Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. compared Saturday's highly anticipated showdown with Kenai to a chess match.
If that's the case, then Kenai's Bill Chimphalee and Soldotna's Bryce Gardner should be the kings in the 31st meeting between the schools. SoHi leads the series, 16-14, and stopped a five-game skid to the Kards with a 52-6 victory last year.
While most schools tend to run more than pass, no teams do it better than top-ranked and undefeated SoHi and second-ranked Kenai.
Having already amassed a state best 1,899 yards and 31 touchdowns, some consider Chimphalee the best back in the state despite the soft schedule the Kardinals have played.
Brantley doesn't agree.
"Bryce Gardner's the best running back in the state," he said of his senior who's rushed for 735 yards and 13 touchdowns on only 46 carries. "He's averaging over 15 yards every time he touches the football. If I gave him the ball 20 times a game, he'd have a ton of yards, too.
"We're just in a situation where we've got some depth in our skill positions," Brantley added. "We're not feeding the same kid the ball over and over again."
Chimphalee, on the other hand, has rushed 186 times, 31 more carries than the Stars' top three rushers combined, but has broken Kenai's single-season rushing and points records in the process.
"I'm a biased coach. I understand that," Brantley said. "But after Bryce, I think Bill's the next best running back in the state. I think that's a legitimate claim."
He'll certainly have a chance at making a statement at 2 p.m. Saturday when the Kardinals (6-1 overall, 3-1 Northern Lights Conference) host the Stars in a must-win game if they hope to reach the playoffs.
"Any time you have an offensive player like Bill, anything can happen," said Kenai coach Jim Beeson. "Obviously, if we have any success at all, he's going to have to have success."
Soldotna, sitting at 7-0 overall and 4-0 in the NLC, is in the driver's seat. A win and they're in. A loss and a coin flip determines the two playoff berths between the Stars, Kardinals and Kodiak.
"Both of our lives are on the line. I think we're in a little bit better spot going in undefeated, but if we lose, we're exactly the same. We're in the same exact situation that they're in," Brantley explained. "Kodiak's probably sitting back cheering for us."
No doubt they are.
Despite enduring a 70-14 drubbing by Soldotna two weeks ago, the Bears assured themselves of at least a spot in the tiebreaker after edging Kenai by one point earlier in the season.
Brantley, who watched tape of that dogfight on The Rock, was impressed with the Kardinals.
"I think we knew right away when Kenai came out of there with a one-point loss, our staff assumed that Kenai was a couple of touchdowns better. It's very tough to go over to Kodiak and get any breaks," he said. "You can throw records out the window for starters. We've played them really close with less talent and they've done the same to us. We expect an extremely competitive ballgame."
Soldotna's key to victory is obvious.
"Bill's a high-energy player. He's a breakaway threat. At any moment, he's a broken-arm tackle away from a 60-yard touchdown run," Brantley said. "Our biggest challenge of the year is going to be trying to stop him."
And it's not like Beeson isn't aware of that.
"I think their personal goal is to prove that he's not as good as what everybody says he is. I think he is," Beeson said. "The difference in our offense and their offense is Bill's the primary focus and everyone knows that's the case and he's still been successful."
The same can be said for Soldotna's three-headed rushing attack of Gardner, running back Marvin Tate (653 yards, 12 TDs) and quarterback Anthony Griglione (836 yards, 14 TDs).
"I don't know if you can slow them down. I think coach (Jim) Dawson does good job coming up with a good scheme," Beeson said. "We're going to go out and try and the kids will play hard. One of our goals is to make the game a competitive football game and we'll see how we do."
If this were next year, however, both teams would already have qualified for the postseason.
A 9-3 vote at a Region III meeting Monday signaled the end of the current playoff format.
Beginning next season, five teams from the Northern Lights Conference and three from the Great Land will compete in an eight-team playoff.
Brantley is in favor of it.
"It'd be great this year," he said. "A team like Kenai would be prepping for the postseason instead of trying to play spoiler."
For the time being, though, Beeson knows his team needs to play mistake-free football to have any chance at victory.
"We can't control how they are. We just have to take care of what we can control," he said. "We have to play a perfect game of football. They're a good enough football team that they can not play well and still win a game."
He said Chimphalee isn't the only one looking to open some eyes.
"I think we all have a little bit of something to prove," Beeson said. "There isn't anybody giving us a chance to win the football game."
Homer at Skyview, Saturday, 2 p.m.
Seeking a .500 season, the Panthers are looking to build off a shutout at the hands of Soldotna last week.
"For the kids it was a loss. A loss is a loss," said Skyview coach Jerry Byrne. "There were all kinds of rumors they were going to beat us by 80. We didn't do too bad (compared to others). They didn't pull their kids out against us."
Homer (1-3 NLC), though, is also vying for a 4-4 season after easily defeating Delta.
"I think they'll be up for us. They beat us the last game of last year. The kids are looking for that (revenge)," Byrne said. "It was kind of a controversial thing. A lot of people thought Skyview got robbed. I think (our guys) want to even up the score there."
The challenge for the Panthers (1-3 NLC) will be trying to stop Homer's single-wing offense.
"We did a fair job against SoHi, which is a lot more deceptive and of course their running backs are quite a bit better and they've got a bigger line," he said. "We're not looking past them by any means but I think it will be a pretty good game. It won't be a runaway by any means."
Coming off a 12-carry performance against the Stars, Skyview running back Marcus Quint should be involved in the offense again.
"He's only a junior and we're looking at him to possibly be a fullback next year," Byrne said. "He's a pretty tough kid. I'd like to see him get a little size on him for next year."
Byrne said he's excited for the future of the program.
"We've got quite a bit of juniors coming back and some sophomores coming up." he said. "We're pretty optimistic. I think next year all the teams will be pretty equal."
Seward at Nikiski, Saturday, 1 p.m.
After giving Eielson, which is undefeated in Great Land Conference play, a run for its money last week before falling by 20, the Bulldogs now have the Seahawks coming to town, both teams seeking their third wins of the season.
"It really doesn't matter what the records are," Nikiski coach Ted Riddall said. "Something both teams are wanting to end on is a good win against one another."
The Bulldogs (2-5 overall, 2-3 GLC) could have been fighting for a playoff berth had they defeated the Ravens on the road.
Owning a 14-8 lead after the first quarter, the Bulldogs fell behind at halftime and were then outscored 13-0 in the fourth, sealing their fate.
"For three quarters, we played pretty well," he said.
But late in the third, running back Beau Calderwood, who had already rushed for 165 yards and three touchdowns, left the game with a slightly separated shoulder and never returned. Riddall isn't certain if he will play this week, although he said it looks as if he may.
"I don't want to take anything away from Eielson, but they couldn't stop him. ... He was a load for them to deal with," he said. "That affected everything that we were going to do. It definitely affected the outcome.
"We played well and the kids took a big step in competing against the No. 1 team in the league, on our side at least," Riddall added. "It was good to see as a coach that we're getting better."
Now they're looking to shift that momentum in the direction of the Seahawks (2-5 overall, 2-3 GLC), who were also in the postseason hunt before losing 28-21 to Houston last week.
"If we had showed up the whole game, I think we would have won," said Seward coach Kelly Cinereski. "But we didn't play the whole game. We came in the second half and started playing."
Down to about half the team due to grade checks and injuries, Cinereski still expects his team to put up a fight.
"We've still got lots of good young guys coming in," he said. "If they step up and play well, we should be able to play with them."
Riddall thinks so, too.
"I know from the past and also from kind of watching and seeing what they're doing this year, they're always a hard, scrappy type of team that are always never out of anything," he said. "They've surprised a couple of teams and also probably let a couple go."
Matthew Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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