SoHi's Kyle Wood, right, pulls down Taylor Russell of Valdez as Russell catches a pass in the second quarter. Wood received an incidental face mask penalty on the play.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
The trophy from Soldotna's first state football championship wasn't even in the trophy case at the school last year when Galen Brantley Jr., then the assistant and now the head coach, had this to say:
"We'll start lifting at 6:30 on Monday."
He wasn't kidding.
Fast forward to Soldotna's first offensive play of a 53-12 victory over Valdez in the semifinals of the small-schools playoffs on Saturday at a half-filled and sun-splashed Justin Maile Field. Quarterback Zayan Aberkane took the snap from center Les Baker and followed a moving wall of Soldotna blockers for a gain of 7 yards on a quarterback sneak.
"Zayan told me he loves running behind me," Baker said. "He said even if he tripped, he would gain 3 or 4 yards."
Soldotna's Bryce Gardner is brought down in the first quarter by Shane Cawley and Cody Hedberg of Valdez.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
The play said everything about who would win the game and how hard the senior offensive line worked in the offseason to assure control of the line of scrimmage would always belong to the Stars, who are now 9-0 this year and have an 18-game winning streak.
"I can't say enough about how hard they've worked," Brantley Jr. said. "It's just a great group of kids.
"I've coached for 10 years and it's, by far, the best group I've ever put out there. It may be a long time before I ever get a group like them again. They are the truly special athletes on the team."
Soldotna now moves to a 3:30 p.m. championship rematch with Kodiak on Saturday at Anchorage Football Stadium. Kodiak topped host Eielson 40-0 in the other small-schools semifinal on Saturday, but the Bears were rocked 70-14 at Soldotna earlier this season.
Like any coach that has played the Stars this season, Valdez coach Lea Cockerham also had high praise for Soldotna's offensive line.
"I grew up in Alabama, and you know about football in Alabama," Cockerham said. "They have some really good athletic programs down there. Even with all the football I saw down there, their offensive line is an impressive group."
The line consists of Baker (6-foot-2, 285), left guard Matthew Strieby (5-9, 195), right guard Josh DeTavernier (6-3, 225), right tackle Ryan Shelton (6-6, 255) and left tackle Josh Denna (6-2, 270). Two more key figures on the line were sophomore tight end Jake Jansen (6-3, 200) and senior tight end Seth Dimick (6-0, 180), who started for the injured Timo Gleason.
The line came into the season in such great shape that Baker said coaches have not eased off on conditioning at all this season. Last season, Baker said coaches eased up so the Stars would be fresher for the playoffs. Denna said each offensive lineman has increased his bench press by at least 40 pounds since last year.
"All of us are really talented, but it's playing together that makes us so good," Denna said.
Soldotna's line controlled the game in the first half as the Stars jumped out to a 47-0 lead. In that half, Valdez had 10 plays for zero or negative yardage, while Soldotna had just three. Soldotna finished with 382 yards rushing on 51 carries (7.5-yard average) while Valdez had 19 yards on 26 carries.
The game also showcased Soldotna's depth at the skill positions. Quarterback Anthony Griglione and running back Marvin Tate were suspended for the game after picking up two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in the regular season finale at Kenai.
Aberkane, a junior, replaced Griglione at quarterback and went 4-of-6 for 143 yards with a touchdown and interception. Aberkane also had three interceptions on defense, including one returned 40 yards for a touchdown, and two rushing touchdowns.
Chris Nolden, a sophomore subbing for Tate, had 11 rushes for 79 yards and two touchdowns.
"We have kids on our bench that would be starting on a lot of teams," Brantley Jr. said. "They got their shot today and they didn't disappoint."
Senior Bryce Gardner also continued his all-around excellence with 11 rushes for 141 yards and a touchdown, two catches for 89 yards and a touchdown and an interception. Gardner now has four touchdowns on eight catches this season and 15 touchdowns on 70 rushes this season (an average of 4.6 rushing attempts per touchdown).
Gardner showed the Stars had plenty of speed to go with the offensive line's power when, right after Aberkane's 7-yard sneak, Gardner got behind the defense for a 58-yard touchdown pass.
Soldotna junior running back Kyle Wood also took advantage of the opportunity for a few more touches with six runs for 83 yards and a touchdown and one reception for 23 yards.
"The offensive line opens up the holes, but we have talent in the backfield," Denna said. "We're just helping them out a little bit."
A little bit?
"OK. Quite a bit. But they play just as hard as we do."
Valdez scored the last 12 points of the game after Soldotna had brought in a lot of substitutes. With 7 seconds left in the third quarter, Austin Starbuck capped a drive where he rushed seven straight times with a 1-yard scoring plunge. Then, with 10:48 left in the game, defensive end Paul Dunham had a nifty 14-yard interception return for a score.
Valdez was making its first playoff appearance in its fifth year as a program. Cockerham was the head coach when the program was started, but then took a few years off from building the program while he was serving the country as a Marine in Iraq. Last year, the Buccaneers won a program-high three games, and this year the squad finished with a 5-4 record.
"We have some great athletes at Valdez, we just had to teach them how to play football," Cockerham said. "Soldotna has a great team. What was important today was we didn't give up. We kept fighting right until the end."
Stars 53, Buccaneers 12
Valdez 0 0 6 6 12
Soldotna 27 20 6 0 53
Sol Gardner 58 pass from Aberkane (kick failed), 9:32
Sol Wood 5 run (Elson kick), 4:43
Sol Nolden 7 run (Elson kick), 3:15
Sol Aberkane 40 interception return (Elson kick), 2:55
Sol Aberkane 3 run (kick failed), 11:38
Sol Gardner 12 run (Elson kick), 6:36
Sol Aberkane 1 run (Elson kick), 0:48
Sol Nolden 6 run (kick failed), 8:38
Val Starbuck 1 run (kick failed), :07
Val Dunham 14 interception return (run failed), 10:48
First downs 13 17
Rushes-yards 26-19 51-382
Passing yards 148 163
Return yards 23 102
Passing 11-28-4 5-8-1
Punts-avg 4-27.5 0-0
Fumbles-lost 3-0 1-1
Penalties-yards 8-36 7-50
Rushing - Valdez: Starbuck 15-55, Failing 7-(-29), Russell 1-(-5), Cawley 1-(-6), Kompkoff 2-4. Soldotna: Aberkane 9-35, Nolden 11-79, Gardner 11-141, Wood 6-83, Moiles 2-20, Jenson 1-(-3), Minogue 3-4, Syverson 4-4, Story 2-14, Buffington 1-5, Johnson 1-0.
Passing - Valdez: Failing 11-28-4 148. Soldotna: Aberkane 4-6-1 143, Minogue 1-2-0 23.
Receiving - Valdez: Russell 3-53, Hutchison 5-56, Rogers 3-39. Soldotna: Gardner 2-89, Wood 1-23, Shirley 1-31, Story 1-23.
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