HOUSTON — Kenai Central was looking for its first win of the 2012 season. Houston was looking for its first victory over Kenai since joining the Northern Lights Conference.
But as fireworks filled the sky above Houston High School to cap the host team’s homecoming festivities
Friday night, it was the Kardinals who were celebrating.
Senior Grayden Mendenhall scored his third touchdown of the game with 15 seconds left in the fourth quarter to help the Kardinals ice a 33-25 win over the Hawks on Houston’s homecoming night.
Mendenhall and Kenai junior Jason Daniels combined for more than 330 yards rushing and four touchdowns to help the Kardinals crack the win column for the first time this season, and improve to 1-5 overall and 1-2 in Northern Lights Conference play.
“It’s huge,” Kenai head coach John Marquez said of the victory. “(It) gets the monkey off our kids’ backs. They deserved wins before this, but they finally stuck through it and finished it. It’s a testament to all of them, believing in what we’re doing, believing in each other, not quitting on each other.”
Mendenhall finished with 150 yards rushing and three scores to help the Kardinals earn the win for the first time since they captured the medium-schools state championship last October.
Kenai rode Mendenhall to victory in the second half. The senior scored a 36-yard touchdown run on his team’s fourth play of the third quarter. He also helped the Kards grind out about five minutes of the fourth-quarter clock late in the game.
With the Kards clinging to the slim 26-25 lead, with about five minutes left in the contest, Kenai took the ball on its own 20-yard line. Kenai put together an 11-play, 80-yard drive to take minutes off the clock.
Mendenhall carried the ball eight times for 55 yards on the drive, and capped the possession with a 6-yard run.
“Late in the game, (defensive coordinator Jeff) Baker told me we just need to ride Greyden, he’s holding on to the ball,” Marquez said after his teams battled for 48 minutes on a cold and rainy night, on a wet, sloppy field. “Most teams will do that. They go to their guy, go to their workhorse.”
Mendenhall ran for 113 of his 150 yards in the second half. Junior Jason Daniels rushed for 184 yards and a touchdown in the victory. Daniels had 85 yards in the second half. Marquez said halftime adjustments led to Houston’s success in the second half.
“We moved some players around, made some personnel adjustments at halftime,” Marquez said.
Kenai moved senior offensive lineman Steven Young to tight end, and consistently put Young in motion and used the converted lineman as a lead blocker.
Daniels gave Kenai a 26-25 lead with a 36-yard touchdown score in the third quarter.
Houston is still looking for its first win over Kenai as a member of the NLC. Before Friday, the closest margin of victory in the series had been 28 points, in a 28-0 win in 2008. The Hawks suffered a 38-3 loss to the Kards last year.
But Friday, Houston led 19-13 at halftime.
“It was the first time we came out of the locker room at halftime with the lead (against Kenai),” Houston head coach Todd Whitehurst said. “I’m not sure if they knew exactly how to respond.”
Waylon Soptick used a pair of long runs and scored twice in the first half to help Houston grab the halftime lead. Minutes after Hunter Smith scored on a short touchdown to give Houston the 7-6 advantage, Soptick rumbled up the left side of the field 73 yards for a score. Late in the first half, Soptick went back to the left side and broke free for a 66-yard run.
“(The runs) were absolutely beautiful. They were blocked perfectly,” Whitehurst said. “We did a lot of things to set those up.”
The second long run set up his 3-yard touchdown late in the second quarter.
Soptick finished with a game-high 184 yards
Kenai took an early 6-0 lead in the first quarter with a T.J. Wagoner 11-yard touchdown catch. But Smith gave Houston its first lead, scoring on the third play of the second quarter.
Both teams capitalized off turnovers in the first half. Houston fumbled the ball on its first offensive play of the game, and Wagoner scored three plays later. Late in the first quarter, Kenai lost the ball. Houston recovered and put together a 10-play drive capped by the Smith score.
In the second quarter, Houston’s Kruz Kleewein recovered another Kenai fumble. On the next play, Soptick scored on the 73-yard run.
The NLC rivals traded leads in the third quarter. Mendenhall scored on the 36-yard run to give Kenai the 20-19 advantage. But Houston immediately bounced back. Senior Charlie Buzby returned the ensuing kickoff 75 yards for a score.
“I was happy with the way we played. I wasn’t happy about the mistakes,” Whitehurst said. “But I was happy with the heart they showed. They never stopped fighting. They kept it going the whole time, but it just didn’t happen tonight.”
Kenai 33, Houston 25
Kenai — Waggoner 11 pass from Baker (kick failed).
Houston — Smith 1 run (kick good).
Houston — Soptick 73 run (kick failed).
Kenai — Mendenhall 3 run (kick good).
Houston — Soptick 3 run (run failed).
Kenai — Mendenhall 36 run (kick good).
Houston — Buzby 75 kick return (pass failed).
Kenai — Daniels 37 run (run failed) .
Kenai — Mendenhall 6 run (kick good).
RUSHING — Kenai: Mendenhall 25-150, 20-184, Baker 4-(-8); Houston: Soptick 13-184, Smith 8-33, Buzby 8-20, Saechao 4-(-3).
PASSING — Kenai: Baker 1-6-0—11; Houston: Saechao 2-4-0—13, Soptick 0-1-0—0.
RECEIVING — Kenai: Waggoner 1-11; Houston: Ross 1-12, Soptick 1-1.