The Soldotna Stars, which for years has reigned supreme over Alaska's smaller football-playing schools, will play for their sixth state championship in eight years Saturday when they meet Juneau, a former large-school power that dropped to the medium-school division this year.
Soldotna is undefeated in 10 games and is coming off a 63-33 semifinal romp over North Pole, another former large-school team that this year joined the medium-school division.
Juneau is 8-1 and coming off a 42-15 semifinal rout of Kenai. Its only loss was a 41-22 setback to Foss, Wash., in a game played without seven starters, including star running back Demetrius Campos.
Both teams rely on bruising running games capable of piling up points. Soldotna averages more than 60 points a game and Juneau averages more than 45. The game will mark the first meeting between the teams.
Running back Drew Gibbs and Jake Kooly and quarterback Colton Young are the main ball carriers for the defending champion Stars, who use a deceptive offense that often fools opponents into pursuing someone other than the guy with the ball.
In the win over North Pole, Soldotna carried the ball 63 times and passed six times. Kooley rushed for 354 on 26 carries, Gibbs rushed for 177 yards and 16 carries, and the team amassed 581 rushing yards.
Juneau answers with Campos, the Southeast Conference offensive player of the year who averages more than 10 yards per carry, Against Kenai, he rushed for 208 yards on 20 carries and opened the second half with an 85-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
Soldotna is the reigning champion of the medium-school division, which was established in 2011, giving Alaska three divisions. (Last week, Nikiski beat Monroe for the small-school championship.)
Until 2000, all of Alaska's football teams played in the same division, and Soldotna never managed to get past the big schools from Anchorage and Fairbanks to claim a title. Saturday's game will mark Soldotna's 10th appearance in 14 titles games since the creation of a division for smaller schools. It has won five titles.
In 2011, two divisions became three; Saturday's game will mark the second time in three years Soldotna has played for the medium-school title.
Juneau didn't even have a football team until 1990, when it became the only privately funded high school football team in the country -- meaning no money from the school or the state.
The only team at the time in Southeast Alaska, Crimson Bears had an immediately geographical disadvantage. To gain entrance to a conference, they had to agree to help pay for other teams to fly to Juneau for games.
Success came quickly, though. In their second decade of existence, the Crimson Bears made it to four state titles games and won two of them, in 2007 and 2005.
The opening of a second high school in Juneau, Thunder Mountain in 2008, decreased enrollment at Juneau-Douglas. With Juneau's enrollment at 680 and the Alaska School Activities Association's creation of the new medium-school division for schools with enrollments ranging from 326 to 800, the Crimson Bears found themselves in a new classification.
Soldotna's enrollment is 505, according to ASAA. Compare that to the enrollments at the schools meeting Saturday for the large-school championship -- West has 1,842 students and Service 1,779.