Play like it's the only game. Not the last.
That's what Kenai Central football coach John Marquez asked of his players all week during practice.
Now the request is: Play like it's the only game - and the last.
Kenai Central snapped Soldotna's 19-game winning streak and advanced to the medium-schools state championship with a 28-12 victory in the semifinals Saturday at Justin Maile Field in Soldotna.
"They believed. The kids believed at halftime that we could beat the defending state champions," said Marquez, whose squad lost 50-20 to the same unit a week ago. "All week long we told them, ‘19-0 means nothing. Don't play this game like it's your last game, you play it like it's your only game.' That was our motto."
Kenai Central faces Homer for the title at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Chugiak High School. Homer advanced by defeating Thunder Mountain 46-6 on the road Friday.
The Kards never trailed after they marched 64 yards on 11 rushing plays on the game's opening drive, capped by quarterback AJ Hull's 3-yard plunge.
Jared Duncan scampered 50 yards to tie the game at 6 on SoHi's second play from scrimmage, but that would be the Stars' longest play of the game.
Take away that carry, and SoHi managed 80 yards rushing on 29 carries. Seventeen of the Stars' rushing plays went for zero or negative yards.
"We knew that we had to throw the last game out because every game is a new game. We thought of it as an opportunity to correct our mistakes, come out swinging and win," said Kenai Central linebacker Kyle Dougherty, who keyed the defense. "And that's what we did. We fixed our mistakes, everyone went hard in practice and we got after it."
Levi Hansen, who finished with 110 yards on 10 carries, put Kenai Central ahead for good, 14-6, on a 26-yard burst with 1:34 left in the first half.
A 52-yard connection between Noah Fowler and Garrett Bosick, who returned after missing most of the season with an injury, cut the lead to 14-12 in the third.
Kenai Central scored 14 unanswered in the fourth - on touchdowns from Hull and Joe Sandahl, who are cousins. Hull only threw the ball six times.
What it amounted to was a wild celebration for Kenai Central students and parents.
"Senior year, there's nothing better. I'd rather lose last week's game by 100 and win this one by one point," said Hull, who had 105 yards on 21 carries. "This is the one that matters. This is the one that makes you play another week."
The result was equally convincing and startling because smart money had SoHi going to the championship.
The Stars hadn't lost since the 2009 small-schools state title game against the Kards and won all but two regular-season games by double digits.
They rolled through the Northern Lights Conference with an 8-0 record and capped a sixth straight conference title with a 30-point win over the Kards a week ago, scoring six rushing touchdowns.
But it all ground to a stop Saturday.
Auston Tennis, the area's leading rusher, was held to 36 yards on seven carries - with 23 yards coming on one run.
While the Stars found the end zone six times by way of the ground last week, they were stuck on their side of the field much of the afternoon Saturday.
"We couldn't get their offense off the field. You're calling so few plays, it's so hard to get into a rhythm and set things up," SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. said. "I think the fact they were able to control the ball and time of possession, it really kept us off balance on the other side of the ball."
This was the third time since 2002 the Kards beat the Stars in the playoffs after losing to them during the regular season. The other years were 2002 and 2009.
Kenai Central ran the ball 54 times for 276 yards and held the Stars to 130 rushing yards - more than 100 below their season average.
SoHi also committed 16 penalties for 121 yards, compared to the Kards' seven for 55.
Brantley Jr. said SoHi was simply out-coached and outplayed.
"Sometimes you're the dog, sometimes you're the hydrant," the coach said. "I was the latter today."
Many of SoHi's players crumpled to their knees in tears when the final whistle blew.
Brantley Jr. said his team shouldn't dwell on this loss and instead look to the future.
"I tell them that I love them, that I wouldn't trade them for anyone in the world. The game of football will not define them. They will be defined 10 years down the road by what kind of parents and husbands and fathers they make. Success is never defined in a sport," he said.
Meanwhile, the Kards get a rematch against Homer.
The Mariners topped the Kards for the first time sine 1992 with a 21-14 win in double overtime earlier this season.
Homer enters the title game with an 8-1 record - the first time in school history the squad has won eight games.
For now, the Kards will celebrate getting to the last game.
"A lot of people get in the habit of thinking SoHi runs the show, and that's not true. The team with the most heart runs the show. We had to erase everything - all the critics, all the talk," Dougherty said. "I had a lot of people bet on this game and a lot of my friends that believed in me won. It's just a great feeling knowing they have money in their pocket."
Kardinals 28, Stars 12
Kenai 6 8 0 14 -28
Soldotna 6 0 6 0 -12
Ken - Hull 3 run (kick failed), 7:10.
Sol - Duncan 50 run (kick failed), 6:17.
Ken - Hansen 26 run (Hull run), 1:34.
Sol - Bosick 52 pass from N. Fowler (pass failed), 6:56.
Ken - Sandahl 1 run (Wagoner kick), 6:22.
Ken - Hull 3 run (Wagoner kick): 0:54.
First downs 17 8
Rushes-yards 54-276 30-130
Passing yards 6 147
Passing 1-6-2 7-14-1
Punts-avg 3-27.3 2-37.0
Fumbles-lost 3-1 4-2
Penalties-yards 7-55 16-121
Rushing - Ken: Hull 21-105, G. Mendenhall 18-51, Hansen 10-110, Sandahl 5-10. Sol: Tennis 7-36, Duncan 14-109, Schmelzenbach 5-8, Young 1-(-1), N. Fowler 2-(-17), Poole Jr. 1-(-3).
Passing - Ken: Hull 1-6-2-6. Sol: N. Fowler 6-13-1-134, Young 1-1-0-13.
Receiving - Ken: Nason 1-6. Sol: Young 1-29, Tennis 3-39, Schmelzenbach 1-14, Bosick 2-65.