Rivalry to renew at state: Soldotna has 0-3 record vs. Kenai in state small-schools finals

Posted: Friday, October 15, 2010

Since the small-schools state championship started in 2000, Soldotna has been dominant, making seven finals and winning three titles.

The Stars have had just one major problem in the playoffs -- Kenai Central -- and that program once again stands between Soldotna and a state title.

The Kards and Stars will meet for the small-schools state title for the fourth time Saturday at noon at Anchorage Football Stadium.

Kenai has won all three of the previous matchups -- 7-0 in 2002, 20-14 in 2004 and 21-10 in 2009. The Kards have five small-schools titles to their credit, while the Stars have three.

Kenai and Soldotna also traditionally match up in the eighth and last week of the regular season. The real oddity of the Kenai-Soldotna title series is that on two occasions -- Week 8 losses of 28-0 in 2002 and 52-27 last year -- the Kards have been able to shake off the regular-season loss and topple the Stars at state.

So the fact that Soldotna crushed Kenai 52-8 in Week 8 this year, winning its fifth straight Northern Lights Conference crown and fifth game in the last six meetings with Kenai, does not mean the Stars will be overconfident on Saturday, or that the Kards feel they have no chance to win.

"It's fresh in the minds of Soldotna kids that they lost last year, and fresh in the minds of our kids what they did last year," said Kenai coach Jeff Baker, who comes into this game with a 5-0 record in the playoffs. "There's no way to be very confident after the loss we took in the regular season, but at least last year's team can be an example that proves anything is possible."

One thing the Kards can't count on is catching the Stars by surprise.

"We've got enough players left over from last year that they still have that burning feeling from last year," said Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. of the over a dozen players returning to the team this year. "You know they're ready."

Brantley Jr., who will be seeking his third undefeated state title as a coach, said Kenai's victory last year was not as shocking as it appeared.

"Our coaches knew it was very possible to go in and lose that football game," he said. "With six turnovers, the conference game was gift-wrapped. The state game was a dogfight like we expected the first one to be.

"Our staff doesn't look at last year as a monumental upset. We look at it as a good football team that turned the corner."

This year, Kenai did not have star player AJ Hull due to injury for the Week 8 loss to Soldotna. Hull led the Kardinals and the peninsula with 104 points during the regular season.

"We expect it to be a dogfight again," Brantley Jr. said. "The team left out a key player and gift-wrapped it for us. We know we're going to have to give one heck of an effort, because it'll be a different football game."

While Hull is definitely good for a few scores on offense, he's not going to keep 52 points off the scoreboard on defense. Kenai held Service, which will play for the big-schools state title, to 20 points in Week 2.

Which defense will show up for Kenai?

"We had two fumbled punt snaps that led to touchdowns in just the first five minutes," Baker said of the Week 8 loss to Soldotna. "Things went their way early, and rather than respond, I think our kids just folded.

"Dealing with that kind of adversity before the state championship game, hopefully we'll be prepared to respond when it really matters."

The game sets up quite a chess match between coaches. Brantley, with two state titles as head coach, and Baker, with one, both served time on the Soldotna staff together. They also played college football together.

Kenai assistants Jim Beeson and Jim Dawson have each been around high school football on the peninsula for over 20 years. Beeson won four small-schools state titles as head coach for the Kards, while Dawson has been an assistant for all five of Kenai's state titles. Dawson also was an assistant coach at Soldotna when Brantley Jr. was on the team.

"Those guys don't play the football game, the kids play the football game," Brantley Jr. said. "Winning is not any more or less gratifying because I know somebody over there."

Brantley Jr. said one reason he feels good about Saturday is the senior leadership of captains Dakota Elsey, Tate Syverson, Robbie Smithwick and Phil Bennett.

"They've just done the right things in practice, in the classroom and away from the school," Brantley Jr. said. "They want to win bad, they're very competitive kids, and they are just night and day from where we were at a year ago."

Brantley Jr. said the senior leadership has kept the team moving forward. Last year, Homer showed it had gained on Soldotna in the regular season by hanging with the Stars longer in the semifinals.

This year in the playoffs, Soldotna trounced previously unbeaten Thunder Mountain 55-20 in the first round before defeating Eielson 61-27 in the semis. Soldotna led the Falcons 21-0 after the first quarter and the Ravens 27-0 after the first quarter.

"We've gotten this far because we've played as a team," Brantley Jr. said. "We haven't been searching for an identity all season. The kids showed up day one playing for each other."

Meanwhile, Baker has repeatedly said this season that searching for the motivational "on" button for his team has been challenging. Last week, in a 47-12 victory over Homer in the semis, Kenai changed offensive identities, moving Hull from quarterback to running back and sometimes receiver to find more ways to get him the ball.

Hull ended up with three touchdowns, 72 yards rushing and 129 yards receiving. Baker would not say which offense Kenai will run this week.

"We're going to have to account for where AJ is at, and if we pay too much attention, other athletes will make you pay," Brantley Jr. said. "To be honest, I'd thought they'd start the season this way, knowing the group of athletes they had."

Kenai will have to worry about stopping an offense with multiple backs that can break one or two tackles and go all the way. Soldotna has averaged 367.1 yards rushing per game, and had Smithwick, Auston Tennis, Bennett and Jared Duncan at 500 yards or above in the regular season.

"It's absolutely crucial that we don't miss tackles," Baker said. "In an offense like theirs, you have to tackle everybody who might have the football. You have to play perfect football,"

One area where Brantley Jr. said he hopes to have an edge is the kicking game. He said Smithwick's ability to kick through the end zone may be unmatched in the state's history. That will be crucial because Hull is dangerous returning kicks.

Smithwick also has booming punts, while Daniel Koch is steady on extra points and field goals.

"It's Kenai," Brantley Jr. said. "Our kids are going to show up and give their best under any given circumstances. We expect the same out of them on Saturday."

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