See a slideshow of this game.
The Nikiski Bulldogs came up short in a bid to win consecutive small-schools state football championships, losing out to Greatland Conference rival Eielson 27-7 on Saturday afternoon at Tom Huffer Sr. Stadium in Chugiak.
Playing in conditions remarkably like the kind they experienced two weeks ago against Barrow, Nikiski could not get a grasp on the ball under snowy skies, as large snowflakes dominated the field for most of the first half.
Stephen Hartley returned the opening kickoff 80 yards to Eielson’s 10-yard line, but a touchdown was snatched away when Carstens threw an interception to Eielson’s Tyler Phillips, a mistake that resulted in a 17-yard touchdown run from Anthony Griffith on the ensuing Eielson drive, and a Ravens lead.
“It really sparked us, gave us a lot of motivation,” said senior running back Stephen Hartley, who had 84 rushing yards on the day.
“It provided that incentive for the younger guys that we can do it and we can push through,” senior linebacker Lincoln Johnson said.
Nikiski’s only score of the game came on a 26-yard pass to Garrett Feller from Seth Carstens early in the second quarter, which gave the Bulldogs the 7-6 lead.
After that, Nikiski found trouble containing the potent Eielson offense, specifically sophomore running back Anthony Griffith, who ran for 220 yards on the day.
“They’re a great team, obviously, they’re state champs, so they did what they needed to do,” Johnson said. “We did what we wanted to do, but they ended up on top. Good job for them.”
Hartley ended the year with 2,056 rushing yards, a personal goal he met.
“I’m happy with the goal, but would’ve liked to win today,” Hartley said. “I am happy with the successful season our team had.”
As the snow cleared up for the second half, and holding that 7-6 lead at halftime, Nikiski saw it demolished, as Eielson scored on two touchdown runs from Griffith, a 29-yard effort and a monster 92-yarder on a third down play that left the Bulldogs scrambling.
A third touchdown to begin the fourth quarter, a 35-yard pass to Griffith from quarterback Jovante Kincade, all but sealed the win for the Ravens.
“Defensively, we thought we had a good scheme going in, but they caught us in the pass a couple times, and that kind of hurt,” Nikiski head coach Ted Riddall said. “Offensively, we struggled a little bit in just sustaining our box up front and we overthrew and didn’t connect on passes like we have in the past. I think we had about 200 yards passing the first time we played them, so that didn’t happen tonight.”
The biggest moment of the game for Nikiski possibly came when sophomore running back Christian Riddall was injured on an early punt return in the first quarter, and had to be carried off the field. Riddall never returned, but watched the second half play out from a wheelchair on the sidelines, and with a casted leg.
“It’s a big deal, because he is offset from Stephen, and if people load up on Stephen’s side, Christian has been able to go get some big yards,” Coach Riddall said. “He was at about 800 yards before today and so when a kid like that is down in the beginning of the game, it shows.”
Overall, Nikiski has shown that they can hold their heads high, even after a championship lost, after the season the Bulldogs have had.
“There’s a little bit of disappointment in not having the win, but we did have the win, and what we wanted was to come as far as we can and play as long as we can, be there with the team and coming together, everyone playing their hearts out,” Johnson said. That’s what we wanted, and it doesn’t show on the scoreboard, but in our hearts we did what we wanted to do.”
Riddall echoed a similar sentiment.
“We told them that we’re young and we’ll be back,” Riddall said. “Our seniors did a fantastic job all year. The legacy they left with their hard work and effort will last. In the end, it is a football game and someone has to win and someone has to lose. I think we did a fantastic job this year, and we built some building blocks for the future.”
Ravens 27, Bulldogs 7
Eielson 6 0 14 6 -27
Nikiski 0 7 0 0 -7
Eie – Griffith 17 run (kick failed), 5:28
Nik – Feller 26 pass from Carstens (Feller kick), 10:44
Eie – Griffith 29 run (Griffith run), 6:54
Eie – Griffith 92 run (kick good), 2:53
Eie – Griffith 35 pass from Kincade (kick failed), 10:57