With a week left to play in the regular season, games already are taking on a playoff atmosphere with exciting matchups and playoff implications.
"We've been able to build throughout the year and we've played our best during the conference schedule," said Soldotna coach Sarge Truesdell. "Kenai's done the same, and on the other side, the same is true with Nikiski, Houston and Seward."
The Kenai Central High School Kardinals visit the Stars Saturday in a bout for the Northern Lights Conference crown. Kickoff is 2 p.m. at Justin Maile Field.
Kenai-SoHi always promises to be an entertaining affair, and this year should be no exception. The Kardinals and the Stars enter the game with matching 6-1 overall records and 2-0 conference marks. Both teams have had the most productive offenses and stingiest defenses through the NLC schedule.
"It's going to be a dogfight," said Kenai coach Jim Beeson. "Their defense is just as good as ours."
Also Saturday, the Homer Mariners and star running back David Drake will visit Skyview, with game time slated for 2 p.m. While the Panthers and the Mariners have been eliminated from playoff contention, Homer will try to get Drake the state rushing title while the Panthers will be playing for pride.
In Great Land Conference play, Nikiski will try to sew up a return trip to the playoffs with its game at Seward Saturday at 2 p.m.
The Bulldogs, 3-0 in the conference after a win at Anchorage Christian Schools, can secure the GLC's top seed with a win over the Seahawks who, at 2-1 in the conference, also would like to secure a postseason berth.
A Nikiski loss and a Houston (2-1 in the GLC) win against ACS (1-2) would create a three-way tie atop the GLC standings. The Seahawks need a win and help from the Lions to make the playoffs; a Houston win coupled with a Nikiski victory and the Hawks are in.
Truesdell, an admitted film junkie, said the Stars' preparations for this weekend have been extensive -- and not just putting together homecoming floats.
"The more film I watch on Kenai, the better I realize they execute on offense. They can break it at any minute," Truesdell said. "There's not many teams around here that run the same thing. Every week (we see) something different. ... The key thing is, I don't think we've faced a team that executes as well as they do."
Beeson, who has seen his squad make big plays all season, expects the team that executes better to win the game.
"It's going to be a matter of whoever creates opportunities, and that's done by not putting the ball on the ground," Beeson said. "There's three facets (offense, defense and special teams) to the game, and you have to win two of the three to have a realistic chance. Special teams will be a huge factor."
Special teams has been a huge factor for the Kardinals all season with three kickoff returns and one punt return for touchdowns.
"We've been fortunate with the kids back there running the football," Beeson said. "It's the same thing we preach on offense -- you never know when that one big play is going to happen. We all have to do our part to help (the ballcarriers) find the seam. Those plays are so huge because they take the wind out of the other team's sails."
The winner gets to host the first round of the small-schools playoffs, and both sides would like to play in front of the home crowd once more.
"You want to win the conference championship, and when we step on the field, we want to win bad," Truesdell said. "The consolation is that you're still in the playoffs, but I think the biggest thing (to realize) is that the two teams coming out of the Great Land Conference are going to be quality opponents. By no no means can we look past that game -- we're not assuming that there's going to be a rematch."
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