For the second straight contest dating back to last year, Kenai and Soldotna battled down to the final minutes in a bruising game featuring two teams completely unwilling to back down from one another.
Quarterback Cole Chappell's 1-yard touchdown plunge with just over two minutes left in the game provided the final margin of victory, but it was a special teams blunder that set up the decisive score.
With seven minutes remaining and SoHi ahead 7-6, the Stars forced Kenai to punt from its own 29-yard-line. The short punt struck Soldotna's Johnny Mills in the leg, and Kenai's Tyler Chappell recovered for Kenai.
Kenai was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct on the play, and took over on its own 46-yard-line. The Kardinals then wore SoHi down by continuing to run behind junior halfback Dakota Craig. Including the plays before the botched punt return, Craig carried nine times for 21 yards, and Ryann Hansen added 15 as Kenai ground out the winning score.
Soldotna coach Sarge Truesdell said his defense just couldn't quite hold off the persistent Kardinals.
"Our defense just got wore out," Truesdell said.
Tyler Chappell celebrates after recovering a muffed punt from SoHi in the fourth quarter.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Despite the fact that the defense came up just short, Truesdell said he was thrilled with how the Soldotna defense played overall. SoHi held the top rushing team on the peninsula to just 168 yards on 58 carries.
"They played phenomenal," Truesdell said.
With the victory, Kenai earns the Northern Lights Conference title and a home playoff game next week against Nikiski (Saturday, 2 p.m.). Soldotna will travel to Fairbanks to face Eielson (Saturday, 1 p.m.), with the winners of the two games to meet two weeks from now in the state small schools championship game. Kenai beat SoHi in last year's championship game in a 7-6 thriller.
From early on Saturday, it was obvious both teams wanted to control the contest with the running game. In the first quarter alone, Craig carried 13 times for 67 yards, while SoHi's Dan Ghormley had 44 yards on 6 carries.
Soldotna opened the scoring in the second quarter, when Garrett Gardner took a handoff up the middle 14 yards to the end zone. Shane Tachick tacked on the extra point, giving SoHi a lead it would not give up until the closing minutes.
Kenai struck back in the closing seconds of the quarter when senior quarterback Cole Chappell found a wide open Hansen in the end zone for a 30-yard touchdown pass. Jose Araya's extra point attempt sailed wide left, leaving Kenai in a 7-6 hole going into the half.
Soldotna's Dan Ghormley gets a hand on Kenai's Dakota Craig in the fourth quarter Saturday. Craig was the game's leading rusher with 151 yards on 38 carries, while Ghormley had 111 on 27.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
The statistics for the first half show just how even the game was. Kenai racked up 131 yards of offense, while SoHi gained 130. Craig and Ghormley matched each other run for run, with each gaining exactly 100 yards Ghormley on 18 carries, Craig on 15.
The second half featured more power football, with Truesdell and Kenai's coach Jim Beeson content to settle things on the ground.
"It's always a battle with them," Truesdell said.
Kenai lineman Michael Scheffert said the fight for ground supremacy was intense on the line of scrimmage.
"It was rough," Scheffert said following the game. "The whole week the coaches reinforced that we had to control the line of scrimmage, and finally in the fourth quarter we got in."
Until the end of the game, it was SoHi that appeared to be winning most of the battles. Kenai was unable to move the ball much in the second half, and when it did, SoHi came up with big stops just in time.
At the end of the third quarter, the Kardinals took the ball all the way to the SoHi 1-yard line, but Soldotna's defense held strong, stopping Chappell just short of the goal line on fourth down.
After the game, Beeson said he was impressed with the way Soldotna's defense held strong throughout the game.
"I felt like on offense we would have moved the ball more," Beeson said. "They took a lot of stuff away from us."
Kenai's defensive unit was impressive as well.
The Kardinals held Soldotna to just 166 yards of total offense, all of them on the ground. And in the second half, they were nearly flawless. Although Ghormley was able to gain 111 on the game, he only ran for 11 of those yards in the second half, and Kenai held the Stars to just 36 total yards in the half.
Scheffert said a couple second-half defensive adjustments by the Kenai coaching staff made all the difference.
"We had one game plan, and the plan changed in the second half, and it worked out great," he said.
Soldotna's Ghormley said he wasn't expecting anything less than a battle from Kenai.
"We knew it would be tough," Ghormley said.
He said that although it hurt to lose the conference title, the Stars won't spend too much time dwelling on the game.
"We're already getting past this game," Ghormley said. "Now it's Eielson, and we've just got to go back to work."
Kardinals 14, Stars 7
Soldotna 0 7 0 0 7
Kenai 0 6 0 7 14
Sol G. Gardner 14 run (Tachick kick), 7:07
Ken Hansen 30 pass from Chappell (kick failed), :36
Ken Chappell 1 run (Hansen pass from Chappell), 2:09
First downs 10 9
Rushes-yards 58-168 41-166
Passing yards 60 0
Return yards 5 2
Passing 4-9-0 0-4-1
Punts-avg 5-36.8 4-35.0
Fumbles-lost 0-0 1-1
Penalties-yards 11-93 9-80
Rushing Kenai: Craig 38-151, Hansen 5-17, Rainey 1-3, Chappell 14-(-3). Soldotna: Ghormley 27-111, G. Gardner 5-31, N. Gardner 5-24, Schneider 4-0.
Passing Kenai: Chappell 4-9-0-60. Soldotna: Schneider 0-4-1-0.
Receiving Kenai: Hansen 3-59, Lillard 1-1.
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