Kenai Central defeated Homer 26-14 on Saturday at Chugiak High School to win the medium-schools First National Bowl.
It is the first time a champion in the medium-schools division has been crowned. Kenai, which had five small-schools titles to its credit, battled a Mariners team that was playing in its first ever football championship game.
"It was intense, definitely intense," Homer senior running back Hoss Frank said.
For Kenai, the state championship stage is something to which they're accustomed.
"It feels great being back, that's for sure," Kenai senior quarterback AJ Hull said.
All but one of Kenai's touchdowns came on the ground, with the lone passing score being a 39-yarder from Hull to junior receiver Ethan Oliver. Senior running back Joe Sandahl scored the first touchdown of the game with 5:15 left in the first.
Kenai was able to capitalize on a Homer fumble in the second quarter by sophomore Levi Hansen's touchdown to make the game 14-0 with 6:49 left in the half.
"We knew we had to get turnovers, and we did," Kenai coach John Marquez said.
Homer answered with a 55-yard run by senior quarterback Robin Glosser. Glosser was joined by senior running back Dyllan Day as the point scorers for Homer, with Day's touchdown coming with 7:15 left in the game.
Homer's introduction to the championship atmosphere was not what held the Mariners back, Homer coach Cam Wyatt said, it was the Mariners themselves.
"It was just execution," he said. "Everything they did, we taught this weekend - and the boys did not execute at the same level, simple as that."
Despite coming up short, the Mariners kept battling until the final whistle sounded.
"Our guys didn't give up, so I was proud of that, that's the best thing about it, my guys didn't give up on me," Frank said.
Turnovers that led to points in the first half gave Homer an uphill fight.
"We went in prepared and we just didn't come out winners," Glosser said. "There were a lot of key plays like the fumbles in the first half and the first (Kenai) touchdown."
Kenai coach John Marquez said the team came into the contest with a chip on its shoulder.
"It's all about the kids, they accomplished this when no one thought they could," Marquez said. "I'm proud of the kids."
Hull said the turning point was about three weeks ago when the playoffs were approaching.
"We said, ‘OK, here is our window of opportunity,'" Hull said. "We could go three and out and be done for the rest of our high school football career, or B, come out, take the feeling we had last year and use it to motivate us to come out and beat Soldotna and then come out and beat these guys."
Glosser said there may have been some differences playing in a game at the championship level.
"There were lots of nerves, lots of butterflies," he said. "We played our hearts out - that's why we're here, to do that."
Both teams had tremendous support from their communities. The Homer fans led Frank to a somewhat reasonable question.
"Is there anyone left in Homer right now?" he said after the game.
Marquez credited the senior leadership to get them not only to the game, but to come out with the trophy.
"The senior leadership on this team is absolutely amazing," he said. "With AJ Hull, Kyle Dougherty, Daniel Carlson, all the way down to the seniors that didn't play, they're just great leaders on and off the field."
Carlson was at a loss for words when asked what the win meant to him.
"I feel fantastic, it's the state championship," he said.
The game was played in a slight rain.
Kardinals 26, Mariners 14
Kenai 7 7 12 0 -26
Homer 0 8 0 6 -14
Ken - Sandahl 1 run (Wagoner kick) 5:15
Ken- Hansen 1 run (Wagoner kick) 6:49
Hom- Glosser 55 run (Downes run) 4:53
Ken-Hansen 57 run (kick fail) 7:44
Ken - Oliver 39 pass from Hull (kick fail) :10
Hom-Day 28 run (run fail) 7:15
First downs 11 8
rushes- yards 44-257 38-250
pass yards 2-5-54 1-5- 26
penalites 11-65 7-60
punt-avg 3-42 3-36
fumb-lost 2-2 4-3
Rushing - Ken: Hansen 12-154, Hull 17-54, Sandahl 10-34, Mendenhall
7-17. Hom: Glosser 11-133, Downes 9-62, Day 13-42, Frank 5-13.
Passing - Ken: Hull 2-5-54. Hom: Glosser 1-4-26, Day 0-1.
Receiving - Ken: Oliver 1-39, Nason 1-15. Hom: Frank 1-26.