FAIRBANKS - The West Valley Wolfpack learned a lot from their 47-20 loss to the Kenai Kardinals last week, and they plan to use their new knowledge in today’s Railbelt Conference high school football game at Palmer.
“We’re going to play hard this week,” Wolfpack head coach Daniel Esparza said. “We lacked a little against Kenai. After the long trip, we were pretty lackadaisical, and we’re not going to make that mistake again. We’re going to play hard.”
In addition to keeping high spirits, Esparza said his team’s week of practice focused on eliminating turnovers and penalties.
“We had seven turnovers against Kenai — six in the first half,” the first-year coach said. “If we want to win, we can’t turn the ball over seven times. We spent this week putting that in their heads.”
Esparza said the team planned to practice with damp balls, making sure the exchanges between running backs and quarterbacks became crisp and the offensive line began blocking better.
“Mother Nature cooperated, though,” he said. “It’s been wet and sloppy. It was perfect.”
Esparza considers the Moose (2-1 conference, 3-2 overall) one of the best-coached teams in the state.
“They’re very well-coached,” he said. “We expect a team that’s well prepared, just like we did in Kenai. We’re playing back-to-back weeks against the best coaching staffs in Alaska.”
To beat a well-coached team, Esparza said the Wolfpack need to be disciplined and know what they’re doing. The Wolfpack will need to execute, he said.
He also knows the matchup ultimately could make or break West Valley’s postseason dreams.
“We set a goal in January to make the playoffs,” he said. “We win one of our next two, and we’re almost, pretty much in.”
If the Wolfpack, also 2-1 conference, 3-2 overall, can make postseason play, it will be the first time since 2006 that West Valley has made an appearance, Esparza said. It also would be the first time this year’s senior class will have had a winning season.
“That’s why this is huge,” he said. “You can’t get any better than playing at Palmer, on a Friday night, under the lights. It’s huge. It’s exciting.”
The game kicks off at 7 p.m.
Soldotna at North Pole
The Soldotna Stars will travel to Patriot Pride Field on Saturday to take on North Pole at 1 p.m. in a nonconference game, and Patriots head coach Richard Henert said his team has had a strong week of practice in anticipation.
“The defense has really stepped up,” he said. “This has been one of the best weeks in practice all around, but really with the defense.”
Henert said he thinks his defense has prepared a lot better for Soldotna (4-0 Northern Lights Conference, 5-0 overall) than they did for last week’s game against Palmer.
“I think they’ve been prepared a lot better as far as scout offense,” he said. “The scouts really stepped up and gave the defense a good look ahead.”
Henert considers the Stars the “most disciplined wing-T team in the state,” and gives credit to Soldotna head coach Galen Brantley for running a “greatly executed offense.”
“This week will be similar to last week in the way Soldotna runs the trap and sweep like Palmer did,” Henert said. “It’s going to be a tough challenge again, just like it was last week.”
The Patriots are always looking for a win, as they’re 1-3 in Railbelt Conference play, 1-4 overall, but as a team, Henert said improvement each game is his team’s focus.
“It’s tough when we get in a stretch run like this,” he said, “but we’re always looking for ways to improve. That’s big this week.”
Henert said he’d like to leave the field Saturday afternoon with the victory because the game hold personal value.
“This was my first game back in 2007 and Brantley’s, too,” Henert said, adding that the seniors on his roster this season were freshmen when he first began coaching at North Pole. “It’s like this is one of our last games together type of thing, so it would be nice to turn things around and reverse the beginning of our careers together.”
Soldotna won the ‘07 match-up 62-42.
Lathrop at Juneau-Douglas
As the Lathrop Malemutes continue through the second half of their season, head coach Jason Gazewood is making some adjustments — not schematically, but adjustments in attitudes.
“We’re focusing on enjoying football and trying to have fun,” Gazewood said. “We’re past the middle of the season, and everyone’s a little down, so we spent this past week focusing on having fun and enjoying what we’re doing.”
The Malemutes are 0-4 in Railbelt Conference play (0-5 overall), and Gazewood said his team has the potential for success if they’re able to play consistent football tonight at Juneau-Douglas (8 p.m.).
“We’ve had three good efforts and two bad efforts,” he said, reflecting on games past. “The three good were followed by the bad. We played good, then bad, good, then bad... This sixth game needs to be a consistent effort.”
Gazewood expects a strong Juneau-Douglas team, comprised of dozens of “skilled kids,” but after a week of practice that focused on a bit more fun, he said his team might surprise.
“It can be tough for an 0-5 team, but the kids have been charged up,” he said. “We’ve stopped grinding them so much, and they’ve responded well. They’ve been given more responsibility, and they’ve been able to have more fun and enjoy being high school football players.
With the newfound sense of freedom, Gazewood said his kids have also got a new sense of confidence to them.
“The more confidence we have,” he said, “the more dangerous we’ll be.”
Contact staff writer Renee Thony at 459-7583.