Talk about disappointment. The stars just were not aligned for the Soldotna Stars Saturday. After a tremendous small-schools football playoff game, they lost to the Eielson Ravens 21-20.
"It was a barnburner," said Soldotna head coach Sarge Truesdell.
The narrow defeat up north puts Soldotna out of running for the championship and denies it a rematch with Kenai. The defending state champion Kardinals will battle the Ravens for the small-schools title Saturday at Anchorage Football Stadium at 3:30 p.m.
The decisive moment came less than two minutes from the end. With Soldotna trailing 21-14, Stars standout Dan Ghormley scored a touchdown to bring the Stars within one point with 1:16 left in the game. But when kicker Shane Tachick aimed the ball between the goal posts in a bid to tie the game, Eielson's Chris Tidwell flung himself forward and blocked the kick.
The other dramatic reversal in the game came late in the third quarter when Johnny Mills, a senior wide receiver, caught a pass from Cameron Schneider and ran 28 yards for a touchdown to cut Eielson's lead to 21-13. But the Star fans' jubilation quickly turned to concern when Mills didn't get up from the hit he took just as he gained the end zone.
For a time, it seemed medics might remove Mills in the ambulance. Instead Mills hobbled to his feet, but he was out of the game with what his parents described as a possible torn meniscus, and he left Eielson on crutches.
The game was so close and the teams so evenly matched that chance, rather than skill, seemed to have determined the final outcome. The Stars had 301 yards of total offense for the game, including 172 rushing yards from Ghormley, while the Ravens piled up 261 yards on offense.
Both teams went into the game confident and determined to advance to next weekend's small-schools state championship game, and each knew the other would put up a tough fight.
"I could tell the first time we came out and the ball was snapped that they wanted to win it as bad as we did," Truesdell said after the game.
The first quarter passed without any scoring, as the teams butted heads and tangled each other up in the center of the field. Truesdell said both squads got off to a less-than-stellar start, with fumbles and penalties hampering Soldotna's ability to exploit weaknesses in the Ravens' defense.
The Stars fumbled six times in the game, losing three, while the Ravens lost all four of their fumbles.
The Stars thwarted the Ravens' only serious drive in the first quarter when senior Eric
Simpson knocked down a pass on the Soldotna 8-yard line.
Both teams played better in the second quarter. Ghormley showed a talent for getting his hands on the ball, keeping it and grinding forward through Eielson's defenders. Throughout the game, he kept up the pressure and performance, doggedly racking up yards for the Stars.
Eielson's defense gave the Stars a hard time, with aggressive tackling by William Winkler, Kimo Manley and Jamie Hurlburt.
But it was Soldotna that scored the first points. The Stars faked the ball to Ghormley, and the Ravens fell for it while Schneider waltzed over the line for a 24-yard touchdown with 7:56 left in the second quarter.
Ravens runners Tidwell, Nick Scales and Chad Odom gave the Stars defense plenty to worry about. They found holes to slip through and set up quarterback Evan Skinner to score Eielson's first touchdown on a 13-yard run with 1:07 left in the first half.
Eielson came on strong at the beginning of the third quarter. Although Mills stopped Scales deep in Soldotna territory, Hurlburt scored on a 1-yard run on the next play and the Ravens took a 14-7 lead with 8:32 left in the third quarter.
In a nearly identical scenario minutes later, SoHi senior Neil Gardner tackled Tidwell a whisker away from the end zone, but could not prevent him from crossing it the next
down. Tidwell's 1-yard run gave the Ravens a 21-14 lead with 5:41 left in the third quarter. Lineman Daniel Spindler, a junior, had better luck slowing the Ravens as the quarter ran out, but SoHi still entered the final quarter trailing.
Early in the fourth quarter, Schneider completed a 51-yard pass to Simpson that gave the Stars control of the ball deep in Ravens territory. The Stars fumbled the ball, but Spindler was there to pick it up.
Then the tide turned against Soldotna. The Stars lost control of the ball, and the refs assessed them a series of penalties that cost crucial yards. But just when it looked like the Ravens were on the verge of scoring again, they flubbed a long pass.
Ghormley then followed with his touchdown run. The crowd that had made the long trip up from the Kenai Peninsula was thrilled as it looked like Soldotna had the momentum to tie the game. But Tidwell's maneuver blocking the kick dashed the Stars' hopes.
Eielson then successfully ran down the clock for the last minute.
After the game, the Stars were bruised and disappointed. But although their season ended on an off note, everyone praised the quality of the game and their skill.
"They were tough; we were tough," junior halfback Brandy Goracke said.
Eielson chief coach David DeVaughn had high praise for his vanquished opponents.
"I knew it was going to be a close game, and it was pretty much going to come down to who made the most mistakes," he said. "Soldotna played extremely well. Ghormley is a phenomenal athlete; their kickers placed the ball where it was needed a well-coached team."
Ghormley admitted disappointment. The team could have executed stronger defense and offense, he said, and penalties proved costly. Overall, Soldotna had a better team, but Eielson has some outstanding athletes they failed to contain, he said.
"There's not much to say," he concluded.
Truesdell echoed those opinions.
"I was impressed with the way they were able to move the football on us," he said.
He said his team's season goal was to be state champs, and last week's loss to Kenai Central did little to dampen their confidence because they knew they had a good shot at Eielson and a rematch with Kenai. But now it will be the Ravens that face the Kardinals Saturday in Anchorage.
Given Eielson's past history of giving the Stars a hard time and its 7-1 season record, Truesdell and his players knew they could not walk over them.
"Eielson is a tough football team," Truesdell said. "It was a battle."
RAVENS 21, STARS 20
Soldotna 0 7 7 6 20
Eielson 0 7 14 0 21
Sol Schneider 24 run (Tachick kick), 7:56
Eie Skinner 13 run (Broussard kick), 1:07
Eie Hurlburt 1 run (Broussard kick), 8:32
Eie Tidwell 1 run (Broussard kick), 5:41
Sol Mills 28 pass from Schneider (Tachick kick), 1:15
Sol Schneider 1 run (kick blocked), 1:16
First downs 10 10
Rushes-yards 51-212 43-183
Passing yards 89 78
Return yards 108 106
Passing 5-6-0 5-11-0
Punts 1-24.0 2-43.5
Fumbles-lost 6-3 4-4
Penalties-yards 6-40 8-70
RUSHING Soldotna: Ghormley 31-172, N. Gardner 4-16, Schneider 9-15, G. Gardner 7-9. Eielson: Tidwell 9-57, Scales 10-52, Skinner 11-45, Odom 6-12, Blila 1-9, N. Rogers 5-7, Wright 1-1.
PASSING Soldotna: Schneider 5-6-0-89. Eielson: Skinner 5-11-0-78.
RECEIVING Soldotna: Ghormley 2-16, Simpson 1-51, Mills 1-28, Schneider 1-(-6). Eielson: Odom 3-27, Manley 2-51.
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