna valleys teams Wasilla, Palmer and Colony had a near monopoly on Northern Lights Conference playoff spots.
Those three Valley schools are now in the Railbelt Conference and they will compete for the big-schools state title.
"Overall, we're a little more excited about being able to have a chance," Beeson said. "Any of the peninsula schools could end up being in the playoffs.
"I think it's going to be a very competitive season."
The following is a closer look at the opening weekend for the six peninsula football schools.
Wasilla at Soldotna, 2 p.m.
The Warriors were one of the state's dominant teams last season, finishing undefeated in the Northern Lights Conference and second in the state.
The Stars, meanwhile, had a breakthrough season by finishing third in the NLC to secure their first playoff spot since 1994.
Both teams will be drastically different when play opens Saturday. Wasilla had many big losses to graduation, with the biggest being Chuck Lincoln, the conference's leading rusher.
Soldotna, meanwhile, lost 19 seniors off last year's team, including Jake Urban, the conference's second-leading rusher.
Things get no easier for the Stars next week, as their next opponent is defending state champion Service. Coach Rob Dimick is eager for his team to be tested.
"This was something I wanted to do," Dimick said. "They've lost key people and we've lost key people. It could be a nail-biter that people are used to seeing when Soldotna and Wasilla play."
Nikiski at Houston, 2 p.m.
The Bulldogs, the three-time defending Great Land Conference champions, will open with a crucial conference test on the road.
Houston finished 0-3 in the conference last year and 2-6 overall, but that doesn't mean Bulldogs coach Scott Anderson isn't worried.
"They probably have one of the best backfields in the state with Jeff Nagel at tailback and Travis Webb at fullback," Anderson said. "They've also got some big people on their line."
Nagel, who was a senior last year but received an exemption to play his fifth year, is the conference's leading returning rusher. He carried 94 times for 501 yards last season.
Nikiski has 22 juniors and five seniors on their team this year, but Anderson isn't worried because those juniors have experience.
The most experienced junior is quarterback Josh Reilly, who started his freshman and sophomore years. Last year, Reilly was the conference's leading passer, completing 33 of 76 for 483 yards.
Skyview at Palmer, 2 p.m.
Both teams missed the playoffs last year, with Palmer finishing fourth in the NLC with a 3-3 record and Skyview finishing 2-4 in the conference.
The Moose also had the upper hand in a head-to-head matchup last season. Palmer edged Skyview 28-21 in a game which graduated Skyview quarterback Chris Hodel was intercepted in the end zone in the final three minutes of play.
Skyview coach Wade Marcuson will have a number of shoes to fill this year because nine starters on offense graduated.
"I'm excited," Marcuson said. "Our JV program has been successful, and there's some pretty good kids coming up from that program. I'm excited to see what they can do at the varsity level."
Palmer should provide a good test for the young team.
"That'll give us a good indication of where we are," Marcuson said.
Kenai at Eielson, 3 p.m.
The Kardinals head north hoping to have a better season than last year, when the team finished 1-5 in the NLC and 2-6 overall.
The problem the Kardinals had last year was size, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, where they were ranked last in the conference.
"This year we have some decent size," Beeson said. "It's as good a group in terms of size, tenacity and just wanting to line up and play football as I've had in four or five years."
Ketchikan at Homer, 2 p.m.
Homer finished last season without a victory. The Mariners are hoping that opening up against a conference newcomer at home can get them on the right side on the won-loss column quickly in 2000.
Although this is the first varsity season for Ketchikan, football is not new there.
"We've always had high-school-aged players playing football, but it's always been in a city league," said Kings coach Rick Ballestrini. "Football's been around here for about 52 years."
Ketchikan has youth tackle football for kids 8 years old, but it could be hurt by lack of numbers as it is bringing just 15 players north to face Homer.
Sitka at Seward, 2 p.m.
The Seahawks finished 3-0 in the Great Land's regular season and 4-3 overall before losing to Nikiski in the Great Land title game. Sitka, meanwhile, will be playing in its first Great Land game ever.
Although Sitka has never played a high school varsity game, the program has had a club team for the past five years. This year's varsity has 28 players on it.
"We're very deep at the skill positions," head coach Mark Mangini said.
Sitka also has a line that should allow those skill players room to roam. The center is 320 pounds and four linemen are over 250 pounds.
Clarion reporter Will Morrow contributed to this story.
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