Many diehard Kenai Kardinals fans probably left Saturday’s opening prep football game debating which running feat was more impressive — the 480 rushing yards that senior Jace Daniels compiled in Kenai’s 51-16 victory over the Nikiski Bulldogs, or the 4-minute, 53-second mile run that junior Allie Ostrander cranked out at halftime.
Either way, it was clear that the Kards brought their best for the opening day of the re-dedicated Ed Hollier Field at Kenai Central High School.
Bookending Ostrander’s performance, Daniels not only racked up 480 rushing yards, but also scored all seven of Kenai’s touchdowns. Available state records are incomplete, but Daniels’ performance likely belongs in the discussion of Alaska single-game records.
“I worked hard in the weight room in the offseason, and I felt like I was mentally there,” Daniels said. “Also the blocking today, there’s no way I could’ve done it without them.”
With linemen Chris Lawson, John Engen, Daniel Evans, Chase Logan and Zach Koziczkowski paving the way for Daniels, the running back was able to slip his way past the Nikiski secondary with astonishing agility, running for 286 yards in the second half alone, which is when Kenai did most of its damage with 36 third-quarter points.
“Every time I got the ball I would just read what they would do, they would open huge holes for me and they just read them right,” Daniels added. “I let (Nikiski) pass on me a lot in the first half, they passed to the slot to my side like four times.”
Many of Daniels’ big runs came on first-down situations as well. Seven of the nine possessions Kenai had on Saturday featured a run of 16 yards or more on the very first play, and three of those drives consisted of a lone touchdown run.
“We just had big play after big play, and Jace runs the ball hard and has an extra gear to get outside,” said Kenai assistant coach Jim Beeson. “But he’ll be the first to tell you that our guys were blocking for him and our linemen were doing a great job.
“That was our emphasis going into this game, we were going to run the football at them and make them stop us. Obviously they didn’t stop us as much as we were able to run the football at them.”
The game score wasn’t indicative of how it unfolded however. Nikiski took several risks in the first half that left them with a 16-15 lead at halftime.
“I was actually really surprised, our team had a lot of confidence coming into the game,” Daniels said. “If you said that they’d be up by a point, I don’t think anyone would be expecting that.”
The Bulldogs started the game by possessing the ball for nearly 10 minutes in a long, slow drive downfield to Kenai’s 4-yard line, but got no points out of the effort after a botched field goal kick drew a penalty. Nikiski twice converted on a fourth-down attempt during that drive.
Earlier in that opening drive, Nikiski quarterback Dennis Anderson connected on a screen pass to Garrett Feller that initially looked like a 60-yard touchdown, but was brought back on a holding penalty.
“That was a huge play, because you score and it puts the pressure on them instead of on yourself,” said Nikiski coach Ted Riddall. “That was a little bit of a letdown, and we responded like we were a young team coming out in the second half.”
Feller eventually got a 45-yard touchdown on a pass from Anderson moments after the two-minute warning in the first half, and the Bulldogs took an 8-7 lead on a two-point conversion, but Kenai responded with a 40-yard touchdown run from Daniels 29 seconds later. Daniels managed to just skirt past the outreached hands of lineman Luke Johnson.
Nikiski’s Christian Riddall followed suit with a 68-yard scramble through the middle and downfield as the clock ran out, and the Anderson-Feller two-point connection put the ‘Dawgs ahead.
At the half, the invitational mile was run as a celebration of the newly dedicated field, in addition to a 10-minute soccer scrimmage between two Under-10 boys and girls teams (the boys won 1-0).
Ostrander’s time in the mile (a true 1,609 meters) was the fastest ever run by a prep female in Alaska, although like her equally impressive record in the 3,200 meters last May, it will be unofficial, since state records can only be set at the state meet. Micah Hilbish from Skyview won the exhibition event by holding off Kenai’s Jordan Theisen in a time of 4:42.
To make Ostrander’s feat even more impressive, it is the offseason for track athletes, although perhaps the three boys that finished ahead of her served as motivation.
Once the football teams retook the field, the Kards retook the momentum, starting with an opening 76-yard touchdown run from Daniels that gave Kenai the lead for good.
“We just kept doing the same things we were doing in the first half,” coach Beeson said. “The one time we had to punt in the first half, we had to stop ourselves because we were getting penalty after penalty, and that’s the story of the first half. We had mental mistakes from the opening kickoff, so we just had to have some mental composure and do the things we do well.”
Nikiski punted on its next possession, followed by a drive by Kenai that saw two 19-yard runs capped by a 2-yard plunge through the middle for another Daniels touchdown.
“I think when you start five or six sophomores with little experience, it comes out on the field,” Riddall said. “Young linemen and other positions, it shows.”
Even while the Kards were gapping themselves from Nikiski, Beeson said he didn’t want to let up before the team could afford to.
“Even when we were ahead with the running clock, we always have this feeling that something bad is going to happen, because Nikiski has some good football players that are well coached and they show up and play hard all the time,” Beeson said. “We have a great group of running backs. Michael Tilly came in and if he would’ve made that last cut outside instead of coming across the middle he would’ve scored.”
Kenai faces a challenge next week in the form of large-schools contender Wasilla, and Nikiski travels up to Fairbanks to take on the Lathrop Malamutes, a team that edged the Bulldogs 44-41 in week one last year, and Riddall said if his team can bounce back, they’ll be in the mix once again.
“We’ll use this (Kenai) game to grow from it,” Riddall said. “We won the first half, they won the second half. If we can put two halves together, what will it look like?”
Kardinals 51, Bulldogs 16
Kenai 0 15 36 0 —51
Nikiski 0 16 0 0 —16
Ken — Daniels 45 run (Scarlett kick), 11:51
Nik — Feller 45 pass from Anderson (Riddall run), 1:55
Ken — Daniels 40 run (Daniels run good), 1:26
Nik — Riddall 68 run (Feller pass from Anderson), :00
Ken — Daniels 76 run (Daniels run), 11:39
Ken — Daniels 2 run (Wagoner run), 9:35
Ken — Daniels 81 run (Scarlett kick), 4:35
Ken — Daniels 38 run (Wagoner run failed), 2:26
Ken — Daniels 43 run (Scarlett kick), :30
First downs 19 24
Rushing yards 28-552 41-207
Passing yards 0 97
Comp-Att-Int 1-1-0 8-17-1
Return yards 33 111
Punts 1-32 4-34.7
Fumbles 2-2 1-7
Penalties 7-45 10-70
Rushing — Kenai: Daniels 19-480, Tilly 6-54, Logan 2-20, Wagoner 1-(-2). Nikiski: Riddall 19-126, Johnson 8-38, Stangel 8-20, Jackson 2-7, Feller 4-13.
Passing — Kenai: Wagoner 1-1-0—0. Nikiski: Anderson 8-17-1—97.
Receiving — Kenai: Randall 1-0. Nikiski: Riddall 3-43, Feller 2-45, Stangel 1-9, Johnson 1-0, Brousard 1-0.