Northern Lights Conference Championship. Hosting a playoff game instead of traveling to Fairbanks in October. Bragging rights. Once again, it's all going on the line in the Kenai Central-Soldotna football game.
The two schools have met 26 times on the gridiron since 1980, with Soldotna holding a 15-11 advantage in those meetings. The 27th meeting will be 2 p.m. Saturday at SoHi's Justin Maile Field.
The Kardinals have won the last two matchups, taking the small-schools championship game in 2002 and then taking a similar game last year where everything was again on the line.
Both teams enter the game at 3-0 in the NLC, while Kenai is 6-1 overall and Soldotna is 5-2 overall. Both teams played nonconference games against Nikiski, Lathrop and Colony. Both beat the Bulldogs and Malemutes and lost to the Knights.
The Kardinals, the two-time defending small-schools champion, are fueled by a tough defense and a hard-nosed running game. Senior running back Dakota Craig leads all peninsula rushers, and is second in the state, with 1,295 yards rushing.
In order to have a chance, Soldotna will have to slow down that running attack.
"The group they've got lined up over there is unbelievable," Soldotna coach Sarge Truesdell said. "We're hoping to slow them down and get a break here and a break there.
"If those things fall into place, we'll be able to hang in the football game."
Beeson said he has seen tape of Soldotna playing big schools like Colony and knows the Stars' run defense will not be a pushover.
"Physically, they'll be able to match up with us," Beeson said. "They've played some of the same type of schools that we have. That type of schedule gets you ready for this time of year."
That being said, Beeson said Kenai is not about to alter its strategy of trying to stuff Craig down the opponent's throat.
"We've been able to run the ball on just about everybody, with sporadic success against Colony," Beeson said. "With Dakota, all it takes is a little seam.
"You may stop us two or three times. We just want to get him free for one big play."
Since the Kardinals have been so successful rushing the ball, quarterback Tyler Chappell has thrown for just 211 yards.
SoHi has a more balanced attack. Quarterback Cameron Schneider had thrown for 623 yards, while running back Garrett Gardner is third in the state with 1,010 rushing yards.
Even with the recent nasty weather, Truesdell said the Stars are not planning on changing anything on offense.
"I haven't really paid much attention to the weather," Truesdell said. "We're a running football team that is able to throw. We want to establish our running game."
Another factor could be depth. Soldotna has more athletes playing both offense and defense, so the Kardinals could wear the Stars down over the course of the game.
"Kenai does have that big-schools look with the number of kids they have on the sideline at a game," Truesdell said. "We've played the big schools and responded well against those numbers."
Nikiski at Seward, 3 p.m. Saturday
If the Seahawks win, they will earn the second playoff spot from the Great Land Conference. If Nikiski wins and Houston beats winless Valdez, Nikiski, Houston and Seward will be tied for that playoff spot. The tie will be broken with a coin toss.
"The approach we're taking is to go ahead and win the game," Seward co-coach Roger Steinbrecher said. "Then we won't have to worry about the tiebreaker."
The Seahawks (5-2 overall) are glad the game is on their home field, where opponents always have trouble.
"It always rains harder on the visitor than it does on us," Steinbrecher said.
Nikiski coach Ned Clooten is hoping a game contested in the snow last week in Houston has his team ready for anything Seward's home turf can dish out.
"I think last week helped to prepare us," Clooten said. "Everything went wrong that could have gone wrong. The kids handled it well."
Clooten said the Seahawks pass more than any other small school in the state. He said his secondary, led by Jared Mazurek, has prepared for the attack led by Seward quarterback Coty Beck.
"Seward is extremely well-coached, and they have some excellent athletes at key positions," Clooten said.
The Bulldogs started their season with three straight wins, but are currently on a four-game losing streak.
"This group of kids has a fantastic attitude," Clooten said. "We're as ready this week as we were when we were 3-0."
Homer at Skyview, 5:30 p.m. Friday
Both teams come into the game with 1-2 records in the Northern Lights Conference. The winner will take third in the league.
Skyview coach Phil Sheridan has been looking forward to the game since the start of the season.
"We'd like to win a second game really bad," said Sheridan, whose team is 1-6 overall. "I looked at Homer at the beginning of the year as a litmus test. They started out the year better than us, and I knew we played them at the end.
"I looked forward to seeing how we would stack up with them."
Regardless of the result, Sheridan is happy with the direction of the program. The past two years, the end of the season for the Skyview program was marked by players quitting before the season ended.
"The kids are proud of the fact that they are a tougher football team this year," Sheridan said. "They come out and go right back to work.
"Nobody has thought about quitting."
Meanwhile, the Mariners are looking to put the finishing touches on a record above .500.
"Skyview is one of our main rivals and we'd love to have a 5-3 season," Homer quarterback Canyon McKinstry told the Homer News.
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