In a rematch of last year's small-schools state championship, Kenai Central and Soldotna will battle for the Northern Lights Conference crown Saturday at 4 p.m. at Justin Maile Field.
The Kardinals dealt Stars head coach Galen Brantley Jr. his first postseason loss in three years in last year's championship game, winning 21-10. SoHi defeated Kenai 52-27 three weeks prior in the final game of the 2009 season.
Needless to say, the Kenai-SoHi rivalry is circled on both team's calendars each and every season.
"It's a game that our kids look forward to every year," Brantley Jr. said. "Likewise, the coaching staff and kids do at Kenai. It's a rival game. It's an exciting football game."
Kards head coach Jeff Baker reiterated Brantley Jr.'s words.
"The tempo is way up. The excitement is way up," he said. "They know this is the rivalry. This is the game. Motivation is not a problem this week for sure."
SoHi is equally eager for kickoff.
"Our kids are excited," Brantley Jr. said. "If you can't get up for your rivalry game, then something is wrong with you."
Of any team that knows SoHi best, it's Kenai, and vice versa.
"We're not gonna sneak up on each other, that's for sure," Brantley Jr. said. "We know we're gonna get a healthy dose of AJ (Hull)."
Hull has rushed for 572 yards and 15 touchdowns. He's thrown for 554 yards and eight touchdowns. Kai Risung leads Kenai with 609 rushing yards and Tyler Glidden has collected 399 yards. Through the air, Alex Nason has a team-high 234 yards and four scores.
"They're too explosive for us to stop," Brantley Jr. said. "We're just gonna try to limit big plays as best we can."
Kenai's challenge on defense will be slowing down Robbie Smithwick, who has the second-most rushing yards on the Kenai Peninsula with 781 and 10 touchdowns.
"We have to figure out a way to stop Robbie," Baker said. "Smithwick has been playing really well."
Baker said he wants to force SoHi into passing situations.
SoHi's Phil Bennett, who suffered a separated shoulder in Week 5, will not participate against Kenai. Brantley Jr. said he will be back sometime in the postseason. Even just playing five games, Bennett is currently third among Peninsula rushers with 660 yards and nine touchdowns.
Both coaches said playing mistake-free football is crucial.
Kenai needs to have success through the air and on the ground, Baker said.
"I'd like to see us be a little bit more evenly spread," he said. "Run and pass the ball both."
Kenai and SoHi have clinched first-round home playoff games, but bragging rights -- along with a conference title -- is on the line.
"We would very much like to repeat as conference champions," Brantley Jr. said. "It's one of our goals each year.
"It will take a pretty intense effort to do that," he said. "Kenai is a pretty good football team."
"It's a pride thing just as much as anything else," Baker said. "Winning or losing to Soldotna is never an unimportant matter."
Eielson at Nikiski, Saturday noon
The undefeated Ravens and Bulldogs square off in the Greatland Conference championship. Nikiski won its last outright title in 2001 and shared it in 2006 and 2008.
"Eielson will be tough," Bulldogs head coach Ted Riddall said after Nikiski's 47-7 win over Barrow last week. "If you don't pay attention, it can cost you."
Nikiski needs to play a full 48 minutes, Riddall said.
Kaden Spurgeon leads all Peninsula rushers with 831 yards and 13 touchdowns. Quarterback Colton Anderson is second in passing with 722 yards and eight touchdowns.
Stefan Krogseng leads all Nikiski receivers with 173 yards and two scores. Corey Green is right behind Krogseng with 170 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
Nikiski has the top-ranked defense on the Peninsula. The Bulldogs have only allowed an average of 14.5 points per game. Nikiski has the second-best offense. It averages more than 35 points per game and has collected a total of 2,490 yards this season.
Kodiak at Skyview, Saturday 2 p.m.
With a win, the Panthers will clinch a postseason berth for the first time since the small-schools, large-schools split. Should the Bears win, the playoff picture will depend on the Houston-Homer game and possibly a coin flip.
Scenario 1: Skyview and Homer win. Both make the playoffs, with Skyview as the No. 3 seed from the NLC and Homer as No. 4.
Scenario 2: Skyview and Houston win. Skyview moves on as the third seed. Homer, Houston and Kodiak will each have one conference win. A coin flip will take place. The odd team is out and a head-to-head tiebreaker will determine the team to take the fourth seed.
Scenario 3: Kodiak and Homer win. Skyview, Homer and Kodiak finish with two NLC wins. A coin flip will take place. The odd team is eliminated and a head-to-head tiebreaker will determine the third and fourth seeds.
Scenario 4: Kodiak and Houston win. Skyview and Kodiak will have two conference wins. Kodiak will be the third seed and Skyview fourth due to a head-to-head tiebreaker.
Limiting mistakes will be key for success, Panthers head coach Eric Pomerleau said.
"Really it will come down to blocking and tackling," he said.
The offensive line, as it has all year, will be critical for Skyview.
"It doesn't really matter what you run, as long as you get it done up front, you're gonna be successful," Pomerleau said.
And SkyHi's line has been getting it done. Pomerleau said they've only given up one "legitimate" sack in the last 100 passing attempts. Pomerleau said the line has provided good protection for quarterback Jordan Jones, who leads all Peninsula passers with 1,268 yards and 21 touchdowns.
"We've seen just about every blitz package to get to Jordan," Pomerleau said. "The line takes great pride in picking up the blitzes."
Albert White has been Jones' favorite target. White leads all Peninsula receivers with 510 yards and 10 touchdowns. Richard Reynolds is second with 330 receiving yards and five scores and Nick Symonds is third with 238 yards and three touchdowns.
Making the playoffs is one of Skyview's main goals for the season, Pomerleau said. The Panthers want to establish their program as one to be reckoned with at all times, he said.
Houston at Homer, Saturday 2 p.m.
While winning doesn't necessarily guarantee Homer will make the playoffs, but it will certainly put the odds in its favor. After graduating 16 seniors, the Mariners want to prove they have a strong program by earning a postseason berth -- something they've accomplished just twice in three decades, according to Mariners head coach Camron Wyatt.
"It's never over for the Mariners," Wyatt said. We had a good game against Kenai. Each and every week we're getting closer and closer."
The Kards edged Homer 21-16 last week.
Like Homer, Houston doesn't look great on paper, Wyatt said. But Homer isn't looking past the Hawks.
"You cannot take any of these folks lightly," he said. "If you do, they're gonna get you."
Wyatt said Houston is a mix of Nikiski and Kenai. They will run the power I but also spread you out, he said. Along with a playoff berth on the line, Homer's homecoming has the team ready to play, Wyatt said.
"The school is in great spirit," he said. "The kids are focused."
Homer will continue its one-play-at-a-time mentality this week, Wyatt said.
"We're gonna stick to our basics on the offensive side," he said.
On defense, the team needs to fix some errors it had against Kenai, Wyatt said.
"Our goal is to execute at a higher efficiency," he said. "We have to play error-free football this week."
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