Will parity reign in small-schools state football this season?
Since the Alaska School Activities Association started sanctioning small-schools football in 2000, Kenai Central and Soldotna have had the most consistent programs.
Both the Kardinals and Stars have been to the four-team playoffs in each of the five years. Kenai Central has won the last three state titles, while Soldotna has made three appearances in the state championship game.
Last year, the Stars and Kardinals were the class of the small-schools division. Except for when either of the two played Eielson, Kenai Central and Soldotna routinely cruised to victories. The Kardinals eventually claimed the state title by topping the Stars 20-14.
Both the Kardinals and Stars took major hits from graduation. Small-schools offensive player of the year Garrett Gardner of Soldotna and defensive player of the year Dakota Craig of Kenai are both gone.
As the 2005 season starts with five games on Saturday, coaches from peninsula schools other than Kenai Central and Soldotna are hoping they’ve closed the gap this season.
“It’s no secret that Kenai and Soldotna graduated outstanding classes,” Skyview coach Phil Sheridan said. “Those classes were really dominant. I don’t know that either one will have the same team.
“But they’ve got such great programs that they’ll still have great teams.”
Kenai Central coach Jim Beeson, entering his 16th season as head coach, does not expect as many blowouts this season.
“The gap has closed considerably,” Beeson said. “We can’t take the playoffs for granted anymore. Look at who we’ve lost.”
Beeson said losing the skill of players like Craig and Michael Scheffert is one thing, but losing their leadership is an even bigger blow.
“Dakota and Michael were on varsity four years and were state champs for the last three years,” Beeson said. “They never had to be told what to do.”
The leadership this year will fall to seniors like captains Tyler Chappell, Papapa Nicholas and Les Krusen.
Krusen and Nicholas are part of a group of Kardinals that can bench press over 300 pounds and are expected to give the team a physical presence on the field. Chappell played quarterback last year and will team with running back Brandon Miles to try and gain the yards that Craig used to gain.
The Stars will be extremely young this season. They graduated 13 seniors and have just three seniors this year.
Soldotna coach Sarge Truesdell, entering his fourth full season as head coach, said the team is not in trouble because of the off-season.
“Typically, with the seniors we lost, it’d be a pretty tough camp because you’d have to find slots for people,” Truesdell said. “We went to two padded team camps, so our lineup is set. It’s the best off-season we’ve had since I’ve been here.”
Senior Aleks Pfaffe will move over from receiver to play quarterback while junior Mike Reed will get the majority of the carries and try to make up for the loss of Gardner.
Truesdell is extremely excited about tight ends Kory Wilbanks, a senior, and Kelly Seggerman, a junior, and both will typically be on the field at the same time.
The defense will be led by senior middle linebacker Jacob Howarth, who was small-schools second-team all-state a year ago.
The Panthers have never had a berth in the small-schools playoffs because the two Northern Lights Conference slots have been taken every year by Kenai and Soldotna.
“The kids are pretty smart,” Sheridan said. “They’ve got it figured out. In order to make the playoffs, we’ve got to get a win over one of those two.
“They’re back-to-back on the schedule so we’ve got two chances. We’ll be putting our season on the line in those two games.”
Sheridan said the team has 15 seniors and worked very hard in the off-season. Last year Sheridan’s first as head coach the team got a lot tougher on defense. Sheridan expects that to continue this year.
“We have every position filled really solidly with great people,” Sheridan said.
On offense, Sheridan is excited by the skill positions. The running backs will be junior Gregor Bosick, senior Clark Buffington, senior Jacob Bellinger and senior Mike Burleson.
Bosick ran for 366 yards last year on just 40 carries, an average of 9.2 yards per carry. Buffington rushed for 341 yards. Bellinger made varsity as a freshman, but has not been on the team the past two years.
“I think some of the running backs we have are definitely great athletes and have incredible speed,” Sheridan said.
Nikiski, which won the small-schools state title in 2000 and 2001, will be looking to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2003.
Coach Ned Clooten, entering his third season as the head coach, is thrilled to be welcoming coach Scott Anderson back to the program. Anderson was the head coach for the titles in 2000 and 2001. He will coordinate the offense this season.
“He really is an offensive guru,” said Clooten of Anderson. “I loved coaching the offense, but I have no problem letting him take over.
“He’s one of the best offensive minds in the state.”
Anderson’s offense needs multiple weapons to function. One of those weapons will be Justin Tumbaga, who ran for 938 yards last season and is the leading returning rusher on the peninsula.
Clooten also said Zech Hemphill, who took over the quarterback position midway through last season, is one of the best surprises of the season thus far even though he is a senior this year.
Clooten said the big challenge for the Bulldogs will be shoring up line play. John Schwenke, the two-time small-schools lineman of the year, graduated. Two other returning starters were lost to academic ineligibility.
In Seward, co-coaches Mark Woodward and Roger Steinbrecher are looking to take the team to its fourth playoff appearance in the last five years. The Seahawks have 45 kids out for football this year, which is 15 more than last year.
The offense will be keyed by senior quarterback Coty Beck. Senior running backs Jake Wilder and Jason Weber and sophomore split end Nick Spurr will be some of the weapons at Beck’s disposal.
Homer also is expecting to be improved this season. Coach Kelly Blake said his line is deeper and bigger than a year ago.
Canyon McKinstry will return as quarterback, as will running backs Camron Hagen and Noah McWilliams.
“These guys have been champing at the bit,” Blake told the Homer News. “About 75 percent came in (to practice) already in shape, which is pretty phenomenal. They’re real dedicated.”
Homer News reporter Ben Stuart contributed to this story.
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