Since winning the inaugural medium-schools football championship in 2011, Kenai Central has failed to make it back to the big stage, suffering through one bad year and two other near misses.
Saturday at Dimond Alumni Field in Anchorage, the Kardinals announced their return by piling on the offense in a 74-6 state semifinal blowout over North Pole, punching their ticket to the medium-schools state championship game next week against Soldotna.
While Kenai certainly did not have it easy against a North Pole squad that featured junior sensation Andrew “Dew” Rogers, the Kards made good on a promise to avenge last year’s semifinal loss to the Patriots by routing them 45-8 in the regular season and returning to affirm their authority Saturday.
“It’s absolutely 100 percent satisfying to see our football team take it to the next level,” said Kenai coach John Marquez. “I saw it. They stepped up and they haven’t played like that all year long.”
Kenai amassed 515 yards of offense, led by the 217 rushing yards by senior Andrew Welborn, who led the Kards with four touchdowns on the day. Welborn also brought down an interception on defense.
“The coaches said we were going to be better this time,” Welborn said about playing North Pole a second time in three weeks. “Last time we played them was in the snow, so we thought this one was going to be harder.”
Welborn admitted that keeping Rogers — a shifty 5-foot-8 back that can switch gears in an instant — at bay was no small task, but felt happy with the end result. The Kenai defense held Rogers to 92 receiving yards on nine catches, nearly all on screen passes.
“He got away a couple times, but we figured that would happen,” Welborn said. “He’s tough, but we tried sending him to the inside, and bring him down all together.”
Kenai racked up most of its offense via a brutal ground game that compiled 476 rushing yards. Led by its offensive line, Welborn and company had little trouble breaking through to first down after first down.
While the Kenai attack came as little surprise, the Patriots starting quarterback did. North Pole sophomore Craig Borba took the place of usual starter Rogers, a change that was made by interim head coach Billy Connor. Connor has been guiding the Patriots in place of Richard Henert, who resigned from the head coach position 10 days earlier. Connor was ejected from the game late in the first quarter after a member of the North Pole coaching staff was given an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Borba ended up with 178 passing yards on 18-of-28 completions and a touchdown. Borba was also picked off twice, by Gillies and Welborn.
Once the game started, Marquez said he was surprised to see Borba taking snaps. However, he believes the change in quarterback helped the Kards.
“It made (North Pole) one-dimensional,” Marquez said. “It benefited us because the zone-read wasn’t there, it was a give every time.”
North Pole also suffered 18 penalties that backed the Patriots up 145 yards, a trait that troubled North Pole one year ago in the same game against Kenai.
This time around, however, North Pole could not recover so easily.
Kenai forced the Patriots to punt on their opening possession before driving 76 yards on nine plays to score on a 1-yard push through the middle by Chase Gillies.
After forcing a second punt, Kenai got the ball back and quickly set up shop on the North Pole 44-yard line after the unsportsmanlike penalty backed the Patriots up 30 yards. Welborn immediately found an opening on the right side to score from 44 yards out and put Kenai up 15-0 on the ensuing two-point play.
“As backs, we just got to hit the hole hard and make those guys miss,” Welborn said. “We started good together, and played more intensely.”
On North Pole’s third play of its ensuing possession, running back Joseph Kasey lost the ball and Kenai senior David Beck pounced for the recovery. The turnover ultimately led to another Welborn touchdown, this one from two yards out.
North Pole suffered another turnover as Gillies came down with the interception on Borba at midfield. Gillies made good on the change in possession with a 1-yard scamper into the end zone midway through the second quarter that put Kenai up 29-0. The Kards ultimately ended the frame with 31 points — including a safety for North Pole fumbling up a punt snap that made its way out of the end zone — and a 46-0 halftime lead.
Draiden McMinn opened the second half with a 24-yard romp up the right sideline that put Kenai ahead by 53 points. McMinn ended the day with a pair of scores on 59 rushing yards.
Kardinals 74, Patriots 6
Kenai 15 31 21 7 —74
North Pole 0 0 6 0 —6
Ken — Gillies 1 run (Vest kick), 4:48
Ken — Welborn 44 run (Welborn run), 2:26
Ken — Welborn 2 run (Vest kick), 11:26
Ken — Gillies 1 run (Vest kick), 6:30
Ken — Welborn 44 run (Welborn run), 1:39
Ken — Team safety, :41
Ken — Welborn 23 run (Vest kick), :21
Ken — McMinn 24 run (Vest kick), 11:11
NP — Chace 6 pass from Borba (run failed), 9:06
Ken — McMinn 1 run (Vest kick), 8:01
Ken — Tuttle 1 run (Vest kick), 2:40
Ken — Dunham 27 run (Vest kick), 1:45
First downs 24 8
Rushes-yds 55-476 21-36
Pass yds 39 186
Comp-att-int 3-5-0 19-30-3
Return yds 39 105
Punts 0 2
Fumbles-lost 2-0 2-1
Penalties 5-45 18-145
Rushing — Kenai: Welborn 16-217, Tuttle 10-88, McMinn 12-59, Gillies 4-1, McEnerney 10-69, Dunham 2-39, No. 40 1-3. North Pole: Rogers 6-35, Borba 6-(-15), Joseph 3-2, No. 88 2-(-2), Irwin 3-12, Chace 1-4.
Passing — Kenai: Gillies 3-5-0—39. North Pole: Borba 18-28-1—178, Rogers 1-1-0—8, Chace 0-1-0—0.
Receiving — Kenai: McMinn 2-17, Johnson 1-22. North Pole: Rogers 9-92, Chace 9-73, Howe 1-8.