Stars 28, Kardinals 0.
"We just got whipped today," said Kenai Central football coach Jim Beeson after his squad dropped its Northern Lights Conference finale to Soldotna at Justin Maile Field.
"We just got beat by a better team. I don't know if it was our fault, or something they did, but we got beat in every aspect of the game."
In fact, the Stars were able to clinch their third straight NLC title with stellar efforts on defense and special teams that led to prime opportunities for the Stars offense.
The Stars are tentatively scheduled to host Seward Friday at 5 p.m. in the first round of small-schools state playoffs. Kenai will play at Houston, winner of the Great Land Conference by tiebreak, next week.
On Saturday, the Soldotna defense, most notably, was able to stifle Kenai's normally explosive offense. Soldotna held Kenai's Cory Janson to 48 yards rushing, while the entire Kardinals offense netted just 130 yards of offense.
"Our goal was to just fill the gaps, and we got it done," said Soldotna's Dash Vester. "We played the way we've always played."
Certainly, the Kardinals were hurt by the loss of quarterback Michael Tunseth to a wrist injury in the first half -- backup Micah Reynolds has but a few practice reps solely running the option, and backup Cole Chappell hasn't been under center since playing quarterback on the JV team last season -- but the Stars were more focused on keeping Janson and his backfield mate Dakota Craig from breaking out with a big play.
"That's the big thing we wanted to do," said Soldotna's Colten Goracke. "The big thing was to keep (Janson) contained and keep him wrapped up as much as possible."
The Stars accomplished that goal with sure tackling and excellent lateral pursuit, preventing Janson from getting around the corner with a head of steam.
With Kenai's big-play capabilities negated, the Soldotna offense made a few big plays of its own. With the Stars facing a fourth-and-11 on the Kenai 31-yard line, quarterback Eric Simpson slipped a tackle in the Soldotna backfield, scrambled to his left and found Johnny Howarth for a 29-yard pass play, setting the Stars up with a first-and-goal on the Kenai 2 to end the first quarter.
A holding call pushed the Stars back to the 12, but after a short run by Dan Ghormley, Neil Gardner took a pitch from Simpson and ran through a tackle on the goal line for a 9-yard touchdown run.
Kenai and Soldotna traded turnovers on their next possessions -- the Kardinals fumbled on their own 23, but the Kenai defense came up with an interception, halting Soldotna's progress at the 17.
Kenai advanced to its 30-yard line before punting, and the Stars struck for another big play on their possession. Scott Laurion opened the series with a 6-yard run, then Simpson again found Howarth open underneath Kenai's defensive backs. Howarth stretched the pass into a 61-yard play for a first-and-goal from the 1, and two plays later Ghormley covered the rest of the distance. Shane Tachick's kick gave the Stars a 14-0 lead at the half.
Soldotna put the nail in the coffin to open the second half when Laurion took a handoff on second-and-nine. Laurion's blockers were able to seal off the corner, and the Soldotna running back was off to the races for a 61-yard score.
"Our lineman executed great," Laurion said. "We got good blocks, and Dan Ghormley stepped up playing for Derek (Martin, out with a shoulder injury). We just kept running hard."
Kenai's ensuing drive started well -- Chappell connected with Jacob Madrid for gains of 15 and 22 yards and hit Janson for 5 -- but Howarth came up with an interception on his own 20-yard line to end the march.
Kenai's defense kept the Stars penned into their own end for the rest of the third quarter, but the Stars ground out a 15-play drive, aided by a running-into-the-kicker and a Kenai offsides that turned fourth-and-long into fourth-and-inches. Ghormley picked up the first down with a 1-yard run, and the Stars drove to the 50-yard line before having to punt.
John Dixson, punting with the wind at his back, backed the Kardinals up to their own 2-yard line. Soldotna's defense forced a punt, and Ricky Simpson was knocked out of bounds at the 1 after a 33-yard return to set up the Stars' final touchdown of the game. Ghormley once again was called on to pick up the final yard, and Tachick drilled his fourth PAT of the game for a 28-0 lead.
"This was a big win, with homecoming and the conference championship," Laurion said, "but we've got to win that game next weekend."
There is some consolation for the Kardinals, who still advance to the playoffs.
"There aren't a lot of times in life you get a second chance," Beeson said. "We still have the opportunity to give ourselves a second chance to play them again."
STARS 28, KARDINALS 0
Kenai 0 0 0 0 -- 0
Soldotna 0 14 7 7 -- 28
Sol -- N. Gardner 9 run (Tachick kick), 11:09
Sol -- Ghormley1 run (Tachick kick), 3:52
Sol -- Laurion 61 run (Tachick kick), 10:42
Sol -- Ghormley 1 run (Tachick kick), 1:34
First downs 8 9
Rushes-yards 38-72 43-187
Passing yards 58 95
Return yards 8 53
Passing 5-11-1 3-12-1
Punts-avg 7-31.0 6-28.0
Fumbles-lost 4-1 0-0
Penalties-yards 12-100 9-71
Rushing -- Kenai: Janson 21-48, Craig 5-17, Chappell 9-8, Tunseth 2-1, Reynolds 1-(-2). Soldotna: Laurion 20-119, Metteer 6-36, Ghormley 11-17, N. Gardner 4-17, E. Simpson 2-(-2).
Passing -- Kenai: Tunseth 1-1-0--9, Chappell 4-10-1--49. Soldotna: E. Simpson 3-12-1--95.
Receiving -- Kenai: Madrid 2-37, Chappell 1-9, Reemtsma 1-7, Janson 1-5. Soldotna: Howarth 2-90, Burman 1-5.
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