The small-schools football playoffs in Alaska , unlike the NFL, don't have a wild-card weekend. But with Seward and Houston in the draw, it might as well be a wild-card weekend for Soldotna and Kenai.
Soldotna, the Northern Lights Conference champion, will host Seward, the runner-up in the Great Land Conference, Friday at 5:30 p.m. in the first semifinal.
Saturday, the spotlight shifts up to the Matanuska-Susitna valleys when Houston, the GLC champ, hosts Kenai, the runner-up in the NLC, in a 2 p.m. tilt.
Both Seward and Houston come into the playoff games with 4-4 records, but the records are deceiving. The recent resurgence of the GLC squads has left the NLC coaches uneasy.
The Hawks lost three of their first four games this season, but have been on a roll of late. Houston has won three of its last four, including its last two by a combined score of 101-18.
Meanwhile, Seward lost its first two games of the season by a combined score of 83-12.
However, the Seahawks righted the ship and have won two of their last three to make the playoffs. That includes a 27-2 trouncing to two-time defending state champion Nikiski last week when a playoff berth was on the line.
"We've gotten no respect from any of the papers, including the Clarion, and no respect from the schools," said Seward coach Cliff Draper. "We'll come over and do our best.
"Maybe we'll give them a good game, and maybe we won't."
Sarge Truesdell recognizes Seward's us-against-the-world attitude all too well. The shtick is exactly the one the Seahawks were toting when they came over to Soldotna and smacked an upset loss on the Stars a year ago in the semifinals.
"That's something we talked about," said Truesdell, whose team is 7-1 overall and has not lost to a small-schools team this year. "We said, 'Hey, did anyone in this room think we would lose that game last year?' There wasn't a single person who thought we had any chance to lose that game.
"They have the same feeling now. We have to realize that other team is coming in here expecting to win."
Soldotna stuck Seward with a 48-0 loss in the first week of the season, but the Seahawks are a different team now.
"We didn't have our full team there for the first game of the season," Draper said. "We had kids that were not even back from their summer jobs yet.
"We've had a chance to work through the season with the kids now. It'll be a little different, anyway."
In order to have a chance against Soldotna, the Seahawks will have to keep the Stars' offense in check. Eric Simpson is the peninsula's leading passer with 817 yards, while Ricky Simpson is the peninsula's leading receiver with 413 yards on 17 carries.
Last week, even without star running back Derek Martin, Soldotna got to Kenai's stout defense for 28 points. The Kardinals had allowed just 33 total points before that game.
Scott Laurion had a big game for the Stars, and he now is the fourth-leading rusher on the peninsula with 656 yards. Soldotna will need another big effort out of him, because Martin will still be out.
In the Kenai-Houston game, the Kardinals (6-2 overall) will look to avoid giving up the big plays that plagued them against the Stars. And with Peter Clemens at quarterback, the Hawks are capable of big plays.
"We have to be concerned about those kids," Beeson said. "Their quarterback is as good of a kid as we'll see all year. He scrambles around and throws it very well.
"They're scary. They put points on the board very fast."
That concerns Beeson because against Soldotna, the Kardinals gave up just under 300 yards of total offense, with about 150 of those yards coming on just three plays.
"You can't throw out those three plays," Beeson said. "There's no mulligans. We have to be more disciplined on defense."
The Kardinals will be without senior quarterback Michael Tunseth, who broke his wrist last week against Soldotna. In his place will be Cole Chappell.
"He's played quarterback at jv, and he's very capable of doing the job," Beeson said. "He's every bit as athletic as Michael is, but he's behind him mentally as far as what we're trying to do with defenses.
"We're trying to simplify things for him."
Chappell is joined in the backfield by Cory Janson and Dakota Craig, which could make things extremely simple for the quarterback. Janson is second in the state with 1,209 rushing yards, while Craig has rushed for 472 yards.
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