Football preview 2023: Conference shakeup alters landscape

The high school football season kicks off this weekend with each of the five Kenai Peninsula schools affected by the conference shakeup that happened in the offseason.

Soldotna, which plays at Lathrop at 8 p.m. Friday in a rematch of the last three Division II state title games, is now in an eight-team Railbelt Conference that encompasses all of the teams in Division II.

Kenai, which hosts Kodiak at 7 p.m. Friday, and defending Division III state champ Homer, which hosts Barrow at 2 p.m. Saturday, also now have all six Division III schools in their conference.

That’s because a number of smaller schools, including Seward and Nikiski, are no longer in Division III football after forming a nine-man football league.

The league also includes Eielson and Valdez, and will have six regular season games, as opposed to the eight games played by the top three divisions. Nikiski opens by hosting Eielson on Aug. 19, while Seward opens by hosting Valdez on Aug. 19.

There will now be four state championships awarded in a state with 26 teams playing football, though the nine-man football title will not be sanctioned by the Alaska School Activities Association.

It’s the latest attempt to find a solution for football with some schools thousands of miles apart and football school sizes ranging from Seward at 137 students to West Anchorage at 1,784.

One big challenge to the new order will be the stability of the nine-man league. Monroe Catholic dropped out this year, leaving the league with four teams.

“We’re the smallest schools and there’s only a few of us doing it,” Nikiski coach Matt Trammell said. “We’re the most vulnerable schools when it comes to losing a program because we don’t have enough kids.

“When you only have four teams, it gets really tough. If we could get schools that have had programs in the past and get them back in the game, it would be really beneficial.”

The top three nine-man teams will make the playoffs, with the two and three seeds playing a semifinal and the top team getting a bye.

Seward coach Tyler Mallory said in a perfect world, he’d rather be playing 11-man football. But he said if that means playing in the same conference as 621-student Kodiak, nine-man football is safer and more reasonable.

“It will definitely be an adjustment playing nine-man,” Mallory said of the format, which takes place on a normal-sized football field. “We’ve been working and learning as a coaching staff to see what it looks like and we feel good about it.”

Mallory said he has been reaching out to schools that have had programs in the past and, like Trammell, is hoping to increase the schools in the league.

For Homer and Kenai, being in Division III and the Mid Alaska Conference means there are not as many teams to play.

Most Division III teams only have the option of playing other teams in Division III. That’s because there are eight teams at Division II, and eight teams at Division I. That leaves the top two divisions with one nonconference week and almost all Division I schools are using that week to play Division II schools.

For example, Kenai will play Kodiak, Barrow and Redington twice, with the second game counting as conference. The top four teams make the playoffs.

Homer has two repeaters on the schedule — Redington and Barrow — after managing to pick up a game with Division II Palmer.

Mariners coach Justin Zank said the tough part of the new alignment is obvious.

“We have the potential to play a team three times in one season,” he said. “I’d rather play different teams.”

Kenai coach Jake Brand said there still will be a lot of good football.

“These are all competitive teams,” he said. “It’s a good spot to be in. Home and away games should be exciting.”

While nothing changed for Division I schools, Division II went from two conferences to just one conference. Also, all eight Division II teams make the playoffs, meaning an extra week is added to the postseason.

For Soldotna, the shift to one big conference meant going from four conference games to seven conference games. Those three extra games are all against teams in the Fairbanks area that involve very long bus rides — Lathrop, North Pole and West Valley.

Stars coach Galen Brantley Jr. said he likes the level of competition in Division II. His only problem is Soldotna is essentially replacing trips to Anchorage with trips to Fairbanks by losing the ability to schedule multiple Division I schools.

The Stars must travel to Lathrop and West Valley this season. The other traditional rivals in the new Railbelt Conference — Chugiak, Eagle River, Palmer and Wasilla — aren’t exactly quick trips either.

“I’ll really miss those games in south Anchorage,” Brantley Jr. said. “Service, South and Dimond. Those are the closest games we can get.”

The following, by alphabetical order, is a closer look at the peninsula’s football teams:

Homer Mariners

Zank returns for a fifth season as head coach with about 45 players in the program.

The Mariners have 10 seniors this year and return six players on offense and five on defense looking to defend the Division III state title.

“I thought we had a good offseason,” Zank said. “We’ve got a good, core group of kids.”

Like Brand, Zank said it should be a competitive division. He said one team that pops out is Houston. Homer upset the Hawks in the state championship, but Houston brings back plenty of talent looking for revenge.

Homer’s biggest loss to graduation was Carter Tennison, the Division III Offensive Player of the Year. Preston Stanislaw, a junior, will play quarterback this year.

“It’s still going to be the same offense, but Preston brings a different skill set,” Zank said. “It will look a little different the way he’s running it.”

Zank said some other big returners are senior utility player Chris Martishev, senior wide receiver Jonah Martin, senior running back Jake Tappan, senior lineman Nathan Overson, sophomore defensive back Jackson Snaric and senior inside linebacker and offensive lineman Oak Anderson.

“We’re going to be starting a lot of new guys that first week,” Zank said. “We’ll look to get better every single game and not put any expectations on the guys as far as wins and losses.”

Kenai Central Kardinals

Brand, in his second year as head coach, has 58 players in the program. The Kardinals have five seniors who have played all four years and six varsity seniors overall, plus a few more first-year seniors.

After losing 22 varsity seniors last season, Brand said the Kardinals had a good offseason of camps and fundraising. Kenai finished fourth in the Mid Alaska Conference last season, which in last season’s format was not good enough to make the playoffs.

“The kids are working super hard and they are really nice kids to work with,” Brand said. “It takes enough time and money to be a part of a quality program and the kids have really bought in.

“This is a hard job but having kids like this makes it easier.”

The Kards lost all 11 starters on offense and defense. Brand said that’s obviously tough, but the bright side is the remaining players all had a lot of time together on junior varsity, instead of classes getting split up on varsity and junior varsity.

The five seniors with four years of experience are quarterback and safety Zeke Yragui, running back and defender without a position yet William Wilson, linemen Wyatt Cole and Owen Smith, and tight end and linebacker Elliot Haakenson.

Brand got the job shortly before practice started last year. Brand, who also coaches defense, said the late start wasn’t as bad as it could have been due to all the seniors. One area where it did have an effect was offense, where coordinator Blake Taplin had to design his own offense on the fly. Brand said Taplin has had a whole offseason this year.

In Division II, Brand said Houston and Barrow look like the teams to beat.

Nikiski Bulldogs

Trammell, in his second year as head coach, has about six seniors and 26 players in the program.

The Bulldogs won the Denali Conference last season before losing in the first round of the playoffs.

Nikiski has four starters back on offense and four back on defense, including losing conference Offensive Player of the Year Dwyght Mullins and co-Lineman of the Year Charlie Chamberlain.

The program does get a big boost with the return of running back and linebacker Truit McCaughey, who was lost early last season due to an ankle injury.

Senior Seth Payne, at outside linebacker and tight end, went to a couple camps this summer and had a good offseason. Fellow returning senior starter Robert Isabell will play center and defensive line.

Jerry Snodgrass, another senior, did not start last season, but Trammell said a good offseason will have him competing for spots on both sides of the ball.

Junior inside linebacker and halfback Oliver Parrish is another returning two-way starter.

Juniors Ethan Ellis and Wyatt Maguire were one-way starters this year. Both will probably start both ways this season, with Ellis serving as the quarterback.

Trammell said there are a lot of unknowns switching to nine-man. The Bulldogs liked to run between the tackles last season, but this season there are no tackles. The coach said the team will throw in wrinkles to take advantage of the new space.

On defense, he said the Bulldogs will take it week by week and try to match up with teams while still getting the best nine defenders on the field.

In the league, Trammell said Seward returns a lot of talent, Eielson was young last year, and he hasn’t seen Valdez in a couple of years.

Seward Seahawks

In his third year at the helm, Mallory has four seniors and total numbers in the lower 20s.

He returns 10 of 11 starters on both sides of the ball from a team that was second in the Denali Conference last season.

In shaping up the conference, he said Nikiski lost a lot, but returns a lot. He also said Eielson lost only a few seniors, while Valdez is the big question mark.

Senior John Van Buskirk, the co-Lineman of the Year in the Denali Conference last season, returns bigger, stronger and faster.

Senior Kupono Albino, a running back and linebacker, also has put in the work to improve, according to Mallory.

Brett Gilmore was the starting quarterback last year as a sophomore, and Mallory said time at a camp in the Lower 48 has only made him better.

Emerson Cross was co-Utility Player of the Year as a freshman last season, and Mallory said he will be a very athletic wide receiver and middle linebacker this season.

Senior Judah Brueckner also won the offseason. Mallory said Brueckner did nothing but work out and gained 25 pounds of muscle, meaning he will move from linebacker to defensive end.

Soldotna Stars

Entering his 17th season, Brantley Jr. has 11 state titles. The team has just under 20 seniors, and also has over 90 players. Brantley Jr. said that’s a record for the program and credited all the administrative support he’s had over the years to build the program.

The Stars have always sought to gain an advantage in the offseason and this summer was no exception, with two camps and four weight lifting days a week filling the schedule.

“If you want to compete at a high level you have to create a culture where hard work and discipline is a cornerstone,” Brantley Jr. said. “I don’t know any other way to do it.”

Finding motivation this offseason has been easy. None of the players in the program have ever beaten Lathrop. The teams didn’t play in pandemic 2020, then Lathrop won in the regular season and state title game in 2021, and won the state title game last year.

“I think it’s been good motivation for our kids in the offseason,” Brantley Jr. said. “We always count down the days and it’s nice to have that sitting out there for the kids. None of them have beaten Lathrop.”

The Malemutes and Stars are the obvious picks to play in a fourth-straight Division II title game, but Brantley Jr. warned there is a lot of other talent.

“For a lot of schools in this division, the trajectory has been doing the right way,” Brantley Jr. said. “As we go forward, it’s going to be pretty competitive.”

The Stars return nine on offense and nine on defense, but Brantley Jr. said that’s no guarantee of success Friday against the Malemutes.

“They have the same coaching staff and a lot of returners,” he said. “The majority of their offensive line is back. Their tight end is back. Their quarterbacks are back.

“They certainly have enough to build around. We expect them to be a force.”

Senior Gehret Medcoff, a first-team Division II all-state fullback and two-time Northern Lights Conference Offensive Player of the year, returns to a backfield that also returns running backs Collin Peck, a senior, and Wyatt Faircloth, a junior.

Senior quarterback Zac Buckbee also returns behind an offensive line that includes senior Hakoa Montoya, who was first-team all-state at offensive tackle last season.

Brantley Jr. added that junior Lokeni Wong will provide depth at running back, while senior Ala Tuisaula had a great offseason and will move from center to right tackle.

The coach also is glad to have Andrew Pieh back at tight end after losing him to injury last season.

Finally, Brantley Jr. said players like Luke Miller and Elijah Lee were forced into action as sophomores last season due to injury, but that means they now have valuable experience as juniors.

SoHi will have new offensive and defensive coordinators. For the first time as head coach, Brantley Jr. is giving up offensive coordinator duties, with Tai Lepule taking over. Trevor Walden will be the defensive coordinator.