The good news for the Nikiski High School football team following a 37-27 Greatland Conference loss to Monroe Catholic is that they will still host a game in next week’s playoffs, and they have that time to make some adjustments.
The bad news is that instead of entering the postseason as the conference’s top seed, Saturday’s loss to the Rams meant the Bulldogs needed coin toss to break a three-way tie with fellow conference co-champs Monroe and Eielson to determine playoff seeding. After the toss, Monroe ended up as the top seed and will host Barrow. Nikiski is No. 2 and will host Eielson, but the specific time has yet to be determined.
“We have an opportunity to get better,” Nikiski senior running back and linebacker Michael Stangel said of what his team’s approach will be as they prepare for the playoffs. “We need to focus on not shooting ourselves in the foot on offense. That’s the only thing that can stop us on offense.”
Nikiski jumped out to an early 15-0 lead against Monroe, converting a pair of turnovers into touchdowns. Nikiski’s first scoring drive was set up with an interception by Javon Pamplin deep in Nikiski territory. Starting on their own 16-yard line, the Bulldogs drove 84 yards in 13 plays. Stangel capped the drive with a 2-yard plunge over the left side of the line, then ran it in after the Bulldogs faked the kick on the PAT for an 8-0 lead 48 seconds into the second quarter.
Monroe’s next drive ended with a fumble, which the Bulldogs recovered on their own 44. Tight end Jesse Eide finished off the eight-play drive, carrying the ball around the right side for a 6-yard touchdown run. Garrett Feller’s extra point gave Nikiski a 15-0 lead.
However, the Rams came back with a turnover and some big plays of their own to take a halftime lead.
Monroe got on the scoreboard with a 55-yard passing play with 3:27 left in the half. Quarterback Tyler Wells scrambled to his left and connected downfield with Scooter Bynum, who out-jumped the Nikiski defensive back to snatch the ball out of the air and dashed into the end zone.
The extra point, failed, but Monroe quickly recovered a Nikiski fumble and turned it into three points with a 36-yard field goal by Alex Callahan with 53 seconds until halftime.
Monroe wasn’t finished, though, and on the ensuing kickoff, the Rams recovered an onside kick. Wells again connected with Bynum for the touchdown, this one on a 25-yard pass which Bynum pulled in after it had been tipped by a Nikiski defender. An extra point by Callahan gave Monroe a 16-15 halftime lead.
“We’ve got athletic guys who have worked hard to out-condition anyone we’re fighting against,” said Monroe head coach Bobby Pace of the Rams’ late surge.
Nikiski’s defense stopped the Rams deep in Bulldogs territory to start the second half, but another fumble gave Monroe the ball on the Nikiski 33. Monroe capitalized with another touchdown pass, this one from Wells to Callahan for a 4-yard score. Callahan added the kick for an eight-point lead.
Nikiski responded with an 11-play, 67-yard scoring drive to close out the third quarter. Eide bulled his way up the middle on a 6-yard run for the score, but the Bulldogs’ attempt to tie up the game with a two-point conversion failed.
Monroe came right back, and a 36-yard run by Callahan with an unnecessary roughness penalty tacked on set up the Rams on the Nikiski 6-yard line. Wells connected with Callahan on a rollout pass for the touchdown, and the PAT gave Monroe a nine-point lead early in the fourth quarter.
“Any time you’re playing the Nikiski Bulldogs, you have to expect a high-scoring game. We were hoping we could match them,” Pace said. “We thought it might come down to time management. Tyler is a great leader, and he was able to work the clock.”
Nikiski again cut the deficit to two points. Stangel finished the 66-yard drive with a 2-yard dash up the middle with 8:47 left in the game.
The Bulldogs then attempted an onside kick of their own, but the Rams came up with the ball near midfield, and Wells threw his fifth touchdown pass of the game, connecting with Rodney Guffey for a 3-yard score and a 10-point lead, 37-27, with 5:17 left in the game.
Nikiski’s final drive ended in an interception, and the Rams were able to run out the clock.
“We played excellent defense,” said Pace. “We schemed to take away the inside. When they started to bounce it outside, our outside linebackers played well and contained them for the most part.”
Riddall said his hat was off the Rams, who have managed to make it through the season with just 15 players on their roster. He said his squad was able to move the ball well on offense, but turnovers proved costly. Riddall said the Bulldogs would be working hard in practice this week to make some adjustments and prepare for the playoffs.
“Bring your hard hat and your lunch bucket and get back at it,” Riddall said. “Let this inspire us to change.”
Rams 37, Bulldogs 27
Monroe 0 16 7 14 —37
Nikiski 0 15 6 6 —27
Nik — Stangel 2 run (Stangel run), 11:12
Nik — Eide 6 run (Feller kick), 5:44
Mon — Bynum 55 pass from Wells (kick failed), 3:27
Mon — Callahan 36 field goal, 0:53
Mon — Bynum 25 pass from Wells (Callahan kick), 0:22
Mon — Callahan 4 pass from Wells (Callahan kick), 5:26
Nik — Eide 6 run (rush failed), 0:17
Mon — Callahan 6 pass from Wells (Callahan kick), 11:49
Nik — Stangel 2 run (pass failed), 8:47
Mon — Guffey 3 pass from Wells (Callahan kick), 5:17
Rushing yards 192 336
Passing yards 195 43
Comp-Att-Int 13-20-1 4-8-1
Penalties 9-65 6-60
Fumbles-lost 2-1 3-2
First downs 14 20
Return yards 13 20
Punts-yards 0-0 1-33
Rushing — Monroe: Gavora 12-49, Callahan 10-57, Wells 15-55, Bynum 1-18, Guffey 3-13. Nikiski: Stangel 25-134, Riddall 7-38, Eide 11-85, Feller 5-62, Anderson 1-17.
Passing — Monroe: Wells 13-20-1—195. Nikiski: Anderson 4-8-1—43.
Receiving — Monroe: Bynum 5-119, Neville 3-23, Callahan 4-50, Guffey 1-3. Nikiski: Pamplin 2-23, Stangel 2-20.