Armed with one of their best football teams in a decade, Nikiski is set to tangle with Greatland Conference rival Eielson as the Bulldogs search for a second consecutive small-schools state championship.
The game is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Chugiak High School. Last season, Nikiski topped Eielson 55-31 in the semifinals before besting Barrow 52-21 for the third small-schools title in school history.
Nikiski (7-2) met Eielson (8-0) in a matchup earlier this season, which resulted in 15 touchdowns being scored in a 57-48 loss for the Bulldogs. While Nikiski compiled 390 rushing yards that day, Eielson put the ‘Dawgs to shame with 704 yards on the ground. Since then, Nikiski coach Ted Riddall has stressed the importance of a sound defense.
“We’re hoping, with some adjustments we’ve made on defense, that it will happen,” Riddall said. “With that said, we put close to 600 yards of offense together that day, but defensively we were missing some pieces. Hopefully, with what we adjusted to and the kids maturing, we’ll win.
“The other part of it is the Wing-T offense is really hard to defend, so even if you have a great defense and do all you can do, it’s pretty difficult for 48 minutes. As a defense we can pick and choose a couple things and get it right sometimes, which gives you a chance.”
Eielson senior quarterback Jovante Kincade has been a threat this year for all teams in the Greatland Conference, and sophomore running back Anthony Griffith, who had 389 rushing yards and five touchdowns against Nikiski in Week 5, will need to be stopped by Bulldogs defense.
“We want to try to keep him running sideways and not running north and south,” Riddall said. “The quarterback is kind of a last choice to run, he could run probably every play but he has those guys in the backfield that can play, so we got to keep things in the box and not let them get outside, and our problem the last time we played was in the middle of the field. We’ll try to shore that up this time.”
Nikiski’s biggest offensive threat all year has been senior running back Stephen Hartley, who has set his school’s record of 33 touchdowns, a record previously held by 2009 graduate Beau Calderwood with 26. Hartley has rushed for 1,972 yards this year, and has previously stated that his goal is eclipse 2,000 yards for the year.
“It means a lot,” Hartley said. “I was working towards it a lot this year and last year. I was looking to get it this year, so it feels good to have it.”
Hartley realizes the accomplishment of winning two state football championships in a row, and said the team knows what it must do this week to reach that goal.
“Last time we played Eielson, they ran it up the middle of the field and rushed for 700 yards, so we’ve been working on covering the middle of the field with our linebackers on the offensive and defensive lines,” he said. “It would be huge for me and the rest of the seniors. Last year we beat them twice, and they beat us this year, so we want to win it.”
Junior quarterback Seth Carstens has completed 23 for 37 pass attempts for 443 yards in the regular season, and said coach Riddall has been focusing the team and telling them that the journey is more important than the destination.
“We’re all focused and working together as a team, coach is working with everyone and making sure they do their job,” Carstens said. “We’re just making sure we’re not selfish and wanting to do things that we normally can’t do. We just got to make sure we stay in our gaps and make it work.”
Riddall has employed the attitude in hopes of making the team a winning, yet happy, group of players.
“We tell them to enjoy the trip and not look at the end,” Riddall said. “In the NFL, there’s 32 teams and only one champion, so does that mean the other 31 teams are bad? Not necessarily, but if you enjoy it along the way, you’ll get a whole lot more out of it whether you win or lose. If we play phenomenal but we lose, I’m still going to be happy for the kids.”