It's rare, but every once in awhile the mysterious cycle of athletes gives a school of some 300 kids the players to compete with a school of over 2,000 on the football field.
Tonight, Nikiski finds out if this year is one of those rare times.
The defending small-schools state champion Bulldogs kick off their 2001 season with a 5 p.m. home game against Chugiak, an Anchorage school with over 2,000 students.
The Nikiski-Chugiak game highlights a packed football schedule Friday and Saturday as all six of the Kenai Peninsula programs have season openers. Tonight, Soldotna will play at Wasilla at 7 p.m.
Saturday finds Anchorage Christian Schools at Homer at 2 p.m., Palmer at Skyview at 3 p.m., Kenai at Houston at 2 p.m. and Seward at Bartlett's junior varsity at 3 p.m.
Nikiski coach Scott Anderson, who has built the Bulldogs into a small-schools powerhouse in his eight seasons, said this is the ideal year to try and knock off a heavyweight.
"With 19 seniors coming back, we've got a bunch of mature kids and kids who know blocking and tackling technique," Anderson said. "Plus, we've got decent size. We'll go about 285, 275, 205, 220 and 190 on the line."
Still, by taking on Chugiak, Nikiski will be going up against factors that often make small schools mincemeat for larger schools.
Larger schools tend to have bigger, faster players and they also don't have to use the same players on offense and defense as much. That means their players get to work on just offense, or just defense, in practice. It also means they'll be fresher in the third and fourth quarters.
"We will have some players going both ways this year," Anderson said. "That won't hurt us so much against the small schools, because all the small school do it, too.
"It could be an issue against Chugiak."
That aside, Anderson said his seniors had earned a shot at some big schools. Last year, the group went 9-0, dominating a schedule of small-school opponents.
Almost all of the key components from 2000's squad return, including David Holloway, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound receiver who became the first in state history to go over 1,000 yards receiving in a season last year.
Josh Reilly, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound senior quarterback, and the rest of the backfield also return for the Bulldogs.
Meanwhile, Chugiak head coach Travis Cantrell has 16 returnees and enough big bodies on the line that he will be able to substitute throughout the game.
Soldotna at Wasilla
The Stars also aren't easing into the season. Soldotna, a school of just under 600, will face off against Wasilla, a school of about 1,100.
Soldotna went 6-3 last season, winning the Northern Lights Conference and losing in the small-schools state championship game to Nikiski.
However, unlike the Bulldogs, the Stars took significant losses to graduation. Soldotna had 20 seniors on its squad last year. This year, the Stars have just six or seven seniors.
"We play Wasilla and West Valley in our nonconference games, and West Valley is supposed to win their conference," said Dimick, whose team will face the Wolfpack at home on Aug. 17. "Playing those big schools is tough, but it makes you a better team."
Two battle-tested players Dimick will rely on heavily are seniors Cason Simpson and Roy Stonecipher. Stonecipher was an all-conference tackle last season, while Simpson was all-conference at outside linebacker. Simpson also is ground-hugging Soldotna's leading rusher.
Wasilla is looking to return to the playoffs after sitting out the postseason for the first time in four years last year.
Palmer at Skyview
By mixing 12 to 15 seniors with the cream of a junior varsity squad that finished 6-1 last season, fourth-year head coach Wade Marcuson is hoping to improve on last year's 3-4 and playoffless finish.
Even though Palmer is a nonconference opponent, Marcuson said getting the season rolling in the right direction Saturday is vital.
"I think the team attitude this year is, 'Let's go at them,'" Marcuson said of Palmer, which administered a 21-6 loss to Skyview on opening weekend last year. "We need to be more successful against them this year.
"I've been seeing a lot of good things in practice, but we need to carry that over into the game."
Marcuson said this year's squad is the deepest and most balanced team he's had at Skyview. Thus, battles in practice for starting spots have been fierce.
One of Skyview's top returners will be Ely Evanson, an all-conference quarterback from a year ago. He finished the season 31-for-85 with 471 yards and six touchdowns.
In order to stay with the Moose, Skyview will have to slow down the mashing ground game that has become coach Rod Christiansen's trademark. The offense should be up and running quickly because the offensive line returns four starters.
Kenai Central at Houston
Last season, the Kardinals rebounded nicely from a two-victory campaign in 1999 as they finished second in the Northern Lights Conference and lost to eventual state champion Nikiski in the playoffs.
However, a number of key departures from the team have left Kenai Central coach Jim Beeson depending on some extremely young players as he begins his 12th season at Kenai.
Just how young will Kenai be? On defense, Beeson could end up starting nine underclassmen -- two freshman, two sophomores and five juniors.
"Our first two games are nonleague games against Houston and ACS, so that'll be nice," Beeson said. "We'd like to win, but at the same time we've got a lot of learning to do.
"We need to get players in game situations before the games really start counting."
The offense starts with senior tackle Dane Myers, an all-conference tackle last year. Myers will be clearing the way for junior running back Cory Janson, who was among the conference's leading rushers last year and will get the ball 20 to 30 times per game.
Myers and Janson will spend most of Saturday trying to deal with Travis Webb, who at inside linebacker was the Great Land Conference's defensive player of the year last year. Webb also plays running back for the Hawks.
Anchorage Christian Schools at Homer
The Mariners, who battled injuries all year in finishing with a 2-4 record in 2000, look to turn the page against the Lions.
Todd Phillips, who will be in his sixth season at Homer, will have 14 seniors to lead his team this year. Among those giving the team valuable experience will be senior quarterback Aaron Smith, senior fullback Sam Ingraim, senior tailback Luke Roberts and senior receiver Tom Crandall.
"It's the second year ACS has a program, and it seems they've got as many coaches as they do players," Phillips said. "That means that they'll be well-coached. It's our job to be disciplined and get after them."
Pete Carroll moves up to the head coach position after being an assistant last year. Carroll, who has 33 on his team, said one of his goals this year is to improve on last year's terrible run defense.
"It was our biggest weakness last year," Carroll said. "I'd like to think we've significantly upgraded in that area.
"This game against Homer should really tell a lot."
Seward at Bartlett junior varsity
It hasn't been a good summer for Seward coach Dan Bohrnsen, who begins his sixth year with the Seahawks.
"This year, we have 11 guys we expected to be on the football team not on the team this year," Bohrnsen said.
Also, the coach was hoping to have about 50 players in his program this year, but will have just 22 kids eligible to play in the opener.
Bohrnsen does have eight seniors on his team that should provide a solid core. Among those are Darian Draper and Zack Rininger, two players Bohrnsen said could start anywhere on the peninsula.
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