With a win over a medium-schools opponent to open their season, the Nikiski Bulldogs are already looking like a favorite to win it all again.
The defending small-schools state champions ousted Thunder Mountain 42-19 on Saturday at Nikiski High School, using their feared Wing-T offense to near perfection.
“It bodes well for us, knowing we can play well at that level,” said Nikiski coach Ted Riddall. “That’s the whole point of playing at that level, so that when we get into the meat of our schedule, we’ve already competed against teams that are probably gonna be tougher.”
The Bulldogs were led by a three-headed ground attack of seniors Christian Riddall and Nico Castro and junior Luke Johnson. Castro used lightning-quick agility to pile up 122 rushing yards and two touchdowns, while Riddall and Johnson used brute strength to do most of their damage. Riddall carried the ball for 141 yards and a touchdown and Johnson ran for 108 yards. Nathan Carstens added 46 rushing yards and a touchdown as well.
“Those are four kids that have been in the program and know what we’re trying to do,” Riddall said. “It’s pretty solid when you have a stable full of running backs, instead of just one kid.”
Even though the final result looked a bit lopsided, Nikiski’s victory wasn’t a stroll through the park. The host team had to deal with Thunder Mountain junior Tevita Maka, a heavyweight bruiser of a running back who piled up 137 rushing yards on the day, many of those coming with Nikiski linemen on his back.
“He was outstanding,” said Thunder Mountain coach Jeep Rice. “If we had two or three more (big plays) we might’ve won this game, or at least had a better shot at it.”
With Maka leading the way, the Falcons racked up 223 total rushing yards.
“If you don’t hit him low, you’re going for a ride,” Riddall said. “Most of them went for a ride.”
Johnson said Maka was the biggest running back that he has ever had to deal with.
“Basically, once they started giving him the ball and he was getting most of the yards, we knew they’d keep coming back to him,” Johnson said. “It was just reading him most of the time and going in low, otherwise he was just gonna run over the top of you.”
It looked like Nikiski would be in for a challenge early on, as Thunder Mountain drove downfield on its opening possession and took the lead on a 30-yard field goal by Riley Olsen. On Nikiski’s ensuing possession, the Bulldogs turned the ball over on downs on the Falcons’ 30-yard line.
“It was toe to toe with them,” Riddall said. “I was like, OK, we were tightening up a little bit.”
After Thunder Mountain went three-and-out to punt, Nikiski began finding its stride, taking the ball on a 10-play, 78-yard drive that ended with Riddall punching through for a 1-yard touchdown score early in the second quarter.
The Falcons responded with a possession that ended with another 30-yard field-goal attempt, only this one never took off due to a fumbled snap. The mistake was followed up with a quick Nikiski drive that was helped by a horsecollar tackle penalty from Thunder Mountain that, when combined with a 31-yard romp by Riddall, moved the Bulldogs from their own 44-yard line to the Falcons’ 11. On the first play from the 11, Castro ran the ball into the end zone to put Nikiski up 14-3 with almost 7 1-2 minutes left in the first half.
After Thunder Mountain turned the ball over on downs on Nikiski’s 1-yard line, the Bulldogs had a tough time moving the pigskin, necessitating a punt in their own end zone. But coach Riddall knew better than to risk Thunder Mountain getting a jump on their next possession, so Nikiski deliberately snapped the ball out of the end zone, resulting in a safety for Thunder Mountain.
However, any momentum that the visitors thought they had was extinguished late in the first half. After Thunder Mountain turned the ball over on downs, Nikiski — aided by a 47-yard scamper from Johnson — set up shop on Thunder Mountain’s 16-yard line with 3.3 seconds left in the half. On the final play, Anderson lofted a pass to Hunter Holloway, who was running a fade route into the end zone, with zeros on the clock, giving Nikiski a 20-5 halftime lead.
“I trust Hunter a lot, and I knew he’d go get it so I just threw it up there, and he did,” Anderson said. “The play we called meant Hunter was running a fade to the end zone, so it was easy for me.”
Anderson ended the day completing 6 of 11 passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
“I really don’t notice the yards because coach Anderson was saying 4 yards was enough and most of the time we were getting 4 yards a play,” Anderson said. “We had a couple big plays, but most of the time we were just chunking it.”
On Nikiski’s opening possession of the second half, Nathan Carstens took advantage of some well-timed blocks to run the ball 36 yards to the house, extending Nikiski’s lead to 27-5.
Nikiski’s second-half scores included a 37-yard bomb from Anderson to Dylan Broussard on a fourth-down attempt, and a 70-yard sprint by Castro on the opening play from scrimmage on the Bulldogs’ second-to-last possession.
With the first win in the books, Nikiski can now turn its attention to their next contest, an Aug. 30 road trip to Monroe-Catholic in a rematch of last year’s state championship game.
Nikiski 42, Thunder Mountain 19
Bulldogs 0 20 15 7 —42
Falcons 3 2 14 0 —19
TMt — Olsen 30-yard FG, 7:25
Nik — Riddall 1 run (Riddall pass from Anderson), 10:36
Nik — Castro 13 run (pass failed), 7:31
TMt — Safety, 2:59
Nik — Holloway 20 pass from Anderson (run failed), :00
Nik — Carstens 30 run (Jackson kick), 10:36
TMt — Maka 2 run (Sebens run), 7:20
Nik — Safety, 5:01
Nik — Broussard 37 pass from Anderson (kick failed), 2:57
TMt — LeBlanc-Tweedy 7 pass from Sebens (pass failed), 1:00
Nik — Castro 70 run (Jackson kick), 6:26
Nik — Castro 69 yard run (Jackson kick), 6:26
First downs 16 16
Rushes-yards 45-402 42-223
Passing yards 118 100
Return yards 32 49
Passes 6-11-2 6-14-1
Punts 2-80 1-45
Fumbles-lost 2-1 2-1
Penalties-yards 5-28 6-36
RUSHING — Nikiski: Riddall 14-141, Castro 13-122, Johnson 10-108, Carstens 5-46, Anderson 1-(-10), Jackson 1-(-3), Cooper 1-(-2). Thunder Mountain: Maka 20-137, Sebens 9-44, Sumerlot 8-48, Taylor 4-(-3), Bear-Clark 1-(-3).
PASSING — Nikiski: Anderson 6-11-2—118. Thunder Mountain: Sebens 6-14-1—100.
RECEIVING — Nikiski: Holloway 2-40, Broussard 1-37, Riddall 2-21, Johnson 1-20. Thunder Mountain: Maka 1-9, Olsen 1-28, LeBlanc-Tweedy 2-19, Martin 1-27.