When Soldotna takes to Anchorage Football Stadium next Saturday against Kenai Central, the Stars will be looking to avenge a loss in last year's state championship game and a 14-7 loss in the final game of this year's regular season that cost them a fourth straight Northern Lights Conference Championship.
That lead, which is for entertainment purposes only, is exactly the type of thinking that Kenai coach Jim Beeson and Soldotna coach Sarge Truesdell have been battling against this week.
Before the Stars and Kardinals can engage in a grudge match, Kenai (7-1) must dismiss Nikiski (6-2) in a 2 p.m. game at Ed Hollier Field Saturday and Soldotna (4-4) must travel to Fairbanks and stand down Eielson (7-1) in a 1 p.m. contest. The matchups are both firsts for this season.
The Kenai-Nikiski contest features the only two teams to win small-schools state championships. The Bulldogs won the first two Alaska School Activities Association-sanctioned small-schools titles in 2000 and 2001, while the Kardinals took the top prize last year.
Kenai, which won the Northern Lights Conference and also beat big-schools playoff teams Lathrop and Colony this season, comes into the game as favorites.
But Nikiski, which finished second in the Great Land Conference and lost to Soldotna and Eielson this year, has the top scorers on the peninsula this year in Jeremiah Taylor and Billy Anderson.
Beeson said he has tried to drill home to his side not to look past the Bulldogs, but the coach is concerned about sloppy practices his team turned in on Tuesday and Wednesday.
"Nikiski is going to show up ready to play," Beeson said. "If we show up and think we're going to win because we have Kenai on the front of our shirts, it's going to be a long day."
Meanwhile, Nikiski coach Ned Clooten is not worried about his team's attitude heading into the game.
"Whenever something's on the line, it takes kids with heart, and our kids have a ton of it," Clooten said. "We're preparing for this like it's the state title game, like it's the biggest game of the season, whether Kenai looks past us or not."
However, Clooten said he's certain the Kardinals will be ready. He forged that impression watching the Kardinals come from behind to top Soldotna.
"I felt like Soldotna played an extremely good game," Clooten said. "Every time I thought Kenai was down, they made one big play after another."
Seward coach Cliff Draper, whose team lost to both the Seahawks and Kardinals this season, said one of the keys to the game will be Nikiski's ability to slow Kenai's running game.
"Kenai's been No. 1 in the state all year long for a reason," Draper said. "They have great coaches and a very, very, very skilled and well-rounded team.
"I don't know how to stop Kenai. I just don't know how. They have too many weapons."
The Kardinals enjoy a size and depth advantage on the Bulldogs, so their first preference will be to run the ball down Nikiski's throat. Kenai's Dakota Craig leads all peninsula rushers with 1,166 yards, while Ryan Hansen is fifth on the peninsula with 471 yards and quarterback Cole Chappell is 10th on the peninsula with 247 yards.
But the Kardinals also can take to the air. Chappell is 28-for-60 this season for 427 yards and 11 touchdowns. He's been picked off just twice.
As if trying to shut down all those weapons isn't enough, Nikiski also will have to score against a Kenai defense that has allowed just 139 yards and seven points per game.
The offensive burden will fall on Anderson, second on the peninsula with 904 rushing yards, and Taylor, who has caught 20 balls for 320 yards.
Soldotna had success against Nikiski by focusing on shutting those two down. Beeson said his defense will try and do the same.
"I was talking to Sarge after that Soldotna game, and he said the way they were doubling up Jeremiah came from Kenai," Clooten said. "We learned a lot from that Soldotna game."
The Soldotna-Eielson game will mark Eielson's first small-schools playoff game, because the Ravens just started competing with the small schools this year.
Soldotna is in the small-schools playoff game for the third straight year and still searching for the school's first football state championship.
Truesdell didn't deny that his team was looking forward to a state championship game.
"After you lose a football game like we just lost to Kenai, it's natural that you want to play them again," Truesdell said. "But I think our guys realize that to do that, we can't overlook a very good Eielson team that's 7-1."
Eielson coach David DeVaughn said the Kenai-Soldotna game was so good that it created a buzz all the way up in Fairbanks.
"Obviously, that does create some concern because Soldotna's peaking at the right time," DeVaughn said. "We need to try and do what we do, and I think it will be another game of that magnitude."
Two potential problems for Soldotna -- weather and travel -- should be minimized.
The Stars left Thursday after a short practice, and had plans to stay Thursday at a hotel in Houston. SoHi will then reboard its comfy tour bus and complete the drive to Fairbanks today, where it will get in another practice.
"In the regular season, we might do something like spend 10 or 12 hours on a bus the day before the game," Truesdell said. "But this is the playoffs, where it's do-or-die."
As for weather, tropical air has been getting sucked into Alaska this past week. That has led to record highs in many areas of the state, including Fairbanks.
Usually, the area is settling into freezing temperatures and snow this time of year. But Thursday one observer had the temperature at 77 degrees.
Skyview coach Ty Salness absorbed defeat by Soldotna and Eielson this year. He said the two sides match up equally in size and quickness.
Salness said Soldotna should be able to run the ball on Eielson. SoHi's Dan Ghormley is third on the peninsula with 736 yards, while Garrett Gardner is fourth with 560 yards.
Salness said the big question is whether what Eielson will do on offense.
Junior quarterback Evan Skinner and senior utility player Chad Odom gave the Panthers fits. Skinner, who is 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, is 42-for-93 this season for 898 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also has rushed for 191 yards and six touchdowns.
Odom, 5-5 and 150 pounds, has been equally dangerous. He has caught 20 balls for 556 yards and seven touchdowns and has rushed for 502 yards and four touchdowns.
Truesdell said the Stars haven't seen a team with a passing attack like Eielson's since Week 3 against Lathrop. This has him concerned.
"Normally, we'd put a big, athletic kid like Eric Simpson over the top of (Odom) and feel just fine," Truesdell said. "But they use him out of so many formations, they find a way to find mismatches."
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