The theme of the season opener between Soldotna and Wasilla Saturday at Justin Maile Field was turnovers -- both of the football kind and of the graduation kind.
Wasilla, which lost 22 seniors from last year's state runner-up team, overcame two second half turnovers and held on to notch a 13-7 nonconference win over Soldotna, which lost 18 to graduation from last year's team.
"We're happy to get out of here with a win," said Wasilla coach Nathan Ford, whose team had 219 total yards to Soldotna's 91. "Soldotna always plays us tough here."
The Stars, who fell on the road to Wasilla 29-6 last season, fell behind 13-0 after the first half. In the second half, as temperatures in the 70s baked the teams, Soldotna made a comeback behind the hot passing of senior quarterback Pat Rose.
Rose hit Shaun Williams in the end zone with 7:15 to play and the Stars got the ball back on their own 30-yard line with 5:41 left, but the drive stalled on the Wasilla 47.
"We are in the best shape of any team on the peninsula," said Rose, who finished 5 of 12 for 64 yards. "Coach (Rob Dimick) runs us to death and we love it.
"Our line started dominating in the fourth quarter when they got tired."
The Warriors were able to hang on for the win due to two crucial plays in the first half. The first came with 4:05 remaining in the first quarter, when Wasilla senior Cole Lund intercepted Rose and returned the ball to the Soldotna 3-yard line.
On the next play, James Watts, who led all rushers with 112 yards on 27 carries, punched the ball in on a 3-yard touchdown run.
The second big moment came with 1:40 left in the first half. The Stars had to punt the ball from their own 13 and Billy Moiles got off a kick that traveled 7 yards.
That gave the Warriors plenty of time to cover the 20 yards to the end zone. Watts scored on another 3-yard run with 41 seconds left in the half to give the Warriors a 13-0 cushion.
"We had those two plays that hurt us," Dimick said. "The interception and the short punt led directly to both of their scores.
"In the first half, I don't think we were intimidated, but we were feeling them out instead of getting after it. We started playing in the second half."
The Warriors offense came out moving the ball in the second half, but a couple turnovers kept them from the end zone.
"We talked at halftime about making something happen," Dimick said.
The first turnover came with 7:45 left in the third, when Williams recovered a fumble by Watts on the Soldotna 45.
"That fumble was the play that turned the game around," Rose said. "That's the first time people in the stands started believing we could win."
Soldotna went three-and-out after the fumble recovery, but the Stars got the ball back on a leaping interception by Jared Carlson.
Rose, who was just 2 of 7 in the first three quarters, heated up and led the comeback bid by hitting 3 of 5 in the fourth quarter.
He completed a big fourth-and-seven pass to Sean Kelley with 9:14 left in the game to put the Stars on the Wasilla 7, then hit Williams shortly thereafter for the score.
The Soldotna defense then did its job, making Wasilla go three-and-out, but the Warriors defense answered with a game-saving stand.
"I knew they could do it," Watts said. "I have total confidence in my defense."
Things get no easier for Soldotna next week, as they travel to Anchorage to play defending state champion Service on Friday.
WARRIORS 13, STARS 7
Wasilla 7 6 0 0 --13
Soldotna 0 0 0 7 --7
Was -- Watts 3 run (Egger kick), 4:01
Was -- Watts 3 run (kick failed), 0:41
Sol -- Williams 11 pass from Rose (Carlson kick), 7:15
First downs 11 6
Rushes-yards 41-148 41-27
Passing yards 71 64
Return yards 24 21
Passing 7-11-1 5-13-1
Punts-avg 5-26.8 6-23.8
Fumbles-lost 1-1 2-1
Penalties-yards 7-50 5-55
Rushing -- Wasilla: Watts 27-112, Webb 1-(-4), Dutcher 9-46, Donahoe 2-2, Carney 2-(-8). Soldotna: Kelley 15-36, Rose 7-(-48), Morris 11-17, Williams 5-18, Metteer 2-4, Simpson 1-0.
Passing -- Wasilla: Carney 5-6-0-45, Donahoe 2-5-1-26. Soldotna: Rose 5-12-1-64, Williams 0-1-0-0.
Receiving -- Wasilla: Dutcher 1-6, Webb 5-58, Watts 1-7. Soldotna: Metteer 1-9, Kelley 2-33, Williams 2-22.
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