The preseason is a long way from the postseason. Just ask the Soldotna and Seward football teams.
The two will square off Saturday at 4 p.m. at Soldotna High School in the first round of the small-schools football playoffs.
Before the season, Seahawks coach Dan Bohrnsen and Soldotna coach Rob Dimick were about as optimistic as a typical financial forecaster these days.
Bohrnsen was remiss about the absence of 11 players at practice. All were players he figured were going out for the team.
Dimick, meanwhile, was looking at replacing over 20 seniors that led Soldotna to the small-schools state championship game last year. The Stars would have seven seniors this year, and Dimick wasn't sure if that would be enough to lead the team.
The season started out confirming the outlook of both coaches. Seward dropped three of its first four games, with the only victory coming over Bartlett's junior varsity. Soldotna, meanwhile, was toppled in its first three games by sizable margins.
But both teams turned the corner in time for conference play, then played to huge wins in the final weekend of the season to make the playoffs.
Soldotna defended its Northern Lights Conference title by defeating Kenai 13-8 in the final weekend of the season to finish the regular season at 3-1 in the NLC and 3-5 overall.
Seward, meanwhile, defeated Houston 33-6 in a game that decided which team would nab the Great Land Conference's No. 2 seed. The Seahawks are 3-1 in the conference and 4-4 overall.
"At the beginning of the year, at the preseason coaches meeting, we said we wanted the junior class, which is 24 players deep, to be playing like seniors at the end of the season," said Soldotna coach Sarge Truesdell. "They've started playing like seniors at times."
Truesdell, who stepped in for Dimick when, according to Soldotna principal Sylvia Reynolds, Dimick went on medical leave in the middle of the season, said big games have brought out the best in Soldotna. He said the team's first solid effort came against rival Skyview, then another good game came in the crucial contest against Kenai.
"They feared losing to Skyview, and they had that same fear of Kenai," Truesdell said.
The trick for Truesdell is having the Stars work up that same fear for Seward. Cason Simpson, who has rushed for 941 yards on 207 carries this year, said fearing Seward is something Soldotna has been emphasizing in practice.
"We've been told this is a game that's going to be tough to win," Simpson said. "Still, it makes it harder to get up for a game when you know it's a small school like that."
Added senior quarterback Kyle Foster: "I think we've learned our lesson about taking teams lightly."
Truesdell has a number of ways he can make his case. First, he has shown the team tapes of Nikiski having a tough time running against Seward. Then, there's the fact that Soldotna lost 33-25 to Houston the week before Seward whipped the Hawks.
"Seward beat Houston 33-6," Simpson said. "That's something we've been told every day."
Meanwhile, Bohrnsen is enjoying playing the role of the underdog -- a role the Seahawks have played well all year.
"Two years ago, we had a good team that beat Nikiski during the regular season, but then we lost to them in the playoffs," Bohrnsen said. "It's hard to stay on top and keep the kids hungry.
"I like what we've done this year. We've started winning and slowly built the kids up. We peaked last week against Houston. Hopefully, we'll stay peaked against Soldotna."
Houston coach Mat Bredberg said his team had seven turnovers in the matchup against Seward and called it "the worst game I've ever seen my kids play."
At the same time, he credited Seward for coming back after Houston scored on its first play from scrimmage. He said Seward might have the edge in a game that featured big plays, but Soldotna would most likely prevail in a close game where both teams grind it out on the ground.
"I'd think Soldotna would be favored," Bredberg said. "I think they've had more experience in the playoffs and pressure games than Seward's had.
"Seward's a young, determined team, though. They could surprise some people."
Truesdell would add "fast" to "young" and "determined," calling Seward the quickest team in the small-schools division. Two players Truesdell is particularly concerned about are running backs Zach Rininger and Darian Draper.
"We've got some real good leadership from Darian Draper, Zach Rininger, Garrett Boyle and Ben Clock," Bohrnsen said. "They've been our captains, and they've helped our team keep it together this season.
"I'm real proud of those kids."
Meanwhile, Truesdell said he will turn to the leadership of Simpson once again.
"We're going to keep giving him the ball 30 or 35 times a game until somebody stops him," the coach said.
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