Finally, something's going to be hanging in the balance at a Kenai-Soldotna football game besides just bragging rights.
When the two longtime rivals get together at Soldotna's Justin Maile Field at 2 p.m. Saturday, they will be playing for a chance to jump into the driver's seat in the race for a playoff spot, home-field advantage in the playoffs and the Northern Lights Conference championship.
Kenai coach Jim Beeson, now in his 13th season with the Kardinals, said 1996 was the last time a Kenai-Soldotna game meant this much to both teams, which both come into Saturday's game undefeated in the conference.
And the 1996 game was a heart-stopping contest few will soon forget.
"It was as good of a high school football game as I've ever been involved in," Beeson said.
Both teams came into the 1996 game in the midst of the hunt for a playoff spot. What's more, Soldotna had lost four straight to Kenai and was looking to get one last victory over the Kards for outgoing coach Bob Boudreaux, who would retire at the end of the season as the only coach in SoHi's 17-year history.
Trailing 30-27, Soldotna drove to the Kenai 6-yard line with 32 seconds remaining behind quarterback Mark Wackler and receiver Troy Karsten, who were both in the midst of seasons where they smashed all the state passing and receiving records.
However, Kenai's defense stiffened when Curtis Hembroff sacked Wackler for a 10-yard loss. Soldotna, knocked out of range for a tying field goal, had two unproductive plays before time expired.
While that 1996 game featured a ground-churning Kenai team against Soldotna's high-flying aerial circus, things should be a little different Saturday.
Since Boudreaux retired after the 1996 season, coach Rob Dimick and his ground-hugging style have taken hold at Soldotna. The Stars have used that rushing attack to defeat the Kardinals in each of Dimick's three seasons as coach.
"In the past few years, their players have whipped us at the point of attack," Beeson said. "They've had a football team of big, strong kids and they have one again this year.
"They just line up and play smash-mouth football."
However, Beeson also said his team is a little more physical this year. In order to draw as much tenaciousness out of his squad as possible, Beeson is calling on games like the classic played in 1996.
"They've heard about some of the great teams we've had a Kenai, and I told them the one thing those teams have in common is that they defeated Soldotna," Beeson said. "It's always been a measuring stick for us.
"When you walk around town and people start asking about the season you've had, the first thing they'll ask is whether you beat Soldotna."
Dimick is expecting a whale of a challenge not only from the Kardinals players, but from Kenai's coaching staff as well. One of those coaches, defensive coordinator Jim Dawson, was an assistant coach for Soldotna in the 1996 game.
"Kenai does a lot of things that can give you trouble," Dimick said. "I think they have as good of a coaching staff as there is in the state."
However, Dimick is no spring chicken himself, having led Soldotna to a playoff berth last season under the old conference alignments. The 1999 Stars were the first team to make the playoffs from the peninsula since Beeson's 1996 team.
The coach is becoming known as an excellent motivator and for teams that play solid defense and control the ball on offense.
Early in the week, Dimick already sounded ready for the kickoff.
"I think no matter what, whether it's Soldotna or Kenai, they're going to be running the football," Dimick said. "It's gonna be down and dirty in the pits and we'll see who blocks and who tackles.
"Once the dust clears, we'll all look up at the scoreboard and see who won the game."
Ketchikan at Skyview
Unless something changes, it looks like a big homecoming party's on at Skyview on Friday. In their first year of varsity football, the Kings have been outscored 216-20.
Meanwhile, a solid Panther squad is in the hunt for a playoff spot. If the Panthers beat the Kings, then top Kenai the following week, only a tiebreaking scenario can keep them out of the playoffs.
While Skyview will have all the emotion of a homecoming, it also will have something to prove after getting whipped by Nikiski 32-6 last week.
Service JV at Nikiski
As of last weekend, Nikiski coach Scott Anderson really didn't know what to expect in this game.
The Bulldogs, undefeated and considered the top small school team in the state, go up against the junior varsity squad of one of the state's traditional big-school powerhouses.
"They have 140 kids out for their program," Anderson said. "Their varsity team is playing out of the state this week, so it's hard to say who's going to show up.
"They could send a bunch of good players down here and give us a tough test."
No matter who Service sends, the one things that's for sure is that fans who like the wing-T offense should be at this game. Both the Cougars and Bulldogs have used the offense to achieve multiple championships.
Homer at ACS
Homer, at 1-2 in the Northern Lights Conference, and Anchorage Christian Schools, at 0-3 in the Great Land Conference, both will probably not make the playoffs this year. However, this could be the first step in either team ending the year on a positive note.
Houston at Seward
Houston can wrap up a Great Land playoff spot with a victory over the Seahawks, while Seward can stay in the playoff hunt with a win.
Seward got off to a miserable start this season, getting blown out in its first two games, but since then the Seahawks have gotten some players back and won two straight.
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