The situation didn’t look good for Nikiski midway through the third quarter of the First National Bowl small-schools state championship football game against Monroe Catholic on Saturday, but 20 unanswered points later, Nikiski won its fourth state football championship and was feeling pretty high and mighty at Anchorage Football Stadium.
Nikiski beat Monroe 36-28 to claim its second state title in three years, propelled by a fearsome ground game that racked up 363 yards. On defense, the Bulldogs found success on the ground, but Monroe used a lethal passing attack to record 341 yards through the air.
Monroe quarterback Tyler Wells completed 15-of-33 pass attempts and had four touchdowns to boot. But on the ground, Monroe managed only a single yard of offense.
“We bend, but don’t break,” said senior Michael Stangel, who had 95 rushing yards and two touchdowns (one receiving and one rushing) on Saturday.
Jesse Eide led Nikiski’s three-headed rushing attack with 144 yards and two touchdowns, and junior Christian Riddall added 124 yards and one touchdown.
“It’s to the kids’ credit that we hung in there, and they didn’t go away when it counted most,” Nikiski coach Ted Riddall said. “We knew we were still in this thing, and there’s a lot of time on the clock, and they responded. The offensive and defensive lines did damage all day long, and it was because of them that we were able to come back.”
In the first half, it was anyone’s game. Nikiski started with a 14-play, 68-yard drive that ate up half of the first quarter and resulted in a 1-yard Eide touchdown run to give Nikiski an early lead.
Monroe responded with a 65-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Scooter Bynum, who ended the day with 112 receiving yards on four catches.
And so it went, the two teams trading points and risky plays that ended up in a halftime Nikiski lead of 16-15.
When the third quarter began, Monroe punted the ball on its opening possession, but a roughing-the-kicker penalty on Nikiski gave the Rams new hope, and they delivered with a touchdown pass from Wells to Michael Neville for 30 yards that gave Monroe a 22-16 lead. The Wells-to-Neville connection proved deadly much of the game with 107 receiving yards on five catches.
Monroe stopped Nikiski cold in its tracks on fourth down on the Bulldogs’ ensuing possession. That led to another touchdown pass from Wells to Bynum, extending the Rams lead to 28-16.
But Nikiski found the momentum when it counted.
Senior Michael Stangel provided the spark Nikiski needed with two interceptions in the fourth quarter, the first one leading to the go-ahead touchdown by Stangel himself on a 1-yard push up the middle that left Nikiski with a 29-28 lead.
“Both plays we got great pressure on the quarterback, and I could outjump (Monroe’s Alex Callahan) both times,” Stangel said. “It was a great play on the ball, it was perfectly placed for both of us to get it, and I came down with it both times.
“The second time, I didn’t see the ball, but I jumped up for it, and we bumped each other in the air.”
Monroe started the first play of the fourth quarter on Nikiski’s 24-yard line, but Stangel found the ball for a 37-yard return.
After taking the lead, Monroe became desperate, evidenced by a spectacular play with 6:54 left in the game.
Wells took the ball from the center, shoveled a screen pass to Bynum to the left side, and Bynum returned the favor by launching a bomb back to Wells, who had streaked downfield by that point, into the end zone for what looked to be a 38-yard touchdown pass.
The play was called back on account of a Monroe penalty due to Wells’ initial pass to Bynum being ruled a forward pass.
“That play is named after one of our coaches before. We ran the Blanchard,” said Monroe coach Bobby Pace.
Following that play on fourth down, Nikiski ran the ball downfield to seal it up on a 5-yard Eide run with just over three minutes left.
“We knew they were a good team, and they didn’t hang their heads either. They kept battling hard the whole time,” Eide said. “I was a little nervous, but I knew we could do it.”
Riddall said the comeback performance by his team only confirmed Nikiski’s status as a scrappy, play-to-the-whistle team.
“The longer we play, the better we get,” Riddall said. “We believe that, and we’re going to play 48 minutes until they stop the clock.”
Bulldogs 36, Rams 28
Nikiski 8 8 6 14 —36
Monroe 7 8 13 0 —28
Nikiski — Eide 1 run (Riddall pass from Anderson), 5:38
Monroe — Bynum 65 pass from Wells (Callahan kick), 3:18
Nikiski — Stangel 10 pass from Anderson (Eide run), 10:53
Monroe — Callahan 19 pass from Wells (Neville pass from Wells), 5:10
Monroe — Neville 30 pass from Wells (Callahan kick), 9:25
Monroe — Bynum 18 pass from Wells (pass fail), 5:34
Nikiski — Riddall 11 run (run fail), 2:37
Nikiski — Stangel 1 run (Feller kick), 9:01
Nikiski — Eide 4 run (Feller kick), 3:19
First Downs 24 16
Rushes- yards 61-363 14-1
Passing yards 36 341
Return yards 106 70
Passes 5-8-0 15-33-2
Punts 2-35.0 1-41.0
Fumbles-lost 3-0 2-0
Penalties- yards 3-30 6-35
Rushing — Nikiski: Eide 25-144; Riddall 16-124; Stangel 19-95; Anderson 1-0. Monroe: Gavora 5-13; Callahan 3-6; Bynum 2-2; Wells 4-(-20).
Passing — Nikiski: Anderson 5-8-0--36. Monroe: Wells 15-33-2-341.
Receiving — Nikiski: Stangel 3-16; Carstens 1-17; Feller 1-3. Monroe: Callahan 6-122; Neville 5-107; Bynum 4-112.