The Soldotna defense forced five turnovers in the first half in beating Eielson 61-27 on Friday in the state small-schools semifinals at Anchorage Football Stadium.
The Stars advance to Saturday's championship game against Kenai at noon at AFS. It is the eighth time in the 11 years since the small-big schools split that the Stars have made the championship game. Soldotna had won three titles in a row before losing to Kenai, 21-10, in last year's title game.
"We're excited to be a part of it," said Galen Brantley Jr., whose team improves to 10-0 and has a chance to match undefeated state titles in 2007 and 2008. "It's been a long year and a lot of hard work.
"Everybody starts the season at the beginning of the year hoping to get into this position. It's a relief to be there."
The Stars turned all five of Eielson's first-half turnovers into points. The quickest transition to points came when Tate Syverson returned an interception 51 yards for a score and Dawson Pearson returned an interception 26 yards for a touchdown just 1:47 after Syverson's feat.
Pearson's score gave Soldotna a 27-0 lead with 1:05 left in the first quarter.
"We hadn't scored on defense this year, we had an interception return called back," Brantley Jr. said after improving to 9-1 as a head coach in the postseason. "To score twice to start the game was great. We were very pleased with our effort defensively."
Phil Bennett started the scoring with a 47-yard romp to pay dirt with 7:59 left in the quarter. Eielson fumbled on the first snap of its next series, and Jared Duncan pounced on the loose ball on the Eielson 25-yard line to set up a 1-yard touchdown by Auston Tennis.
In the second quarter, a Bennett interception set up a 17-yard touchdown pass from Tanner Fowler to Bennett. Syverson closed the half by recovering a fumble to set up a 66-yard scoring run by Robbie Smithwick, who finished with 166 yards on just six carries.
Brantley Jr. said Syverson is one of those players that makes a huge impact that normally does not show up in the stats.
"He's one of our emotional leaders," Brantley Jr. said. "He's an intense football player, and without question he's been our hardest hitter all year long.
"He had a hit on one of Robbie's counters where he took out two people. He's always looking to light people up. You absolutely need those types of athletes on a football team."
Brantley Jr. also gave credit to Pearson for making such a big play in a playoff game, even though this is his first year playing for the team.
"To come out and make plays like he did tonight shows what kind of athlete he is," Brantley Jr. said.
Soldotna's offense also was able to eat up large chunks of yards on the ground, with three scoring runs over 47 yards in the first half. That includes a Smithwick run where he ran over 50 yards, then handed the ball to center Tyler Marcuson for the last 6 yards.
"The kids have been executing pretty well down the stretch," Brantley Jr. said. "We feel pretty good about the momentum we have going in to next week."
The only negatives in the first half for the Stars were a pair of turnovers procured by the Ravens defense. Soldotna's opening drive ended with a fumble, and Pat Brown returned an interception 59 yards for a score in the second quarter. Brantley Jr. said the interception happened when the receiver ran the wrong route.
"Those kinds of things are uncharacteristic," the coach said. "That was our first interception of the year. We have to work hard this week to take those things out of our system. In another week, they will be costly."
Tennis and Caelan Elsey added touchdown runs for Soldotna in the second half. The Stars were able to rest their starters in the second half.
Brantley Jr. said it was great to get the players of the future a half of playing time. He also said it was a nice luxury to rest his starters for a half so late in the season.
"Everybody had a smile on their face after the game," Brantley Jr. said. "It was a good game for the program."
Stars 61, Ravens 27
Eielson 0 7 8 12 --27
Soldotna 27 21 7 6 --61
Sol -- Bennett 47 run (Koch kick), 7:59.
Sol -- Tennis 1 run (Koch kick), 6:36.
Sol -- Syverson 51 interception return (kick failed), 2:52.
Sol -- Pearson 26 interception return (Koch kick), 1:05.
Eie -- P. Brown 59 interception return (Ellsworth kick), 10:06.
Sol -- Marcuson 6 run (Koch kick), 9:45.
Sol -- Bennett 17 pass from T. Fowler (Koch kick), 5:30.
Sol -- Smithwick 66 run (Koch kick), 1:36.
Sol -- Tennis 17 run (Koch kick), 7:49.
Eie -- Delauder 38 pass from P. Brown (Borrega pass from P. Brown), 5:08.
Eie -- Ellingson 11 run (run failed), 10:17.
Sol -- C. Elsey 34 run (run failed), 7:04.
Eie -- H. Smith 3 run (pass failed), 4:55.
First downs 17 17
Rushes-yards 44-268 49-451
Passing yards 140 24
Return yards 158 118
Passes 9-19-3 2-3-1
Punts 2-39.5 0-0
Fumbles-lost 4-2 2-2
Penalties-yards 2-10 2-10
Rushing -- Eielson: H. Smith 17-156, Brown 18-69, Ellingson 3-28, Ellsworth 4-20, S. Smith 2-(-5). Soldotna -- Smithwick 6-166, Bennett 6-76, Duncan 8-61, C. Elsey 6-60, Schmelzenbach 6-41, Tennis 5-33, Young 4-11, T. Fowler 3-7, Marcuson 1-6, N. Fowler 4-(-10).
Passing -- Eielson: S. Smith 5-14-3--102. Soldotna: T. Fowler 2-3-1--24.
Receiving -- Eielson: Delauder 3-60, Ellingson 3-47, Brown 2-42, Howell 0-0. Soldotna: Bennett 1-23, Bosick 1-7.
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