By the score alone — Soldotna 21, West 0 — Friday night's rain-soaked high school football season opener between powerhouses looked lopsided.
And, granted, other numbers backed that notion. Soldotna ran 64 plays to West's 41. The Stars outgained the Eagles, 285-40. And Soldotna dominated time of possession, 30 minutes and 40 seconds to 17:20.
Yet before the five-time defending Division II state champions pushed their state-record winning streak to 50 — Soldotna's current seniors were entering seventh grade the last time the Stars lost — they endured a moment of fright on the opening play of the fourth quarter.
Soldotna led 7-0 when West faced fourth-and-17 from the Stars' 34-yard-line. Eagles quarterback Qyntyn Pilcher zipped a gorgeous spiral into the right corner of the end zone, where wideout A.J. Su'esu'e appeared very open. Su'esu'e lifted his hands to snatch the ball — and likely a tie game on the field the Eagles call The Nest — when Stars defensive back Cy Updike arrived suddenly on the scene.
"I thought I was about to catch it,'' Su'esu'e said, "and his hand came out of nowhere.''
Updike swatted the ball to the artificial turf, the Stars took over on downs, and tacked on two touchdowns to open a second straight season with a victory over Division I West.
"I was beat, to begin with,'' Updike confessed. "I had to go back to what the coaches teach, back to fundamentals — track the receiver with your eyes.''
Updike, a junior who seized a first-half interception, said he was barely able to recover and get a piece of the ball intended for Su'esu'e, a senior who surely will be one of the state's best receivers this season.
"Fingertips,'' Updike said.
To Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr., Updike generated the defensive play of the game.
"It wiped six off the board,'' Brantley said. "It was going to be a touchdown.''
Friday's game, played in persistent rain, wasn't nearly as explosive offensively as the season opener the teams contested in Soldotna a year ago. Soldotna won that night, 49-30, and the teams combined for more than 900 yards total offense — 534 for Soldotna, 380 for West.
Still, the Stars again proved they are the class of the state, regardless of enrollment. Last year, they also won 22-21 at East, which merely went on to beat West for the Division I state championship.
Soldotna also again proved it travels well. On a dreary night when rain gear and XTRATUFs showed excellent fashion sense, the number of Stars fans in the bleachers behind the visiting sideline roughly equaled the number of fans behind West's sideline.
Defense delivered for the Stars, whose last loss came to Palmer in their 2012 season opener. Note that they ran the table that year on the way to the first of their five straight state titles under Brantley, who has guided them to eight titles in 10 previous seasons and sports a ridiculous career record of 98-5.
Soldotna forced three turnovers and in the first half limited West to one first down, which came with 1:22 left before the break. Given he played three sophomores on defense, Brantley was thrilled by how well that unit played.
"I'd be lying if I said I thought we'd come here and shut out West Anchorage High School,'' Brantley said.
The Eagles, who under coach Tim Davis (63-22) have won three state championships and appeared in four straight state-championship games, never got untracked on offense. A year ago, the Eagles put some points on the Stars. Friday, West's defense played well, forcing four turnovers, including two interceptions by Su'esu'e, but its offense sputtered.
"Same song, different verse,'' Davis said. "We don't know what the magic sauce is except going back to practice. I'm going to put my nose to the grindstone and figure out a plan.''
The Eagles stymied Soldotna's offense until the Stars early in the second quarter unleashed a 17-play, 68-yard drive that drained 9:05 off the clock and culminated with Brandon Crowder's 3-yard pass to Cody Quelland.
"It felt like we were back to playing Soldotna football,'' Crowder said. "We finally got everybody doing their job.''
One revelation for Soldotna was sophomore Aaron Faletoi, who rushed 16 times for 124 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns. He also recorded a sack and a fumble recovery.
"He was kind of our secret weapon,'' Crowder said. "He's going to be special.''
Brantley isn't one for hype, but he said Faletoi, a 5-foot-10, 225-pounder, is high-impact and owns vast potential.
"Aaron has a chance to be one of the best players in our program's history,'' Brantley said. "He's just scratched the surface. He has no idea how good he can be.''
At Soldotna, they know a little something about being good at football.
And that's why the Stars ended another game like they have so many in Brantley's career. When they took possession after a West punt with 88 seconds remaining, Brantley shouted instructions to Crowder.
"Hey, Crowder!'' the coach said. "Victory formation.''
With that, Crowder twice took a knee, and the streak reached 50.
Soldotna 0 7 0 14 — 21
West 0 0 0 0 — 0
Soldotna — Quelland 3 pass from Crowder (Sheridan kick), 9:05.
Soldotna — Faletoi 1 run (Sheridan kick), 8:05.
Soldotna — Faletoi 9 run (Sheridan kick), 4:00.
RUSHING — Soldotna: Faletoi 16-124, Furlong 19-105, Crowder 12-18, Quelland 5-16, Updike 1-0. West: Bell 6-14, Mendoza 1-0, Pilcher 3-(-4), Team 1-(-24).
PASSING — Soldotna: Crowder 3-10-2–22. West: Pilcher 13-29-1—54, Mendoza 0-1-0–0.
RECEIVING — Soldotna: Brantley 1-16, Furlong 1-3, Quelland 1-3. West: Su'esu'e 5-31, Bell 5-(-4), Gladney 2-22, Martinez 1-5.