The winner of the Kenai-Soldotna game at 2 p.m. on Saturday will win the small schools state championship -- or at least that's the way it's transpired the past six seasons.
Starting in 2002 when the Kardinals avenged a regular-season loss to SoHi by beating the Stars in the title game, the victor in this now 32-year-old rivalry, including two by Kenai in 2004, has been crowned state champion every year since, with Kenai winning from 2003-05 and Soldotna running off 25 consecutive wins in capturing the past two championships.
"That's a crazy stat," said SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr.
Perhaps more crazy, though, is the level the Stars have been performing at since an Aug. 12, 2006 loss to Colony, Soldotna's only setback in the past three seasons.
"Every game is winnable. That's why you show up to play," said Kardinals coach Jim Beeson. "But in order for us to win we have to do absolutely everything right and they would have to not do everything right. They would have to mess up a whole lot.
"You never know what's going to happen with high school kids."
When it comes to Soldotna, things are a bit more predictable.
Like an explosive running game featuring four formidable backs (Anthony Griglione, Kyle Wood, Chris Nolden and Braden Price) and a mobile quarterback (Zayan Aberkane) whose increasingly dangerous arm has been wreaking havoc on opponents' defenses, which has yet to intercept one of his passes this season.
And speaking of defenses, the Stars' has allowed a mere six points in their past four games, three of which were shutouts.
"They have so many offensive weapons, they can score at any time from anywhere," Beeson admitted. "We just want to try and make it a competitive football game where it's not 50-0 at halftime."
SoHi owns a 17-14 edge in the all-time series, having outscored the Kardinals, 603-360, including 11 shutouts, one of them a 44-0 blanking at Kenai last season.
History, though, doesn't mean much when these teams square off.
"For a lot of years, when they were making their run, they were a lot better than us and we found ways to play them close," Brantley said. "It's a matter of time until they return the favor."
Soldotna (6-0 overall, 4-0 NLC) is fresh off a convincing 48-0 drubbing of Kodiak, which hosts Houston this week in a game that could determine the second, third and fourth playoff seeds from the Northern Lights Conference.
Should Kenai, which avoided a major upset by holding onto a 14-12 win over visiting Homer last weekend, stun SoHi and Houston defeat Kodiak, a coin flip would then determine the top three playoff berths.
And while both teams have already qualified for the postseason, that's something Brantley wants to avoid altogether.
"We could end up traveling, that's how big of a game it is. I sat up there and watched that coin toss at the Region III athletics contest and I don't want any part of that," he said with a laugh referring to the coin flip between Barrow, Eielson and Nikiski. "It seemed like a really informal way to decide where you're going."
A SoHi win would not only clinch the NLC crown, the Stars third in as many seasons, but would also lock up homefield advantage throughout the first two rounds of the playoffs and Soldotna's second consecutive perfect season, although only seven games were played this year compared to eight last season.
But Brantley isn't looking ahead just yet.
"I think on any given day any team could beat any team. I didn't think Barrow had any chance against Eielson," he said, citing the Whalers upset of the Ravens, who beat Nikiski, which topped Barrow last week. "People pay too much attention to the margin of victory. Anything can happen when you line up.
"The biggest variable is the turnover margin," Brantley added. "I think if you put the ball on the ground two or three times in a half, it doesn't matter who you're playing, they're going to hang around."
That's something the Kardinals are hoping for if they want to pull off one of the greatest upsets in NLC history.
They'll also need running back Billy Kiefer and freshly minted quarterback Dalton Chappell to control the clock and capitalize on every single opportunity.
"We can't be throwing incomplete pass after incomplete pass after incomplete pass and turn around and give them the ball back," Beeson said. "We have to be excellent clock managers to have a remote chance of winning the football game."
Should the Kardinals keep it close, something they're accustomed to this season, late-game advantages may shift in their favor, as many Stars' starters have yet to see the field in the fourth quarter this season.
Four of Kenai's five wins have come by a combined 11 points, while both losses have occurred by a combined touchdown.
"I don't know if anybody would say we have the edge in any department," Beeson said. "We do have the edge in playing close football games because every game of ours but one has been by less than a touchdown."
Brantley, who's team owns an average margin of victory of ??.? points per game isn't so sure what would happen should Kenai stick around.
"To be honest with you, I think this is the best coaching job that coach Beeson and coach (Jim) Dawson have done," he said. "They have pulled out so many close ballgames this year. It's tough to get kids to win that many close ballgames with all the things that go on.
"We haven't been in a close game yet."
Despite both teams already making plans for October football, the first time since 2005 for the Kardinals, both coaches agree neither team is going to relent, especially with the conference crown, or at least a share of it, on the line.
"Anytime you play Soldotna, it's not just another game," Beeson conceded. "It's good to know that regardless of the outcome, we are in the playoffs and the likelihood is we're going to end up in their half of the bracket anyway, so we could end up playing them again in two weeks if we're fortunate enough.
"We have as much riding on it as they do," he added. "They'll be ready to play. ... It's not like we're going to sneak up on them or anything. They're going to want to come out and whip us, no question."
Stars, Kards set for battleOne year ago, the Bulldogs would be preparing for their final game of the season.
With the advent of two extra postseason berths this year, bringing the total number of Greatland Conference playoff spots to four instead of just two, Nikiski is now getting set for at least two more games.
It was 2006 when Nikiski, Eielson and Houston flipped a coin to decide which two squads would be playing in October.
The Bulldogs, despite earning a share of the conference crown, lost.
This year, after Nikiski's 40-30 thrilling upset of previously undefeated Barrow on Friday, a coin was flipped to determine the top three playoff berths, should Nikiski beat winless Seward and the Whalers defeat one-win Delta Junction.
Barrow won the toss and will host a first-round playoff game, as will Eielson. The Bulldogs, despite having to travel for the opening round next weekend, are just happy to be included this time.
"That was kind of a bittersweet ending to a season, sharing the conference title and not getting able to play," Nikiski coach Ted Riddall said of two years ago. "Imagine what would happen when you beat the No. 1 seed and you sit home. It wouldn't seem right."
So Nikiski (4-3 overall, 4-1 GLC) is now basking in the glory of qualifying for the postseason for the first time since 2005, yet isn't overlooking the Seahawks, who have struggled to an 0-7 overall mark and an 0-5 record in the conference.
"You guys can look at scores and all those things, but then we didn't have a chance against Barrow," Riddall said. "I tend not to look at the scoreboard and focus on scores of games when you prepare for teams you're going to play that week. You can't control those things. You can control what you're doing.
"If they're not going to make the playoffs, to play as good as they can against us would be a win for them."
The Panthers are hoping to close the season with two straight wins.
After capturing a 40-6 nonconference triumph over Ketchikan, Skyview coach Jerry Byrne and Co. turn their attention to earning the school's first NLC victory this season.
"It's really important after this season to end on a winning note," Byrne admitted. "It wouldn't make a better season, but you're ending on a winning note."
For that to happen, though, the Panthers will need to limit their mistakes after committing crucial and untimely penalties in a number of close losses this season, none more evident than in a 7-6 loss at Kenai.
"That's always a hope. That's something that, believe it or not, we've been working on all year," he said. "It just seems to rear its ugly head. It's one of those things where the penalty is extremely costly, a touchdown called back and all that sort of thing."
Skyview is also seeking revenge for the Mariners 20-6 win last season.
"The kids are really hungry to get that win from Homer this year."
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