While Soldotna and Eielson are set to reprise a matchup under nearly the same circumstances as a year ago, Seward is hoping to conjure up some magic from 2001 when it plays Kenai.
The small-schools playoffs get under way Saturday when Soldotna travels to Eielson for a 1 p.m. game and Seward travels to Kenai for a 2 p.m. tilt.
The two-time defending small-schools champion Kardinals (7-1 overall) won the Northern Lights Conference to earn the home playoff game. The Seahawks wrapped up the Great Land Conference's No. 2 slot with a 6-2 overall record.
A physical team that has rushed for 2,579 yards while passing for just 201, Kenai is favored against the smaller Seahawks.
"They have absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain," Kenai coach Jim Beeson said of the Seahawks. "There isn't anyone that is going to go out on a limb and say Seward is going to go over to Kenai and beat Kenai.
"If we beat them, we're supposed to. If they happen to beat us, it's a great victory. It's so much easier to play in that role."
Seward knows that as much as anyone. This is the third trip to the playoffs in the last four years for the Seahawks, and each time they have been a road underdog in their first game. In 2001, Seward was able to pull off an 8-0 upset over Soldotna.
"I'm excited to be playing Kenai," Seward co-coach Mark Woodward said. "To be the best you've got to play the best. We played Eielson and lost but we didn't play very well. I think that was the big turning point for us.
"I didn't think we'd be doing this the first week of the season, but the guys are ready."
The first order of business for Seward will be to stop Kenai's rushing attack. Dakota Craig leads that attack with 1,483 rushing yards and 22 rushing touchdowns.
"You've got to play to your asset, and for us that's turning around and giving No. 25 (Craig) the football and have the line wall people off," Beeson said. "It's been successful so far so we'll line up and get after it."
The Seahawks have a more balanced attack. The Clarion did not obtain statistics for all Seward's games, but the available stats show Seward rushing for 752 yards and passing for 721 in seven games.
"They're going to spread us out and try and throw the ball," Beeson said. "That's the one thing everybody thinks they can do against us, and my guess is Seward's no different.
"They are very proficient at the skill positions."
Quarterback Coty Beck is 43-for-107 for 721 yards with eight touchdowns and nine interceptions in the seven games reported to the Clarion. Also, Jake Wilder has gained 353 yards on the ground and caught 17 balls for 267 yards.
"We're going to need the entire team to win this game -- one big unit," Seward co-coach Roger Steinbrecher said. "Looking at how Kenai runs the ball, we're not going to bring them down with one person."
In the other semifinal matchup, Great Land champion Eielson, whose only loss this season is to Kenai, will take on Soldotna, which finished second in the NLC and has a 5-3 record.
Last year, the Stars traveled north for a playoff game against the Ravens and lost 21-20 when Eielson blocked an extra-point attempt with under two minutes left in the game.
Both Soldotna coach Sarge Truesdell and Eielson coach David DeVaughn are expecting another close ballgame.
Truesdell said last year he thought his team should have gone up to Eielson and registered a win, but the Stars fumbled six times and lost three of those fumbles. Truesdell said the Stars are better this year, but he also said the Ravens have a much-improved squad.
"I know this year we're going to have to go up there and play the perfect game of football to beat them," Truesdell said.
The Ravens are led by junior quarterback and linebacker Evan Skinner. In the last game of the season against ACS, Skinner was 10-for-10 with six touchdowns and 244 yards. For the season, he is 52-for-88 for 742 yards, 17 touchdowns and just two interceptions, impressive numbers considering the Ravens often kept the ball on the ground to avoid running up the score.
"This group of guys is probably one of the best teams that I've had," DeVaughn said. "They play team ball and there's no real superegos to deal with. If something bad happens, they pick each other up and keep going."
Running backs Donnie McKee, Nick Rogers and Solomon Wright share the load, while receiver Nick Scales gives the Ravens a big play threat. Rogers has rushed for 586 yards and five touchdowns, while Wright has rushed for 528 yards and two touchdowns. Scales had 509 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns.
"They spread out, use their speed and they have good linemen," Truesdell said. "The quarterback is the key to their deal. He's aggressive."
The Stars have some playmakers of their own, meaning those area fans that travel all the way to Fairbanks may have some scintillating football on their hands.
Senior running back Garrett Gardner has rushed for 1,206 yards and 15 touchdowns this season. In the loss to Kenai Saturday, he scored three touchdowns, rushed for 196 yards and had an additional 67 yards receiving.
Senior quarterback Cameron Schneider triggers the attack. He is 47-for-81 for 772 yards and 10 touchdowns. Juniors Aleks Pfaffe (22 catches for 320 yards) and Kory Wilbanks (11 catches for 166 yards) give Schneider plenty of options.
"Our senior class has shown up in every game all year," Truesdell said. "In the past, I'd reflect back and say, 'I wish he'd shown up for that game.' Every senior, especially the ones I had questions on, has shown up and done what they are capable of."
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