The Falcons know this routine from last year.
Pack up the shoulder pads, throw on a tie, board a plane destined for Anchorage and wake up on Saturday with one goal: beat Palmer. This time though — they want to go to bed happy.
For the second consecutive season, the Thunder Mountain Falcons (6-1, 3-0 SEC) play the Palmer Moose (4-4, 3-1 NLC) in the ASAA First National Bowl Series Division II state football semifinals. The 1 p.m. kickoff at Machetanz Field at Palmer High School precedes the other state semifinal between No. 1 Soldotna and No. 2 North Pole.
After falling behind by 14 points after the first half in last year’s playoff game against Palmer, the Falcons scored 19 in the second. They needed three more though, as the Moose came away with a 28-26 victory.
Third-year TMHS head coach Randy Quinto still mulls over whether he should have given his kickers more field goal opportunities.
“I learned a lot last year from that playoff game and not taking points when we could have,” Quinto said. “In the first half, we had an opportunity to put points on the board. But at the time it was my feeling that if we could get a touchdown, it would help our kids to see that, ‘Hey, we’re not so far down now.’ It just so happens in the second half we came storming back and made a great game of it.”
Of course, neither team is the same as last year, and Saturday’s game will have new twists and turns.
Both teams have new quarterbacks. The Falcons defense has been more stingy and the Moose offense has been more productive.
One carry over from last season, however, is who runs the ball for each team.
Falcons seniors Roy Tupou and Erik Frenette are both back and playing well. Tupou has over 700 yards rushing and Frenette’s total hovers around 400.
Moose seniors Larry Cutsforth and Jared Oviok are just as good. Cutsforth season yardage has already exceeded 640 and Oviok’s is about 100 yards shy of that mark.
“Those two backs, from what we’ve seen, have been sitting back nine, almost 10 yards in the backfield and by the time they’re getting the ball or hitting the hole they’re going full speed,” he said. “So that is the main thing is to make sure that we cover our gaps, make sure we put people in those holes so they can’t run downhill, have them try and force it outside.”
The Falcons know they can’t rely solely on their running backs to lead them to victory. They’ll need their receivers to step up, too.
“As the season’s been going along, we’ve been picking up some momentum on offense and the practices have been looking just cleaner and cleaner,” junior receiver Caleb Traxler said.
Senior tackle Alex Eldemar, sitting next to Traxler in TMHS Wednesday night, said has full confidence in the junior this game, saying of Palmer’s pass coverage, “they play pretty deep, and most of Caleb’s routes are pretty short.”
In an odd twist, despite being the No. 1 seed in the Southeast Conference, the Falcons will be playing on the home field of their opponent, Palmer, the No. 2 seed out of the Northern Lights. Quinto said home-field advantage wasn’t a big factor last year and doesn’t expect it to be this year, either.
“Once you get up there, it’s the same pigskin, same grass,” Quinto said.
Ten other teams from around the state will also be playing the Division I and III playoffs.
No one has won more football games in the state of Alaska than Palmer head coach Rod Christiansen.
Three weeks ago, Christiansen became the all-time winningest high school football coach in state history. Christiansen’s current win total stands at 152, two more than the late North Pole coach Buck Nystrom, whose 31 years of coaching winning football programs in Fairbanks got him inducted into the class of 2007 Alaska High School Hall of Fame.
Meanwhile, Soldotna head coach Galen Brantley Jr. has his Stars on a 57-game winning streak. Soldotna has won the last five medium-schools state championships.
“I’m the baby out of the group,” quipped coach Randy Quinto.
How they got there
Thunder Mountain cruised by each of its conference opponents to tie up the No. 1 seed in the Southeast Conference. After getting a big win over North Pole in Week 6, the Falcons outscored Ketchikan and Juneau-Douglas 54-8 in the final two games of the season.
Palmer joined the ever-growing list of teams to lose to Soldotna in Week 5 (28-10), but picked up wins over Northern Lights opponents Eagle River (35-8), Kenai (35-8) and Wasilla (27-26) in the weeks to follow.
It took overtime for the Moose to upend the Warriors in this year’s “Potato Bowl,” the annual showdown between Palmer and Wasilla. It was just the sixth time in 39 games between the Valley rivals that went into overtime.
Beware of the backs
Approx. season yards: 803
Approx. season yards: 458
2017 ASAA First National Bowl Series
Division I playoffs
No. 4 Service at No. 1 Chugiak, Friday, 7 p.m.
No. 3 West Anchorage at No. 2 Colony, Friday, 7 p.m.
No. 3 Lathrop at No. 2 Bartlett, Saturday, noon
No. 4 Wasilla at No. 1 East Anchorage, Saturday, 3 p.m.
Division II playoffs
Machetanz Field, Palmer, Alaska
No. 2 Palmer vs. No. 1 Thunder Mountain, Saturday, 1 p.m.
No. 2 North Pole vs. No. 1 Soldotna, Saturday, 4 p.m.
Division III playoffs
No. 2 Nikiski at No. 1 Barrow, Saturday, 1 p.m.
No. 2 Ben Eielson at No. 1 Homer, Saturday, 2 p.m.
Live web streaming
The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Network will be live streaming Division I and II Semi-final games and Division I, II and III championship games. Visit the NFHS network website for more information.
• Contact sports reporter Nolin Ainsworth at 523-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org.