For a lot of programs, losing 28 seniors after getting to the small-schools state championship and losing would be cause for serious self-doubt and questioning.
Did we blow our chance? How often will we get such a big group of talented seniors again?
But for the tradition-laden program at Soldotna High School, confidence quickly overcomes such questions.
"We have enough tradition, and we've won enough games, that we don't feel we need to change anything," said Soldotna coach Sarge Truesdell, in his second full year as head coach. "We don't feel like we underachieved last year."
The Stars won their third straight Northern Lights Conference title last season, but came up short in the small-schools state championship, losing 7-0.
But several things have quickly buoyed Truesdell's spirits. He has a whopping 67 kids in the program this year, including a freshman class of 30 that includes many Pop Warner veterans.
And although Truesdell did lose a lump of seniors, he returns some players at key positions. Senior quarterback Eric Simpson was 43-for-91 for 817 yards and 10 touchdowns last year in earning first-team all-Northern Lights Conference honors.
Senior fullback Dan Ghormley rushed for 330 yards and six touchdowns during the regular season. In the playoffs, Ghormley saw more time due to the injury of Derek Martin and responded. He scored two touchdowns in a semifinal victory over Seward, then gashed Kenai for 125 yards in the championship game.
COLORS: Columbia blue, silver and white
2002 REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 7-1 (3-0 in NLC)
HEAD COACH: Sarge Truesdell (second year)
ASSISTANTS: Galen Brantley, Jeff Baker, Dave Emery, Chris Blouin, Justin Thompson, Brian Hawkins, Shaun Williams
CAPTAINS: Dan Ghormley, John Verhelst
2003 VARSITY SCHEDULE
Aug. 9 at North Pole 4 p.m.
Aug. 15 at Colony 7 p.m.
Aug. 22 LATHROP 6:30 p.m.
Aug. 29 SKYVIEW 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 5 at Nikiski 6 p.m.
Sept. 13 HOMER 2 p.m.
Sept. 20 KODIAK 2 p.m.
Sept. 27 at Kenai 2 p.m.
Home games in CAPS
Running backs Neil Gardner, a senior, and Garrett Gardner, a junior, also got their feet wet in varsity action last year.
But, leave no doubt, Truesdell will have to plug some big holes. Senior Johnny Mills and junior Cameron Schneider will play split end, a spot occupied last season by all-conference selection Rick Simpson.
And on the offensive line, the Stars lost their entire right side a right side in which each player was first-team all-state.
"Fortunately, I feel the strength of our coaching staff is in line coaches Galen Brantley and Jeff Baker," Truesdell said. "They put a tremendous amount of time and effort into these kids, and it shows with the line play we have each year."
The leader of the line will be senior John Verhelst, who has started the past two years. Others on the line will be senior tight end Clay Burman and juniors Matt Hicks, Ryan Hughes, Daniel Spindler and Kurt Romberg.
Truesdell has been involved with the Soldotna defense for six years now, so opponents can expect to see the same defensive scheme, with, of course, some wrinkles.
What opponents won't see is Sizemore and Zack Boll, a pair of first-team all-state interior linemen Truesdell said will be impossible to replace.
What opponents will see is a number of the offensive linemen on defense.
"Last year, we only had to have three guys playing both ways," Truesdell said. "That really helped us in the fourth quarter. This year, we're not going to have that luxury."
Neil Gardner and junior Brandy Goracke will play inside linebacker, while Ghormley and junior Tyler Cameron will play outside linebacker. Truesdell also expects to find some time for sophomore linebacker Jake Howarth. It's the first time in two years the Soldotna varsity, which also includes sophomore Cory Wilbanks, has had a sophomore on the roster.
The secondary will include Garrett Gardner, Mills, Schneider and senior Brett Toering.
Truesdell said Soldotna has the talent to have another great season. The big question mark will be the leadership.
"Most games are won on talent," Truesdell said. "Things like speed and strength are going to make the difference most of the time. But you also can't win without leadership. Last year, we definitely won a lot of games because of our leadership. This year, we need to find that combination of talent and leadership again."
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