The unit on a football team that rarely gets praise but is fundamental to its overall success is the offensive line.
For the Soldotna Stars, their starting group and even some of their backups utterly dominated the Bartlett Golden Bears on Friday night in a commanding 62-19 road victory.
“We don’t get the showtime or time of day because the running backs get the spotlight but we’re just silent heroes,” Soldotna senior lineman Ala Tuisaula said.
Despite facing a formidable defensive front from the Division I level in the interconference bout, the elite run-blocking unit opened one gaping lane after the other as the Stars racked up 324 yards on the ground.
“We knew it was going to be a big challenge,” Soldotna coach Galen Brantley said. “This group that I have, I feel like, is pretty special. The level of execution is starting to click at a pretty high level for us.”
One of the primary objectives for every offensive line is to keep their quarterback upright and protected on every play. But it’s a rare feat when they are able to do the same for their running backs as well.
Half of Soldotna’s eight scoring drives ended with ball-carriers going virtually untouched as they followed wide rushing lanes to pay dirt.
“Combine that group of linemen with three running backs that can all run, we feel like we’re a good as anybody in the state this year,” Brantley said. “They don’t get a lot of recognition but they’re the lifeblood of our entire offense and program.”
Tuisaula and his fellow linemen take tremendous pride in being able to take over games in a dominant fashion.
“I feel like we blocked their front really good,” he said. “We just followed our rules and blocked everyone that we needed to. It’s not the flashiest offense in the world but it gets the job done.”
The Stars’ Wing-T offense is a run-first scheme, and while they like to air the ball out occasionally, strong winds and a highly efficient rushing attack prompted them to keep the ball on the ground for all but one play.
“We felt like weather dictated some of that, but the other part of it is that (Bartlett) wasn’t able to defend the running game, so there was really no reason to deviate from it,” Brantley said.
The lone pass senior quarterback Zac Buckbee threw resulted in a 5-yard touchdown to a wide-open Wyatt Faircloth that put the Stars up 34-12 with three minutes left in the second quarter.
“We were running the ball all over them, so there was no point in risking throwing an incompletion and getting off schedule,” Buckbee said.
Buckbee also scored his team’s lone non-offensive touchdown of the game when he scooped up a fumble late in the first quarter and returned it 37 yards for his first defensive score of the season, putting his team up 21-6.
“I saw green and it was just ‘go,’ ” he said. “I wasn’t thinking about anything else but that end zone.”
The Stars had five players reach the end zone for touchdowns on offense as they handed the Golden Bears their most lopsided defeat since they were shut out 55-0 by Service in Week 2 of the 2019 season.
In addition to throwing for a touchdown, Buckbee also ran one in from 7 yards out in the third quarter. Senior fullback Gehret Medcoff scored three times on a run of 15 yards and twice from 29 yards out while senior halfback Collin Peck scored twice on runs of 21 and 4 yards. They both rushed for over 100 yards respectively.
Even some of their reserves and junior varsity players got in on the scoring action when they checked in early in the fourth quarter and went on a six-play scoring drive, capped off by a rugged 10-yard rushing touchdown by junior fullback Jaykob Kemp.
“It’s always fun to be on the sidelines and encouraging and supporting those guys,” Buckbee said. “It’s a ton of fun to see them because they’re the future of our program.”
The seniors on this year’s Soldotna team are fighting for their legacy as they hope to avoid being the first graduating class to not win a state championship in their entire time with the program in nearly two decades.
There was no state championship tournament in their freshman year back in 2020 due to COVID, and they’ve finished as runner-ups to Lathrop in the Division II state title game in each of the past two seasons.
“For most of us it would mean the world,” Tuisaula said about potentially going out on top. “It’s a very big shadow that we live under. Those teams before us got to work and got all their championships.”
The Golden Bears were not without some impressive plays of their own. They drew first blood on a 46-yard touchdown run from senior quarterback Tavita Lauvale, who erupted up the middle. He would make it a two-score game in the second quarter when he connected with Simeon Alailefaleula for an 8-yard score.