In the final game of last year's small-schools football season, the Kenai Kardinals ran ragged over the Eielson Ravens, dishing out a 46-0 defeat in the championship game.
This year, the Ravens will get an early chance at revenge, as Eielson will make the trip to Kenai for a rematch with the defending champs Saturday at 2 p.m. at Ed Hollier Field.
The Kardinals are just one of the six peninsula football schools getting back into action Saturday.
Kenai looks strong again this year. The Kardinals return a number of players from last year's 9-1 squad, and will be hoping to get a good jump on their quest to win a third consecutive small-schools state title against Eielson.
The Kardinals are led on offense by running back Dakota Craig, the returning Alaska small-schools offensive player of the year.
If the Ravens want to stop Craig and the Kardinals, they'll have to do so without the state's co-defensive player of the year, Jamie Hurlburt, who transferred to Fairbanks rival North Pole.
On the other side of the ball, Craig will team with fellow all-state selection Michael Scheffert and Skyview transfer Logan McKay at linebacker to form the nucleus of a hard-hitting defense that could be even better than last season's Northern Lights Conference-leading unit.
West at Soldotna, 3 p.m. Saturday
Last season, the Stars went 0-3 against the three big schools on their schedule. However, at the end of the season, Soldotna showed it could play with Kenai, which topped two of the three big schools on its schedule.
"We'd like to make a little better showing against the big schools this year," Soldotna coach Sarge Truesdell said. "We showed last year we can play at that level by playing with Kenai."
Soldotna has just 24 players on the varsity, so Truesdell's primary concern is keeping everybody healthy until the conference schedule starts.
Leading the Stars this year will be seniors Cameron Schneider, Garrett Gardner, Matt Hicks, Dan Spindler and Kurt Romberg.
Schneider will play quarterback, Gardner is a returning all-conference running back and Hicks, Spindler and Romberg will anchor the line. Spindler was the top lineman last year in the Northern Lights Conference.
Valdez at Nikiski, 1 p.m. Saturday
The Bulldogs jump right into Great Land Conference play.
Nikiski coach Ned Clooten said he does not know much about the Buccaneers. He said the school has a bunch of nice athletes and said Valdez will one day have a strong program. However, Clooten said the team has a new coach this year, so he's not sure what to expect.
The Bulldogs lost all-state performers Billy Anderson, a running back, and Jeremiah Taylor, a receiver, to graduation.
Clooten said the strength of this year's team may very well be the line, led by John Schwenke. Schwenke was the small-schools lineman of the year in 2003.
The line should give senior quarterback Travis McGahan a chance to operate the offense. McGahan has been at varsity quarterback since his sophomore season. Clooten said McGahan has a firm grasp of the offense that allows him to make pre-snap reads.
The Bulldogs had just 17 players on varsity entering the second week of practice, so Clooten said any injuries will really hurt his squad.
Skyview at Service, 3 p.m. Saturday
The Panthers, under their third coach in three years, are assigned a tough place to try and begin another rebuilding project.
Service is a big school, but the Cougars lost some key players to South High, so nobody is sure how strong the team will be.
Phil Sheridan takes over the Skyview team. The Panthers went 1-7 and were outscored 248-43 last year under Ty Salness.
Sheridan did not coach at Skyview last season, but he was the junior varsity coach for four years before that. He never had a season worse than 5-3, but he said varsity is a whole different level than junior varsity.
The coach has been making the Panthers get back to the basics this year, focusing practices on blocking and tackling.
"The biggest weakness of Skyview last year was the inability to tackle," Sheridan said. "People don't give up 50 points and win many times."
Tyler Wehrli will play quarterback for the Panthers, while Zach Rowell will play halfback and Josh Carlon will play fullback. Sheridan also is excited about the athleticism Aaron Singleton and Richard Derkevorkian bring to the tight end position.
However, Sheridan knows his team could be behind others early in the season.
"We've still got a lot of experience and good kids, but three coaches in three years is tough," he said.
Homer at Houston, 3 p.m. Saturday
The Mariners will be glad when Saturday finally rolls around.
"These kids have been fired up all fall, winter and spring," said Homer coach Kelly Blake. "They're very excited to get things rolling."
Blake returns 11 seniors to this year's squad. He said the group is providing excellent leadership.
Jason West will return at running back this year. Junior Canyon McKinstry will play quarterback.
Sitka at Seward, 6 p.m. Saturday
The Wolves and Seahawks get off to a late start Saturday because officials were hard to come by.
Seward will be coached this year by Roger Steinbrecher and Mark Woodward. Steinbrecher has been with the program since it started 10 years ago, while Woodward grew up in Nebraska and recently spent time in Fairbanks before moving to Seward.
Steinbrecher said he's not sure what to expect out of Sitka.
"In the first two weeks nobody is really ready to play," Steinbrecher said. "I think we'll be in that position, too."
Steinbrecher said the team will be missing some key players due to ineligibility and the 10-practice rule.
The team should be led by seniors Charles Logan, Joel Grimes, Charlie Rininger and Ryan Dieckgraeff.
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