The start of the Alaska School Activities Association small-schools state championship game was a nightmare for Soldotna junior tailback Auston Tennis.
The next 47 minutes were a dream come true.
Tennis fumbled a sure touchdown just outside the goal line for the Stars after a 54-yard gain on their first possession, but that would be the last serious miscue of the day for Soldotna in the First National Bowl at Anchorage Football Stadium.
Tennis returned a kickoff 74 yards for a touchdown six minutes later to give the Stars a 14-7 lead and went on to earn MVP honors with 305 yards and four touchdowns rushing in Soldotna's 77-42 victory against Kenai to avenge its loss to the Kardinals in the 2009 title game.
"We played past it," Tennis said with a smile shinning under eye black smeared in an "S" across his face. "Nobody gave me any crap about it. Everyone stayed positive. That's how our team is. They're amazing people and amazing players."
Soldotna (11-0) lit up the scoreboard for a title-game record score that wasn't even as close as the final margin after defending champs Kenai (7-4) scored two touchdowns in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter.
"It's been a great year for our kids," said Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr after nabbing his third undefeated state title in four years of coaching. "We started out, the expectations were really mixed, and from day one they were a team. They cared about each other. They played for each other. They didn't care who got in the end zone as long as we got in. It was a real pleasure to coach these kids. They are fantastic young men."
Led by junior lineman Tyler Marcuson, who plowed the way on several of Soldotna's long touchdown runs, Soldotna piled up 668 yards of offense -- all of it on the ground.
"Our kids did an excellent job blocking," Brantley said. "They have all year long. They're a real coachable group of young men. They get to their spots and they get there with intensity."
When Kenai was still entertaining thoughts of contending down 34-14 in the second quarter with Soldotna pinned at its own 8, Tennis ripped the Kardinals' hearts out with a 92-yard touchdown run straight up the middle, juking AJ Hull at midfield and outrunning Dante Diaz to the end zone.
"He's a hell of a football player," Brantley said. "He really is. He's a tough kid. He fits in great to our scheme. It's power football and he runs physical. More important, he's an excellent young man."
Soldotna spread the wealth in the title game. Besides Tennis' 305 yards and five total touchdowns, Phil Bennett rushed for 210 yards on 12 carries with scoring romps of 73 and 62 yards, and Robbie Smithwick had five carries for 100 yards including scoring runs of 30, 50 and 22 yards. Smithwick, who lost four yards on his final carry to account for his scoring runs adding up to more than his final tally, posted two touchdowns on his first two carries.
Smithwick also returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown, giving him four scores on the day, and Bennett added two picks of his own against Kenai junior quarterback Colton Hayes.
Hayes was making his second start at quarterback after leading Kenai to a semifinal win against Homer, and he struggled for a consistent rhythm. Hayes finished 19 of 34 for 304 yards and three touchdowns passing, but he also threw three second-half interceptions.
Two of his touchdown tosses came in the final 2:16 when he found fellow junior Hull for scoring strikes of 60 and 27 yards. Hull finished the game with three touchdowns and 167 yards receiving.
Kenai coach Jeff Baker, who suffered his first playoff loss as head coach after leading Kenai to the title last year against Soldotna, gave credit to the Stars.
"They have four or five outstanding athletes and playing on the turf really speeds them up," Baker said. "They play really good football and we didn't take all the opportunities we were given. We missed a lot of tackles and things happen. I'm proud of the younger kids who played and we had some younger kids do some good things. Most of the points we scored were by juniors, so we have a lot of things to look forward to."
Senior Tyler Glidden led Kenai on the ground with 19 carries for 72 yards and a touchdown, but the Kardinals' ground attack was virtually nonexistent otherwise as Hull could manage only 27 yards on 10 carries.
Following Glidden's touchdown that tied the score at 14 with 1:47 to play in the first quarter, Soldotna reeled off four straight touchdowns and led 49-28 at halftime despite a Kenai rushing score by tight end Alex Nason as time ran out in the second quarter.
Down three scores, Kenai had reason to hold a glimmer of hope due to getting the ball first in the third quarter, but the Stars quickly snuffed out any hope for the Kardinals.
Soldotna senior defensive lineman Daniel Koch sacked Hayes for a 13-yard loss on the first play of the third, Glidden was stuffed for no gain and senior linebacker Tate Syverson then sacked Hayes all the way back to the Kenai 1.
"Tate's been our defensive leader all year long," Brantley said. "He scrapes to the football with tenacity. He's had one heck of a senior campaign for us."
Following the punt, Soldotna got down to business four plays later when Tennis scooted to the outside and scored on fourth-and-four from the 21 to make it 56-28.
Hayes then threw his first pick of the day to Smithwick, who raced down the sideline for a 39-yard score and a 63-28 margin to make the rout official.
"We needed to come out and score (to start the second half)," Baker said. "It didn't work out that way and went downhill from there. It happens. We've had a hard time responding in the past and it's kind of tough."
Brantley was especially proud of Smithwick, whose father drowned before the season and in whose honor the Stars wore "R.S." patches on their uniforms all year.
"He's dynamite," Brantley said. "I tell you what, he's put together one of the best seasons anyone's ever had at Sohi. He started off the season, just rough, lost his father, and he dedicated his season to him. He didn't disappoint. His father is a very proud man."
Brantley, whose Stars finally won against Kenai for the first time in four tries in the state championship game, said the victory wasn't about him.
"My old grudges having lost three times to them in title games, those grudges belong to me," Brantley said. "These kids, other than a handful who were on the team last year, they don't carry that baggage. It's not personal. We wanted this win for this group of kids. They put a ton of blood, sweat and tears and man, they deserve it."
Tennis said beating rival Kenai was at least a little bit personal.
"It's everything I could ask for," he said.
Small-schools state championship
Stars 77, Kardinals 42
Soldotna (11-0) 21 28 28 0
Kenai (7-4) 14 14 0 14
9:48 -- Soldotna, Smithwick 30 rush (Koch kick), 7-0
6:00 -- Kenai, Hull 5 pass from Hayes (Hayes kicki), 7-7
5:48 -- Soldotna, Tennis 74 kickoff return (Koch kick), 14-7
1:47 -- Kenai, Glidden 1 rush (Hayes kick), 14-14
0:54 -- Soldotna, Bennett 73 rush (Koch kick), 21-14
11:37 -- Soldotna, Tennis 1 rush (Koch kick), 28-14
7:59 -- Soldotna, Smithwick 50 rush (Koch kick failed), 34-14
4:52 -- Soldotna, Tennis 92 rush (Duncan rush fail), 40-14
4:19 -- Kenai, Nason 37 pass from Hayes (Hayes kick), 40-21
1:25 -- Soldotna, Smithwick 22 rush (Koch kick), 47-21
1:17 -- Soldotna, safety, 49-21
0:00 -- Kenai, Nason 4 rush (Hayes kick) 49-28
7:44 -- Soldotna, Tennis 21 rush (Koch kick), 56-28
5:36 -- Soldotna, Smithwick 39 interception return (Koch kick), 63-28
3:01 -- Soldotna, Tennis 35 rush (Koch kick), 70-28
0:01 -- Soldotna, Bennett 62 rush (Koch kick), 77-28
2:16 -- Kenai, Hull 60 pass from Hayes (Hayes kick), 77-35
2:05 -- Kenai, Hull 27 pass from Hayes (Hayes kick), 77-42
Soldotna -- Fowler 0-2-1--0.
Kenai -- Hayes 19-34-3--304, Hull 3-4-1--58.
Soldotna -- Tennis 16-305, Smithwick 5-100, Bennett 12-210, Duncan 2-12, Fowler 2-(-12), Syverson 1-0, Schmelzenbach 5-49, Elsey 2-4
Kenai -- Glidden 19-72, Hull 10-27, Nason 1-4, Hayes 2-(-17), Carlson 2-12
Soldotna -- none
Kenai -- Hull 9-167, Risung 2-29, Nason 5-74, Hayes 1-26, Sandahl 3-36, Glidden 2-30
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