After leading by six at halftime, the Soldotna football team cruised to a 52-27 victory over Kenai Central in Week 8 of the regular season. The Stars have won the past three small-schools state championships and have defeated every small-schools opponent they've faced in the last five years.
None of it matters to SoHi.
The past will stay there as Soldotna takes on its Northern Lights Conference rival Kenai Central in the small-schools state championship on Saturday at noon at Anchorage Football Stadium.
"We respect Kenai. We're going to play them like we're supposed to," said SoHi senior Chase Jenson. "If we don't respect them, we could lose."
Kenai's ability to move the ball on offense is key if it's going to nab its first state championship since winning four in a row from 2002 to 2005.
"Our offense has to perform," said Jim Beeson, KCHS volunteer assistant coach and media liaison. "We know they're going to score points."
The Kards' offensive success will rely heavily on sophomore quarterback AJ Hull.
"AJ needs success early on," Beeson said. As the offensive leader, a good start for Hull is essential, he added.
The Stars intercepted Hull four times in their last meeting. Those turnovers have to be eliminated on Saturday, Beeson said.
For Hull, he just needs to stay loose.
"I feel like I have to calm down and relax," he said. "I just have to come out and have fun."
Having a strong defense backing him up all season allowed Hull and the offense get away with some mistakes, he said. However, Saturday the Kards must play error-free ball.
"We can't have those little mistakes," Hull said.
Galen Brantley Jr., SoHi's head coach, and Beeson both said their teams need to eliminate big-play opportunities for the opposing team.
"We've got to find a way to run the football and play fundamentally sound defensively," Brantley Jr. said.
"Our offense has to be able to move the ball and our defense has to be able to shut them down," Beeson said.
But shutting down the Stars is no easy task. SoHi's deceptive offense is designed to hide the ball by using several running backs, and it works. Soldotna has tallied nearly 3,000 total rushing yards and 334 total rushing points this season.
Kenai, on the other hand, offers a balanced attack of solid running and passing.
KCHS senior Billy Kiefer leads all Alaska high school running backs with 1,338 yards on the season. Hull has thrown for more than 1,500 yards to lead all passers.
But in football, the better-skilled team doesn't always win, said Stars senior lineman Nathan Strieby. "The team that works hardest, wins," he said.
The Kards are 9-1 overall, with the lone loss coming to Soldotna. The Stars, who are 8-2 overall, had a schedule that included three nonconference games against large-schools opponents West, Colony and Palmer.
It is those games that give his team an edge, Brantley Jr. said. He said his team played from behind in those matchups against superior talent and the Stars proved they could hang with the large schools. Despite losing to West (34-21) and Colony (24-17), SoHi defeated Palmer 34-20.
Both Beeson and Brantley Jr. said the recent meeting between the two crosstown rivals is neither an advantage nor a disadvantage.
"The previous game doesn't matter," Brantley Jr. said.
It's easier for both teams to prepare for the game because they just met a few weeks ago, Beeson said.
A SoHi win would tie Kenai's four championships in a row, though, neither team is focused on that aspect.
"I have not heard a single person mention it," Beeson said.
"It's the team that wins the last one that counts," Strieby said.
In order to shut down SoHi's powerful running attack, all 11 players must do their job every play, Beeson said. "If we're going to slow them down at all, it's going to be a complete team effort," he said.
"We have to play our best game," said Kards linebacker Kyle Rogers.
For SoHi, a strong start to the game is needed.
"Our goal is to come out with intensity," Jenson said. "We can't come out flat."
After Soldotna's single-season rushing record holder Anthony Griglione graduated last year, the team heard whispers of the unlikelihood of winning a fourth straight title -- a rumor this group of ballplayers set out to prove false.
"A lot of people thought we couldn't do it without Griglione," said Stars senior Tyler McGillivary. "We want to prove we can."
"The weight is on our shoulders this year," Jenson added.
Rogers said the Kardinals have been waiting for another chance to play Soldotna since losing earlier this season.
"We're pumped," he said. "We've been thinking about (the game) all week."
"This is the most focused we've been all year," Kiefer said.
The Stars, too, are prepared for the big game.
"We know we're ready," Brantley Jr. said. "It's just a matter of showing up at the showdown."
Mike Nesper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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