Juicy rivalries fill weekend gridiron slate

Posted: Friday, September 06, 2002

Like many an area football enthusiast, Kenai Central coach Jim Beeson is going to have a problem tonight.

The coach would love more than anything to be at the rivalry-infused Soldotna-Skyview game, which kicks off Northern Lights Conference play this year.

"I think it's gonna be a war," Beeson said. "Obviously, it being Soldotna-Skyview is going to add a little spice at the same time.

"I wish our game was on Saturday. I'd like to go myself. I'd like people to come out and watch us, but I won't hold it against them if they go see Soldotna-Skyview."

Beeson will be involved in a rivalry game himself today when his team faces off against Nikiski in nonconference play. Action kicks off in Nikiski at 5:30, while the ball should be in the air at about 6 p.m. at Skyview.

As if that weren't enough, another all-peninsula tussle will ensue in Homer, where Seward will be visiting for a 5:30 p.m. game today.

Skyview-Soldotna stands apart from the other two contests because it is a conference game. This year, with only four teams in the NLC, every conference game has a must-win feel.

"This game sets the tone for the conference," said Skyview coach Wade Marcuson, whose squad has put up a 3-1 record in nonconference play. "Conference comes down to three ballgames."

Skyview-Soldotna hardly needs conference drama to be compelling. With the schools less than 4 miles apart, the matchup often has the feel of brothers getting together in the back yard for a bragging-rights game of tackle football.

Marcuson graduated from Soldotna, while Soldotna coach Sarge Truesdell graduated from Skyview. Truesdell also teaches at Soldotna Middle School -- the facility that eventually shuttles kids on to both Skyview and Soldotna.

"The kids all grew up together and went to the same junior high," said Truesdell, whose team is 3-1 overall. "I teach at the junior high, I had all those kids, and I like all those kids.

"Regardless of how important it is for conference standing, championships and the playoffs, it's still a pride thing. These are people you'll be seeing every day around town for the rest of the year."

In the past, Panthers, including Truesdell in his high school days, have mostly been the ones trying to duck out of supermarkets unnoticed in the days following the game.

Skyview is 1-11 against Soldotna, with the one win being a 13-12 classic in 1998.

"Being 1 for 12 so far, I can't say we've handled this very well in the past," said Marcuson, who is in his fifth year leading Skyview. "As coaches, we've tried different things throughout the years. Some work, some don't.

"This game throws a lot of distractions out at the kids. The question is whether they remain focused."

One group that will have to remain especially focused is Skyview's secondary. The Stars have the top passing offense on the peninsula, and Skyview has shown vulnerability to big passing plays this year.

"I don't look at this game so much as weaknesses vs. strengths," said Truesdell, who will be head coaching in the rivalry for the first time. "We both have strength in one area, and that's the line.

"It's those guys banging heads that are going to determine who wins the football game."

The game will be decided by whether Skyview can get a pass rush on defense and control the ball on offense.

"Time of possession for us, if we're not going to be passing the ball a lot, will be a large part of the game," Marcuson said. "We need long, sustained drives.

"We have to take care of the ball and use the clock to our advantage."

Both Marcuson and Truesdell said their teams will be healthy for the game.

The Kenai-Nikiski game doesn't ring with the same urgency because it is a nonconference affair. But members of those two teams have just as much chance at bumping into each other in a fast-food joint or grocery store in Kenai as Soldotna-Skyview players have of crossing paths while making a video rental in Soldotna.

Nikiski has had the upper hand in the rivalry recently. Although the teams haven't played every year, the Kardinals (3-1 overall) haven't managed to notch a victory vs. Nikiski since 1996.

The Bulldogs, the two-time defending state champions off to a 1-3 start this year, again have Beeson concerned.

"They play hard all the time and they're well-coached," he said. "When you put those things together, it's very scary."

Also unsettling to Beeson is the Bulldogs' halcyon calm of late. Nikiski hasn't scored since the first week of the season, and Beeson figures that's bound to change sooner rather than later.

"We're looking for confidence out of this game more than anything else," Beeson said. "Nothing else would be better than beating a quality team like Nikiski as we head into conference play."

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