There's a saying Nikiski coach Scott Anderson continually falls back on that goes something like, "The goal isn't the end of the road, it's the road along the way."
To carry the analogy further, the Bulldogs' season-opening 12-7 loss to Chugiak was a bit like the drive to Nikiski on the Kenai Spur Highway these days.
It started smooth enough, with Nikiski taking a 7-0 lead into halftime after out-gaining the Mustangs 138 yards to 67. But then the Bulldogs and their 12-game winning streak hit Chugiak's heavy equipment and the construction zone, getting stalled on offense and having a bumpy time on defense en route to getting out-gained 404-180 in the game.
With the right kind of eyes, though, the Bulldogs had no problem glancing up the road following the contest and seeing much smoother days ahead of them.
"We scheduled this game to make us better," said Nikiski assistant coach Ted Riddall, whose team managed to hold the lead until 57 seconds were left in the game. "It made us better."
Getting better is something the Nikiski coaching staff constantly preaches. Don't worry about the opponent. Don't worry about the scoreboard. Just worry about improving every day in practice.
But when Chugiak, a traditional state power with an enrollment topping 2,000, shows up at your school of about 350, followed by the Channel 2 news truck, it's pretty hard not to worry the opponent and the scoreboard.
As the team sat in a classroom waiting to take the field, senior David Holloway said the team was more nervous than before last year's small-schools championship game.
Nikiski showed those nerves early on, but eventually put together several nice drives. With 9:50 left in the second quarter, quarterback Josh Reilly froze Chugiak's defense with a fake pitch, then tucked the inside handoff to Steve Calderwood.
Calderwood darted through a massive hole and then outran everybody for a 35-yard touchdown.
"That was just an unbelievably huge hole," Calderwood said. "I started running and I didn't see anyone. I just took off and that was it."
Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, that was also it for tallies in the score column.
"I felt that early, we had scoring opportunities," Anderson said. "We needed to take advantage of those opportunities and take a bigger lead on them."
As it was, Nikiski had just a 7-0 lead at half. This worried Anderson because he was using just seven linemen for offense and defense. Meanwhile, Chugiak didn't have any linemen playing both offense and defense.
That advantage started to show in the second half as Chugiak controlled the line of scrimmage.
Niksiki's David Holloway bats down a two-point conversion in front of Chugiak's George Lochner in the third quarter Friday.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
"(Chugiak) had a good strategy coming in," Anderson said. "They were platooning their guys, so they'd get up to the line of scrimmage quickly and just run up the middle.
"Late in the second quarter, we started getting tired. We learned one thing we have to work on is conditioning."
After the Mustangs took control of the line of scrimmage, the only question was whether a combination of Chugiak mistakes, fortunate breaks and Nikiski heart and skill would be able to hold the 7-0 lead.
After Chugiak stalled its first drive of the half with a holding penalty, the Mustangs finally got on the board with 3:49 left in the third quarter.
Junior Michael John took a handoff and followed a train of blockers to the right. A pair of linemen gave John a presidential escort into the secondary, where he dodged a pair of tacklers at midfield en route to an 87-yard touchdown run.
"In the second half, we just started running the ball up the middle, up the middle, up the middle," said John, who finished with 234 yards on 29 carries. "We knew if we kept getting yardage like that, something good would happen."
Chugiak missed the conversion on John's touchdown, so the Bulldogs carried a 7-6 lead into the final quarter.
With 11 minutes remaining, the Bulldogs got a big break when Nikiski's Kyle Alexander fumbled on a punt return. Chugiak's George Lochner picked up the ball and ran for a few yards before fumbling it back to Nikiski.
But Nikiski's offense, which got just two first downs in the second half, couldn't do anything with the fumble recovery. With Chugiak dominating the line and shutting down the running game, the Mustangs were able to devote two people to shutting down Holloway, who had more than 1,000 yards receiving last year.
Using a cornerback to bump Holloway at the line, then rotating over another man to cover him deep, the Mustangs limited Holloway to just 36 yards on four catches.
But Holloway still came back to make what would have been the play of the game if Nikiski had held on to win.
Nikiski's David Holloway is stopped on the sidelines by Chugiak's Patrick Stillman (78) and Tim Hehnlin during the second quarter Friday.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
With less than 6 minutes left, Chugiak drove inside Nikiski's 20 looking for the lead. However, Holloway out-jumped Lochner on the goal line for an interception, then he returned the ball all the way to the Chugiak 46.
The problem was the Bulldogs were too spent to capitalize on the turnover.
"What you have to remember is all of our linemen were spending all that time on the field trying to stop their offense," said Nikiski lineman Gabe Lavigueur. "When we'd go on offense, we'd have to get out there and battle a whole new set of guys."
Chugiak got the ball back on its 11-yard line with 3:05 to go and charged up the field, with John clinching the game with a nine-yard run with 57 seconds to play.
"I look at this as a win," Calderwood said. "We needed to lose. It was a good learning experience for us.
"Now we have motivation to get better, and we have to get better if we're going to be the best."
For now, consider the construction zone an image firmly planted in Nikiski's rearview mirror.
MUSTANGS 12, BULLDOGS 7
Chugiak 0 0 6 6 -- 12
Nikiski 0 7 0 0 -- 7
Nik -- Calderwood 35 run (Seater kick), 9:50
Chu -- John 87 run (pass failed), 3:34
Chu -- John 9 run (run failed), :57
First downs 15 7
Rushes-yards 42-303 35-131
Passing yards 96 49
Return yards 35 40
Passing 5-13-2 5-10-0
Punts-avg 4-30.0 7-38.4
Fumbles-lost 1-1 3-1
Penalties-yards 7-55 3-20
Rushing -- Chugiak: John 29-234, Sandhofer 5-44, Lochner 1-10, Hehnlin 3-6, McNeil 1-5, Lazono 1-3, Nix 1-3, Smiley 1-(-2). Nikiski: Calderwood 17-88, Reilly 7-13, Brigham 1-12, Crumpacker 4-10, Allen 4-5, Alexander 2-3.
Passing -- Chugiak: Hehnlin 5-13-2--96. Nikiski: Reilly 5-10-0--49.
Receiving -- Chugiak: Sandhofer 2-67, Lochner 3-29. Nikiski: Holloway 4-36, Hall 1-13.
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