There's just three weeks to go in the high school football season, and the peninsula's teams are in the thick of a battle for playoff spots.
Soldotna and Nikiski can each clinch small-schools playoff berths with wins this weekend.
On the other side of the fence, Homer and Skyview will be fighting for their playoff lives. A loss for either team would leave them in dire straits in the race for the playoffs.
The Stars will host the Mariners as part of their homecoming festivities at Justin Maile Field Saturday with kickoff slated for 2 p.m.
On Friday, the Panthers host the undefeated Kenai Central Kardinals while the Nikiski Bulldogs will be celebrating homecoming against the Seward Seahawks. Both games are slated to start at 5:30 p.m.
"Homer scares me," said Soldotna coach Sarge Truesdell after the Stars dispatched the Panthers last weekend. "They're an excellent football team."
Soldotna enters the game with a 2-0 mark in Northern Lights Conference play after opening the season with three nonconference losses. Truesdell suspects the difficult early schedule has toughened up the Stars for their stretch run.
"Every year, we play big teams early on," Truesdell said. "We go up against guys that are bigger and stronger. Then, when we get back to our conference schedule, our guys start to realize that they're bigger and stronger than a lot of teams around here.
"We got beat by 50 twice, and these guys didn't let down. They know it all comes down to what happens on the peninsula."
The Homer offense is lead by quarterback Aaron Smith who, with 345 yards and four touchdowns passing to go with 397 yards and seven touchdowns rushing, is a threat to run or throw on any given down.
Smith has led the Mariners to a 4-1 overall mark, their only loss coming in NLC play against Skyview. A second loss would hurt the Mariners' chances of playing in the postseason.
Soldotna's Cason Simpson had a breakout day for the Stars last week against Skyview, carrying the ball 36 times for 190 yards to power the Stars' ball-control, double wing offense.
The Panthers will try to shake off last week's performance. Skyview enters the game with a 3-2 overall record, but at 1-1 in the NLC, a loss all but eliminates the Panthers from postseason play.
"If we want to look at the playoffs, we definitely need to win it. It's a big one, no doubt," Skyview coach Wade Marcuson said. "We just hope we come out and play. We didn't feel like we did a very good job against Soldotna -- we were playing more not to lose rather than going out and trying to win.
"The kids are excited. They're ready to play, and they need to show people that they're better than what they showed against Soldotna."
To succeed, the Panthers will have to contain Kenai running back Cory Janson. Janson has carried the ball for 979 yards this season, averaging 8.7 yards a carry and 196 rushing yards per game. Janson has scored 13 touchdowns on the ground. He's also a dangerous return man with both a punt return and a kick return for touchdowns.
Kenai is 5-0 overall and 1-0 in NLC play. While a win doesn't clinch a playoff spot and a loss doesn't eliminate the Kardinals from the postseason, the result certainly will go a long way toward shaping Kenai's final two games of the season -- home games against Homer and Soldotna.
Nikiski coach Scott Anderson always expects Seward to put its best game of the season together against the Bulldogs, and he's tried to keep his squad focused on the game and not distracted by homecoming activities.
"We're really focused on keeping the attitude locked in on football. We realize the most important thing of homecoming week is the football game," Anderson said.
After dropping its first game of the season to Chugiak, the Bulldogs have reeled off four straight wins. Their average margin of victory is almost 42 points over that stretch, including a pair of shutouts.
Seward coach Dan Bohrnsen knows the Seahawks are in a for a battle.
"Well, we're going to try to play the game the best we can," Bohrnsen said. "We know they're an extremely good football team. We're going to do the best we can and try not to make any mistakes. If we play the game we're capable of, maybe we can hang with them."
The Seahawks, 2-3 overall, are 1-0 in Great Land Conference play.
The Bulldogs and Seahawks played each other for the GLC title three times before the Alaska School Activities Association recognized a small schools champion last year, and the teams have developed an intense rivalry.
"It's always been a friendly type of rivalry," Bohrnsen said, adding that many players on both teams compete in other sports, particularly wrestling. "We know those kids pretty well, and they know us pretty well."
Anderson said the rivalry is a nice part of the game, but added that the Bulldogs, as good as they are, still need to think about getting better.
"The focus for us is still ourselves and getting better," Anderson said. "The Seward-Nikiski rivalry is a big deal, but we still need to improve. We're going to be facing teams down the road that have improved dramatically over the course of the season."
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