“Home of the Rabid Dawgs.”
That is the new slogan displayed on the side of the Nikiski Bulldogs’ Conex locker room on the far side of the football field in Nikiski.
After Saturday’s 49-6 playoff victory over Greatland Conference rival Monroe Catholic, Nikiski has its eyes set on a second consecutive small-schools state championship football title, much like a gang of rabid dogs.
“The way we play, it says on the backs of our helmets, ‘Unleashed’, and so playing like a rabid dog, or a crazed dog, is what we’re looking at,” Nikiski head coach Ted Riddall said. “The kids are buying into it. It’s something special for them to look at.”
Since the inception of the medium-schools state championship last season, Nikiski has been one of the dominant forces in the Greatland Conference small-schools division, and on Saturday, Nikiski did not wait around to score.
The Bulldogs got a 20-yard interception return touchdown from junior Garrett Feller on Monroe’s second play of the game, only 59 seconds into competition.
“On defense we really challenge the kids to respond to the situation or scenario that’s in front of them and Garrett did a great job of jumping that route and the ball came to him and the quarterback was getting pressured so he had to get rid of it,” Riddall said. “It’s one guy that scores, but it’s really 11 guys on defense that did it.
From there, the Bulldogs continued to hike up the score, getting touchdowns from senior running back Stephen Hartley, sophomore Christian Riddall, and a 30-yard field goal from Feller.
“It’s always hard to come back after a beatdown like we had a couple weeks ago,” Monroe head coach Bobby Pace said, referring to Nikiski’s 49-0 regular season win over the Rams. “We’re hoping that would work for us and get us motivated, but Nikiski has such a strong, well-disciplined, well-coached football team. It was a tough fight all the way, and I think we were just physically outmatched. The guys did what they could and they fought to the end.”
Riddall said the team knew Monroe’s strengths, particularly junior wide receiver Scooter Bynum, who has been a threat all season long for conference opponents.
On Saturday, Nikiski shut down Bynum’s running attack, and limited him on receptions, but he still had seven catches for 148 yards including a 40-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter.
Nikiski’s real power shone through on defense, as they pressured Monroe quarterback Tyler Wells all day long, forcing him into panic situations. Senior linebacker Lincoln Johnson had five sacks, with help from junior lineman Jesse Eide.
“We were watching him, we knew he was going to be a big player,” Eide said of Bynum. “We knew we had to key in on him, and he made some big plays, but we came back to him. It’s a big game, but no matter what, win or lose, our goal from the beginning of the season was to play as long as we could as a team and that’s what we did. Win or lose, we did what we wanted to do, even though a win would be nice next week.”
Riddall’s words to his team must have sunk in.
“It was one of those things that was key to the game, because we knew their quarterback would be able to get away in a jam, but we figured if could keep them in a box, make him throw the ball when he didn’t want to and contain him, we could keep some of the big plays down,” Riddall said. “We contained him for the most part.
Nikiski racked up 383 rushing yards, while the Rams actually has negative yardage, losing 25 yards, but made up for it with 178 passing yards.
“Tenacious defense is something we’ve challenged them with, and a play can come from anywhere,” Coach Riddall said. “The kids have really bought into what we are doing, they’re playing really disciplined and fundamental football, and they’ve improved every week since the beginning. When we lost to Eielson that really started a fire in our seniors, but also our younger kids, that realize that it’s just a few plays in the game that can affect the outcome and we think the state championship game will be no different.”
Eielson pummeled Barrow 68-0 in the other Greatland Conference semifinal on Saturday, which sets up the rematch between the Ravens and the Bulldogs for the small-schools state championship crown next week at Chugiak High School.
“For the fan’s sake, I’m sure they’d be happy to see something like that again,” Riddall said, referring to the thrilling 57-48 game with Eielson a month ago. “We definitely want to score every time we touch the ball, offensively and defensively, we don’t want the other team to score. We’ve shored up the middle of the field and that’s where a lot of counters came.”
Eide used the new team slogan when talking about next week’s title game.
“We do what we do,” he said. “That’s what our coach says, it’s 48 minutes of war. We’re unleashed dogs.”
Bulldogs 49, Rams 6
Nikiski 16 19 14 0 —49
Monroe 0 6 0 0 —6
Nik — Feller 22 interception return (Stephen Hartley run), 11:01
Nik — Hartley 7 run (Riddall run), 4:54
Nik — Riddall 5 run (Eide pass), 10:52
Mon — Bynum 40 pass from Wells (kick failed), 4:12
Nik — Riddall 3 pass from Carstens (Riddall run) :45
Nik — Feller 30 FG, :07
Nik — Hartley 13 run (Feller kick), 11:36
Nik — Hartley 5 run (Feller kick), 7:17
First downs 24 10
Rushes-yards 43-383 31-(-25)
Passing yards 52 178
Passing 4-5-0 10-23-1
Punts 0-0 3-40.3
Fumbles 0-0 0-0
Penalties 5-40 5-30
Rushing — Nikiski: Hartley 13-157, Riddall 8-92, Apted 10-70, Feller 2-15, Jackson 2-21, Castro 5-22, Carstens 1-6, Uhls 1-1, Handley 1-2. Monroe: Wells 7-(-85), Gavora 15-54, Callahan 7-5, Bynum 1-1, Guffey 1-0.
Passing — Nikiski: Carstens 3-4-0-1—21, Anderson 1-1-0-0—31. Monroe: Wells 10-23-1-1—178.
Receiving — Nikiski: Eide 2-18, Holloway 1-31, Riddall 1-3. Monroe: Bynum 7-148, Callahan 2-22, Gavora 1-8.