Four local high school football teams from the Railbelt and Aurora Conferences play in semifinal state championship games today and Saturday: Railbelt’s West Valley and Lathrop will compete for a Division II state championship berth and Aurora’s Barrow and Eielson look to advance to the Division III championship game.
A win for any team would mean a trip to a state championship game in Anchorage.
A 27-24 loss to Lathrop in the Dog Bowl last Saturday left West Valley with the No. 2 seed in the Railbelt Conference and a semifinal road trip to face the Soldotna Stars, the seven-time Division II defending state champions.
The West Valley team had a slow 0-3 start to the season, but went 3-1 in the final four games of the regular season.
The Stars, the No. 1 seed from the Northern Lights Conference, haven’t lost a game since their 2018 season opener. The team hasn’t scored less than 42 points this season.
“We’re going to try to make plays at the line of scrimmage and try to stop the big chunk plays, which is the biggest thing,” West Valley head coach Norm Davis said Thursday.
“We’ve got some great skill players ... and if we can just execute like we know we’re capable of, which has been the biggest challenge all year long, then I think we will be competitive.”
West Valley and Soldotna face off today at 5 p.m.
Lathrop hosts Eagle River for Alaska’s second Division II semifinal matchup at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Like their crosstown rival, the Malemutes started the season slow, going 1-3 in non-conference matchups before closing out the season with a 3-0 Railbelt Conference record, earning them the No. 1 seed.
“The same thing you have to do to keep kids up and motivated when they’ve just lost three games, is the same thing you have to keep them up and motivated when they’ve just won three games,” Lathrop head coach Luke Balash said.
Balash and the other Malemute coaches emphasizes playing good football every down and not focusing on the scoreboard.
Balash hopes that mentality will keep the team from getting overconfident going into the matchup with Eagle River, given that the Malemutes lone non-conference win was a 42-14 stomping of the Wolves on the road week one.
“The reality is this game is going to be totally different,” Balash said on Thursday, referring to the season long development of the teams, the change from turf to grass and the influence of winter weather conditions.
The Malemutes had their first experience with the snow this season during last weekend’s Dog Bowl and have been practicing in weather every day since. Balash hopes it will contribute to the team’s home field advantage.
“We hope a lot of folks will come out and support us and watch the game despite the cold weather,” he said. “We plan to have lots of hot coco available for purchase to help keep folks warm.”
In the Division III semifinal matchups, Eielson, the defending state champion, looks to keep its quest for a seventh state title alive when it travels to take on Peninsula Conference Champion Houston at 7 p.m today.
The Houston Hawks have a perfect 8-0 overall record and Eielson head coach David DeVaughn says it’s going to take a “perfect effort” from his team to beat them.
“We’re going to have to weather the storm, because they’re going to bring it right from the first whistle all the way to the last.”
After going 6-1 overall with a 3-1 Aurora Conference record, the Ravens earned the No. 2 seed in the division.
“We’ve definitely overachieved,” DeVaughn said on Thursday, after finishing his 20th regular season as head coach for the team.
“Being here at Eielson, it’s really rare for us to have four-year kids all the time, so it’s really nice that with such a young group we’ve been able to get to the playoffs.”
One of the Ravens’ two seniors, two of the seven juniors and one of the three sophomores have played with the team since freshman year.
The Ravens’ one loss was to the Aurora Conference Champion Barrow Whalers, who host the No. 2 seed from the Peninsula Conference, the Nikiski Bulldogs, for the weekend’s second Division III contest.
The 6-1 Whalers recorded a 14-0 win over the 4-4 Bulldogs in week four on the road, but Whalers head coach Chris Battle is reminding his players that “it’s harder to beat a team a second time.”
However, hosting the Bulldogs will give the team an edge in this matchup.
“I call it the 12 man,” Battle said referring to the arctic climate in Utqiagvik. “We have the weather to our advantage up here so it’s been snowing raining, sleeting and everything else.”
The Whalers and Bulldogs kick off at 1 p.m. on Saturday. Winners from this weekend will advance to their division’s state championship games, which will take place on Oct. 19 at Anchorage Football Stadium. The Division III championship game is scheduled for 12 p.m. The Division II championship game begins at 4 p.m.
Contact News-Miner sports writer Laura Stickells at 459-7530. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMsports.