The Soldotna High School Football team spoiled the Kenai Kardinals' winning streak Saturday, claiming the Northern Lights Conference championship and sending Kenai to a first-round, away-game nightmare with a 13-8 win at Ed Hollier Field in Kenai.
The winner of Saturday's matchup would be crowned NLC champions. The loser would face one of a conundrum of ill fates designed by the Northern Lights Conference powers-that-be.
This time, the Stars came out on top, avoiding a coin-toss tie-break scheme which would've eliminated one of three teams (Soldotna, Skyview and Homer) with an identical 2-2 conference record. What the Stars get for their efforts is a first-round home game against Seward next Saturday at 3 p.m.
For the Kardinals, the burden of defeat is heavy. They must begin their playoff run by facing peninsula powerhouse Nikiski High School -- a team that has mauled all but one of it's opponents this season -- in the Bulldog's home lair. Kickoff for the Kenai-Nikiski game is scheduled for noon Saturday at Nikiski.
"We've gotta play them sometime," said Kenai head coach Jim Beeson. "We may as well play them coming out of the box."
The Kardinals were only able convert one first down in the first half of the game, when their next opponents usually have the game all but won. The Kardinals will face a Nikiski team that has averaged 44.3 points per game this season.
Coming alive in the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth, Kenai was able to stop Soldotna's rushing attack and force turnovers, but they were still unable to follow through.
"We should've played the first half like we played the second half," Beeson said. "We played half a game."
The first half of the game began with deadlocked defense and offense that couldn't quite get warmed up on either side. After six minutes of football, only 25 yards and one first down had been earned by either team. Then, Soldotna woke up, as quarterback Kyle Foster scampered 20 yards on a keeper for the Star's second first down. The team's momentum was stymied, however, following a fumble six plays later on second-and-goal at Kenai's 9-yard line.
Kenai was unable to capitalize on this opportunity, missing two pass attempts and receiving a five-yard penalty before having to punt the ball away. The first quarter ended the way it started, tied at zero.
Soldotna senior Cason Simpson opened the second quarter with a 21-yard dash for the end zone on a sweep to the left behind blocking from, among others, Foster. A completed extra point kick from Foster made the score 7-0.
A second score came for the Stars late in the second quarter when Foster connected with junior Ricky Simpson on a right-sided slot pass for a 12-yard touchdown. A high snap got away from Ricky Simpson during the point after attempt and Soldotna was unable to increase the score by another point.
The third quarter saw a quiet Cory Janson fumble the ball for a second time, turning possession over to Soldotna on this occasion. Janson was, for a second week in a row, held to under 100 yards, carrying the ball 27 times for 78 yard on the afternoon.
Janson did, however, score the Kardinals' only points with a 5-yard touchdown run at the top of the fourth quarter and the ensuing two-point conversion.
During Soldotna's next possession, Kenai senior Bobby Merchant intercepted a Foster pass at the Kardinals' 43-yard line to open up a comeback drive. But the Kardinals were only able to come up with one significant play -- a 22-yard Michael Tunseth quarterback option -- before giving in to a suddenly rejuvenated Soldotna defense.
Kenai's defense held together for one last possession as the clock ticked down. With 3:09 left on the clock, Kenai junior Drew Cramer caught Foster's second wayward pass at the Kardinals' 25-yard line and returned it 17 yards before being tripped up by a desperate Foster.
The Kardinals' last stand -- with eight yards to go for goal -- would be their last as, again, they were unable to move Soldotna's stubborn defense. After two Janson runs for minimal gains (two yards, then none),a third sack and intentional grounding call, Kenai was unable to make their fourth down attempt count.
Even after Soldotna burned through four snaps, downing the ball to let the clock run out, Kenai was still left with nine seconds to work with and 21 yards to go. The first play was a Tunseth prayer that sailed over its intended receiver and out of the end zone. Four seconds, gone. The second, a carbon copy of the first. Yet another four seconds squandered.
With one second remaining in regulation and a touchdown needed to make up the five-point deficit Soldotna held over them, the Kardinals gave the ball to the backbone of their offense.
Tunseth took the snap and handed off to Janson, who spirited the ball 15 yards before being brought down to seal the Soldotna victory.
Soldotna coach Sarge Truesdell said he expected the game to come down to the wire.
Soldotna's Kyle Foster gets a pass off under pressure from Kenai's Wally Ward in the fourth quarter Saturday.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
"That's kind of what I thought would happen," he said. "But I was surprised at the way we opened up in the first half."
Truesdell said he expected Kenai to make adjustments at half-time to try to make up lost ground, but he said his Stars were strong enough for what the Kardinals had to offer.
"We were able to maintain."
STARS 14, KARDINALS 8
Soldotna 0 13 0 0 --14
Kenai 0 0 0 8 -- 8
Sol -- Simpson 21 run (Foster kick), 11:52
Sol -- Foster 12 pass to R. Simpson (kick failed), 3:46
Ken -- Janson 2 run (Janson run), 11:03
First downs 9 5
Rushes-yards 45-177 31-97
Passing yards 85 22
Return yards 15 19
Passing 8-11-1 1-10-1
Punts-avg 4-9.8 5-40.4
Fumbles-lost 1-1 2-1
Penalties-yards 8-70 6-50
Rushing -- Soldotna: C. Simpson 30-139, Laurion 2-27, Metteer 1-4, Foster 7-3, R. Simpson 4-0. Kenai: Janson 27-78, Tunseth 2-18, Ward 2-8.
Passing -- Soldotna: Foster 8-11-1--85. Kenai: Tunseth 1-10-1--22.
Receiving -- Soldotna: R. Simpson 3-40, Laurion 3-28, Metteer 2-18. Kenai: Kornfield 1-22.
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