Stars outshine Mariners for state championship

The Soldotna Stars completed a stellar season Saturday night by winning the 2012 medium-schools state football championship, beating the Homer Mariners 62-20 at Tom Huffer Sr. Field at Chugiak High School.

The Mariners came out swinging, driving down the field on the team’s first possession with big runs of 19 yards from Joseph Cardoza and 12 yards from quarterback Sheldon Hutt, but came up short on fourth down with only inches to go.

“That first drive, there was a misread on that play, and the energy level was so high for the players and referees, that I didn’t get their attention, and it didn’t happen for us,” Homer Coach Camron Wyatt said. “I don’t think SoHi expected us to march down the field like that. This game is a game of inches, and we didn’t get the play off like we wanted to.”

From there, Soldotna caught its breath and did what it does best — score.

Freshman running back Drew Gibbs ran 5 yards to score Soldotna’s first touchdown with less than two minutes remaining in the first quarter, and the Stars found another score early in the second. This time it was a 20-yard pass from quarterback Noah Fowler to wide receiver Zane Miller that got the job done.

“They came out and punched us in the mouth for sure, but we got the stop there on the line, and that changed the momentum,” quarterback Noah Fowler said.

Soldotna Head Coach Galen Brantley Jr. said the defensive schemes put together by coordinator Phil Leck helped.

“We definitely came out aggressive, and moved the ball down the field, and after that goal-line stand, we had the momentum,” Brantley Jr. said. “Our kids continued to execute better and better as the season went along.

“They’ve worked extremely hard for the last four years, and it feels really good to send that group out on top.”

Reid Schmelzenbach had a 2-yard run to score, Fowler ran it in 2 yards to score, and River Calloway had scores of 2 and 3 yards, making it clear that Soldotna had the power to push the ball across the line when needed.

“If I had to pick two words, it would be one heartbeat,” Brantley Jr. answered when asked what words describe the season best. “It’s not always the team with the most talent that wins a football game, it’s the best team, and I think throughout the entire season, they’ve proved that they’re the best team.”

On the other side of the field, even when down in the count, Homer never gave up, pushing the ball downfield in the third quarter with a 5-yard blast from Cardoza in the third quarter.

In the final quarter, Hutt lobbed a rocket to the waiting hands of Tommy Bowe on a 32-yard touchdown, and even when defeat was certain, Hutt and Bowe connected once more, on the final play of the game, with a 20-yard touchdown pass.

“What was taken away was given back, and that’s the way you got to look at it,” Wyatt said.

Faced with the difficult week Homer has been forced to endure, headlined by the arrest of one of its players and the suspensions of a few others, the Mariners showed a determination not seen by many schools.

“Our emotion is that we have a great season for next year,” Wyatt said. “The end of this year is a great start for next year. We have a lot of good kids and they played as hard as they could, and Mariners never give up. They’re resilient, and this has been a season of adversity.”

Wyatt acknowledged the trying time that he and the community of Homer have had in recent days, and referenced the words of his grandfather.

“Before he passed on, he told me, ‘Son, my heart is broke, but my spirit soars high,’” Wyatt said. 

“This past week, every day I’ve woken up, I’ve said those words to get enough positive energy for those kids that are working hard.”

Joey Klecka is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.