Soldotna's Kory Wilbanks (88) and Jacob Howarth (40) bring down Homer's Noah McWilliams in the second quarter Friday.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
The Homer Mariners came into Friday's Northern Lights Conference battle with the Soldotna Stars with something to prove. Homer has never made the state football playoffs, and the Mariners knew they'd have to go through perennial peninsula powerhouse SoHi to have much of a chance of making a name for themselves in 2005.
As the seconds ticked down at Justin Maile field in Soldotna, Homer made a decisive statement that Mariners football is indeed a force to be reckoned with.
"Who are we? Mariners! Who are we? Mariners!" the Homer players chanted as they walked off with a 14-7 win.
"I've never beat SoHi ... it just means so much," Homer's Noah McWilliams said following the game. "I'm kind of at a loss for words right now."
Homer got third quarter touchdown runs from quarterback Canyon McKinstry and running back Cameron Hagen, who finished with a game-high 131 rushing yards on 16 carries. Marvin Tate led Soldotna with 65 yards rushing on 12 carries. Homer outgained Soldotna 298-226, with all of the Mariners' yards coming on the ground.
The game began as a defensive struggle, with neither team having much success moving the ball early on.
Soldotna finally broke things open late in the first quarter when quarterback Aleks Pfaffe dropped back to pass on third down. Pfaffe lofted a perfect toss to a streaking Kory Wilbanks, who caught the ball in mid-stride and raced untouched to the end zone for an 87-yard touchdown reception.
Pfaffe finished the game with 105 passing yards on just four attempts with no interceptions.
Soldotna had a couple opportunities later in the first half, getting interceptions from Pfaffe and Jacob Howarth on successive Homer drives. But the Stars were unable to drive any deeper than the Homer 38-yard line before running into the teeth of the Mariner defense.
Homer came out of the locker room fired up in the second half, putting together an 11-play, 65-yard drive that culminated in McKinstry's touchdown plunge. Hagen's conversion run put the Mariners up 8-7 and provided a big momentum swing.
"After we started to get the momentum, we knew we could do it," McWilliams said of his team's play in the second half.
Perhaps the biggest play of the game came on the ensuing kickoff. Tate fielded the ball on his own 20 and headed upfield. Tate got as far as his own 30 before being upended by a host of Mariners.
The ball popped loose and Homer recovered, giving the Mariners a first down deep in SoHi territory.
Homer wasted little time moving downfield, taking six plays to set up Hagen's 2-yard run.
From that point on the game came down to whether or not SoHi could get anything going against the stingy Mariner defense.
Things looked promising for the Stars midway through the final quarter as SoHi's ground game finally got moving. The Stars went from their own 15-yard line all the way down to the Homer 5 with just under five minutes to go.
That's when the Mariners dug in.
"We were just saying, 'We've got to show some heart here,'" McWilliams said of the pivotal goal line stand.
On first and goal, SoHi handed off to Jacob Howarth, who was stuffed at the line. On second down, Tate got the call, but he could only get a yard. Then on third down, McWilliams busted through the Soldotna defense, grabbing Bryce Gardner in the backfield to force fourth down. The Stars then tried rolling out with Pfaffe, but Hagen came up from his defensive back spot to make the play and end Soldotna's best drive of the game.
SoHi head coach Sarge Truesdell said the difference Friday night was at the line of scrimmage, where Homer was able to dominate for much of the game.
"They absolutely kicked our butts on the line in the second half," Truesdell said.
Homer never let SoHi get the ball back, keeping the ball on the ground and running out the clock for the victory.
"We worked for it and we earned it," Homer coach Kelly Blake said.
With the win, Homer moves to 3-1 overall and 1-0 in the NLC. The loss drops SoHi to 2-2 overall and 1-1 in the conference.
Although the loss puts SoHi in a tough spot in what's shaping up to be a tight playoff race, Truesdell pointed out that his troops have responded well in previous seasons to difficult circumstances.
"That's what football teams have been doing at SoHi for 25 years," he said. "Hopefully our kids will respond."
Soldotna has a non conference matchup against Nikiski next Friday, while Homer hosts Kodiak (1-3 overall, 1-2 NLC) next Saturday. The Bears lost 28-14 to Kenai on Saturday in Kodiak.
Mariners 14, Stars 7
Soldotna 7 0 0 0 7
Homer 0 0 14 0 14
Sol Wilbanks 87 pass from Pfaffe (Griglione kick), :25
Hom McKinstry 1 run (Hagen run), 6:22
Hom Hagen 2 run (kick failed), 3:27
First downs 7 19
Rushes-yards 35-121 56-298
Passing yards 105 0
Return yards 15 5
Passing 2-4-0 0-5-2
Punts-avg 4-34.3 4-36.5
Fumbles-lost 1-1 2-0
Penalties-yards 10-52 8-40
Rushing Soldotna: Tate 12-65, Howarth 3-25, Reed 6-14, Gardner 8-9, Pfaffe 5-6, Hatt 1-2. Homer: Hagen 16-131, Verburgt 16-79, McWilliams 13-44, Smith 1-24, McKinstry 10-20.
Passing Soldotna: Pfaffe 2-4-0-105. Homer: McKinstry 0-5-2-0.
Receiving Soldotna: Wilbanks 1-87, Seggerman 1-18.
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