After 10 long weeks of fierce competition, one game is all that separates Nikiski from a fourth small-schools state championship in its school history.
Since the medium-schools division was created in 2011, the Bulldogs have been to the small-schools championship game all three years since then, winning it in 2011 over Barrow, then losing it last year to Eielson. Nikiski also won it in 2000 and 2001, back when teams like Kenai and Soldotna were in the mix with the Bulldogs.
This year, Nikiski faces its third different opponent in as many years in the title game — the Monroe Catholic Rams from Fairbanks. Both teams finished the regular season in the Greatland Conference with 5-1 records, and will battle for the small-schools title Saturday at noon at Anchorage Football Stadium.
Both teams met in the regular season, when Monroe defeated Nikiski 37-27 in Week 8.
Of course, Nikiski coach Ted Riddall had some reservations about that game being lost in the frenzy of the school’s homecoming.
“We kind of shot ourselves in the foot last time,” Riddall said. “We fumbled a couple times, and we were just helping them. I know they’re going to do the same kind of stuff, so we’ve got to hold onto the football better, and complete our assignments on any given play.”
After starting the year with two nonconference losses to Kenai and Lathrop, Nikiski went on a five-game tear that brought the Bulldogs right to the edge of winning the Greatland Conference before dropping that final game against Monroe, leaving those two schools and Eielson in a three-way tie that was decided by a coin flip.
Nikiski was able to draw home-field advantage that allowed them to beat Eielson last week in a 38-20 victory that put them in contention for the small-schools title for a third straight year.
“Three times in a row is pretty phenomenal, whether we win, lose or draw,” Riddall said. “It’s a testament to the kids and their abilities, and also the coaching staff. We’ve got some good coaches here.
“The kids have been pretty focused this week, we’re glad to be getting a second opportunity against Monroe. If you get an opportunity like this, you don’t want to overhype it, but you want to stress to them that they need to get everything out of it that they can.”
As far as facing its third different opponent in three years, Riddall said he believes that fact is a testament to the growth that the division has seen.
“I think it’s good, you want to see the Greatland Conference grow and having the same teams in there can make it look like it’s not growing,” Riddall said. “It bodes well for the conference and the chance to play someone different is good.”
The Bulldogs left Saturday’s semifinal win against Eielson feeling that they earned it, chanting, “Get it done!” as they trotted off the field.
But if they want to get it done against the Rams, there’s a few things they need to take care of on the field.
The greatest individual threat Monroe poses to the Nikiski defense is Scooter Bynum, a 6-foot-3 receiver who gives defenses nightmares, and can also double as a running back. Quarterback Tyler Wells adds to that depth with a strong arm.
“The last time we played them, we paid special attention to Scooter, we jammed him up,” Riddall said. “But we let their quarterback out of the box a couple times, and he wanted to throw the ball to Scooter.”
The key to the game, said Riddall, is effectively containing players like Bynum, Wells and running back Alex Callahan.
“If you help (Monroe) to believe in what they’re doing, it’ll be a long afternoon,” Riddall said. “If we establish things first, it helps you, and this’ll be one of those games to take risks on fourth down and give it everything we’ve got. There’s no need to be holding anything back now.”