The Soldotna football team finished the season 8-0 by dominating defending small-schools state champion Kenai Central 52-8 Saturday.
The Stars host the only other undefeated team in small-schools football, Thunder Mountain of Juneau, on Saturday at 4 p.m. at Justin Maile Field.
For all those on the central Kenai Peninsula that complain about having to drive to Anchorage to watch the best game of the postseason, this may be the year to catch the highlight game right here at home.
This is the first year the Southeast Conference received a berth in the postseason. The conference has been traditionally weak, so the conference got a No. 4 seed in the playoffs.
In its second year as a program, Thunder Mountain has made that first-round matchup a nightmare by quickly becoming one of the top teams in the state.
The Falcons are ranked second in the final Alaska Sports Broadcasting Newtork Poll, while the Stars are first.
"They are a rough first-round draw," said Stars head coach Galen Brantley Jr. "There's no question about it."
Nikiski coach Ted Riddall lost to Thunder Mountain earlier in the season. When the Falcons beat Renton High School in the state of Washington 36-20, Riddall's respect for Thunder Mountain grew. Renton has an enrollment of 1,000 and Riddall said Renton has good football tradition.
"They're a small school but they have big-school athletes," Riddall said of the Falcons. "They have 640 kids in that school. They're very athletic. I don't see SoHi pushing their front wall around. It's going to be close."
The Stars get Phil Bennett back from injury for the game. Bennett had 660 yards on 77 carries in just five games before a shoulder injury.
In his absence, a number of running backs have stepped up to make Soldotna's attack even more potent.
Robbie Smithwick is second on the peninsula with 916 yards on 60 carries, Auston Tennis has 694 yards on 66 carries and Jared Duncan had 500 yards on 80 carries.
Homer coach Camron Wyatt, who lost to Thunder Mountain 23-12 and Soldotna 26-20, said Soldotna may have the edge in the game due to its Wing-T offense, which puts a premium on faking out the opposing defense.
"You can see it on game film, but playing against it is something different," Wyatt said. "We've played against it more than anybody, and it's taken us some time to learn how to defend."
Brantley Jr. said Thunder Mountain has played against two other teams that use the Wing-T, so he doesn't think the Falcons will be at a disadvantage.
"This is Round 3 with the Wing-T, so we're losing some of that edge," Brantley Jr. said.
The coach said the Stars need to control the game with their rushing attack. Let Thunder Mountain's explosive attack on the field too many times, and bad things are bound to happen.
Brantley Jr. said of all the teams the Stars have faced this season, the Falcons have the most talented athletes on offense.
"They're a talented football team with 15 seniors," Brantley Jr. said. "This is as good as it's going to get."
Wyatt said the Falcons will pound the ball up the middle until the defense crowds the line of scrimmage, then release a deep passing attack.
Brantley Jr. said the Falcons' most dangerous player is running back Cameron Fronimos, who has rushed for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns. Camden Thomas has passed for 446 yards, while Donald Stokes has caught 12 balls for 315 yards.
While Brantley Jr. said drawing the Falcons was almost like a punishment for winning the Northern Lights Conference crown, he is looking at the bright side.
"In order to be a state champion, we're going to have to beat them somewhere along the way," he said. "It might as well be now, at home."
Homer at Nikiski, Noon
This will be the fourth time the teams have met in the past two seasons.
Homer opened 2009 by blanking the Bulldogs 27-0, then notched a 24-15 win in the 2009 playoffs.
This season, the Mariners opened their season with a 14-6 victory over the Bulldogs. Nikiski had the ball inside the 10-yard line three times without scoring. The Bulldogs also fumbled the ball six times and lost five.
"There's a lot of similarities between our programs and our schools and it shows when we get together," Wyatt said. "We play good football.
"You know they'll be prepared for us."
The teams will be very different than they were in Week 1. Homer has added 11 players, eight of which are starters. The Mariners also are fully healthy for this game.
Nikiski also has added a handful of players since Week 1, including Stephen Krogseng. In seven games, Krogseng had rushed for 433 yards and eight touchdowns and caught 11 balls for 233 yards and three touchdowns.
"There's enough difference that these will be night-and-day-type of games," Riddall said.
Nikiski has been explosive in the first quarter lately, but Riddall does not expect that to be the case against Homer.
"I think it will go down to the wire," Riddall said. "I don't see that many points being scored."
Nikiski's offense also features Kaden Spurgeon, who has rushed for 976 yards and 15 touchdowns. Quarterback Colton Anderson has kept defenses honest by hitting 56-of-100 passes for 836 yards.
Although both teams are different than Week 1, both coaches said the result will hinge on the same thing -- mistakes.
"I think we're going to make them, but the team that makes the least will win," Wyatt said.
Skyview at Eielson, 2 p.m. Saturday
Both the Panthers and Ravens were involved in shootouts last week on the peninsula, with Skyview topping Kodiak 40-34 and the Ravens falling to Nikiski 47-39.
At 6-2 overall, Skyview makes the playoffs for the first time since the small-big schools divide. Eielson is 5-3 overall.
Taking his pass-oriented attack to Fairbanks in October has Panthers coach Eric Pomerleau taking note of the weather forecast as much as the game film.
As of now, the forecast is favorable, but Pomerleau said he has been telling his team that it has to execute even if it is snowing and blowing.
Jordan Jones was injured against Kodiak, but should be ready to go against the Ravens. He has passed for 1,616 yards this season.
Albert White leads the peninsula with 32 catches for 668 yards, while Jasen Suovieri has rushed for 398 yards in just four games. Pomerleau said Suovieri has a good chance of overcoming injury to play this week.
If the Panthers are able to run their passing attack, another shootout could ensue unless Skyview can stop Eielson's option.
"Each kid has to do his job and assignment," Pomerleau said. "The one time someone is out of position, you're hearing the other team's fight song."
Pomerleau said he wants the buzz created by the team's playoff berth to carry over for another week.
"The Skyview community has really come out to support us, and they've seen some things that haven't been done in a while," Pomerleau said. "All the credit goes to the kids for their hard work, and the parents, families and boosters."
Barrow at Kenai, 4 p.m. Saturday
AJ Hull is back, but the sour taste in Kenai's mouth remains.
Hull, who has rushed for 572 yards and passed for 554 yards, missed Kenai's 52-8 loss to SoHi with an injury. Kenai fell to 5-3 with the loss. Barrow also comes in at 5-3.
"I think the guys must have done a bunch of soul searching," Kenai head coach Jeff Baker said. "They had the best week of practice so far this season, and I hope they are man enough to continue down that path and realize what they are capable of."
While Hull's return definitely helps the offense, he is not the type of defensive player that will keep 52 points off the board.
Baker said the defense did not respond to adversity against the Stars.
"We're just happy we have a second chance," Baker said. "It's just awesome we can play that poorly and still get a second chance."
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