Soldotna's Garrett Gardner carries the ball during the Alaska small schools state semi-final football game between the Eielson Ravens and the Soldotna Stars at Buck Nystrom Field at Ben Eielson High School at Eielson Air Force Base Saturday afternoon, october 9, 2004. Soldotna won the game 34-20.
AP Photo / Fairbanks Daily News-
The stars aligned Saturday for Soldotna High School's football team. In a game where everything clicked, the Stars beat the host Ben Eielson High School Ravens 34-20 and earned a berth opposite archrival Kenai for the state small-schools championship showdown.
More than an ordinary game, it was a rematch of last year's semifinal, when Eielson squeezed past Soldotna in a brutal cliffhanger.
That time, the evenly matched teams gave each other a heck of a time down to the final moments of play, when Eielson blocked an extra point and eked out a one-point victory.
This go-round, the Ravens went into the game with a 7-1 season record, fresh from winning the Great Land Conference for the second year. SoHi went into the match with a 5-3 record, a second-place showing in the Northern Lights Conference and still smarting from a 22-19 loss to Kenai.
The Soldotna players knew Eielson would put up a tough fight, and they knew they could beat them if they worked hard and smart enough.
"I thought we had a really good game plan. I think we were as prepared as we could be," said Soldotna coach Sarge Truesdell. "The game went really according to plan."
The Soldotna players put all the pieces together. With an impressive display of prowess, teamwork and strategy, they tied up the game so tightly that they shut down the Ravens' best players. From the game's beginning, they took control of the ball. By the end of the first half, they led 15-0. Despite a Raven rally in the second half, the Stars never fell behind.
The standout was senior running back Garrett Gardner, who scored four of Soldotna's five touchdowns and rushed for 226 yards on 33 carries. He consistently got and held onto the ball, plowing forward into the line of scrimmage or, when opportunities presented, breaking free to sprint across the field to rack up yardage. He also made a mark with effective tackling and an interception.
"He had a terrific game," Truesdell said after the victory. He called Gardner a phenomenal running back, and praised the rest of the team's offense for opening good holes for him to exploit.
Cameron Schneider, senior quarterback, scored the other touchdown and also was on a roll. He finished 4-for-11 for 55 yards and rushed for 39 yards on 12 carries. On defense, he kept pressure on Raven runners and, in the second half, intercepted an Eielson pass.
"We needed a big play like that," Truesdell said.
Soldotna showed consistent talent on the field.
In addition to Gardner's and Schneider's impressive rushing, senior Brandy Goracke (13 yards) and sophomore Mike Reed (three yards) helped carry the ball.
Those offensive skills would have come up short, however, without help. Their coach described the Stars' defense during the first half as perfect. Soldotna gave up just 91 yards of rushing. Guys such as Gardner, Schneider, Matt Hicks, Goracke, Kelly Seggerman, Aleks Pfaffe, Nic Warton and Daniel Spindler constantly waylaid the Ravens, intercepting their passes, pushing them out of bounds and running down their fastest carriers.
Eielson had several extremely good players with talent for passing and running. Evan Skinner, Donny McKee, Nick Rogers and Nick Scales were all over the place. Skinner, who had played an outstanding season, harassed the Stars continuously from his linebacker position and passed for 168 yards, but had three costly interceptions. McKee, Rogers and Scales proved swift, and each scored one of the Ravens' three touchdowns.
Truesdell said he and his team studied Eielson's games and reviewed last season's loss to find ways around those redoubtable athletes.
"Their passing game was terrific," he said.
The Ravens were a good team having a bad day. Despite outstanding efforts by their top players, the team seemed flustered from the start. The Eielson players racked up 58 yards in penalties, lost two fumbles and tossed three interceptions.
One example of how their day went came in the third quarter. Rogers had scored the Ravens' first points to cut SoHi's lead to 22-8, and Eielson was picking up momentum. Scales, a sophomore, got the ball and lit out toward Soldotna's end zone. It looked like he had taken over the game, but Soldotna's Spindler hit him from a blind spot and forced a fumble.
Spindler, speaking after the game, said his tackle was textbook.
"I just hit him, and he fumbled it," he recalled.
Schneider ended up with the ball, and Eielson's players didn't get it back until after the Stars scored another touchdown for a 28-8 lead.
Truesdell was pleased with the way his team capitalized on its preparations.
"We were able to chew up a lot of clock because we were able to run the ball efficiently," he said after his team rushed for 281 yards on 51 carries.
The players were just as pleased.
"I'm pretty happy," Spindler said. "We're real excited."
The clash with Eielson came on the Ravens' turf, at the Air Force base east of Fairbanks. The day was frosty but clear, sparing the visiting team and fans the dank drizzle that had plagued some earlier games.
Now Soldotna will go up against cross-town rival Kenai, the two-time defending small-schools champion, for the state title. Two years ago, the Stars and the Kards faced off. Soldotna lost 7-0 that time, but is eager to challenge its rival, Truesdell said.
The championship game will be at Anchorage Football Stadium at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
Truesdell said he and his team will be busy this week planning how to neutralize Kenai's strengths.
"We play Kenai so many times," he said. "It's always something a little different."
The players, jazzed with their victory, are upbeat. Spindler spoke for his teammates.
"We know we have a good game plan," he said. "Our coach has prepared us real well. We'll be ready for them."
STARS 34, RAVENS 20
Soldotna 8 7 13 6 --34
Eielson 0 0 8 12 --20
Sol -- Gardner 2 run (Gardner run), 5:32
Sol -- Gardner 8 run (Asimacopoulas kick), 10:14
Sol -- Schneider 1 run (Asimacopoulas kick), 7:37
Eie -- Rogers 1 run (Holt pass from Skinner), 4:22
Sol -- Gardner 29 run (kick failed), 1:54
Eie -- McKee 38 pass from Skinner (kick blocked), 4:04
Sol -- Gardner 54 run (pass failed), 3:50
Eie -- Scales 5 pass from Skinner (kick blocked), 1:53
First downs 18 14
Rushes-yards 51-281 30-91
Passing yards 55 168
Return yards 60 178
Passing 4-11-0 12-21-3
Punts 5-29 2-44.5
Fumbles-lost 1-1 3-2
Penalties-yards 3-21 8-58
Rushing -- Soldotna: Gardner 33-226, Schneider 12-39, Goracke 3-13, Reed 3-3. Eielson: N. Rogers 11-51, McKee 5-14, Scales 4-(-2), Wright 5-12, Skinner 5-16.
Passing -- Soldotna: Schneider 4-11-0-55. Eielson: Skinner 12-20-3-168, Holt 0-1-0-0.
Receiving -- Soldotna: Wilbanks 2-17, Pfaffe 1-23, Reed 1-15. Eielson: Scales 5-77, Finney 1-13, McKee 2-49, Holt 2-13, N. Rogers 2-14.
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