Last season, Kenai Central junior Dakota Craig made holes for Cory Janson. This season, Craig will be filling Janson's shoes.
"The great thing about it is the kid's only a junior," said Kenai Central coach Jim Beeson, who is back for his 15th season. "He's going to get the ball 25 to 30 times a game.
"What we lost in speed by losing Cory, we'll make up with Dakota in toughness."
Last season, Craig played fullback and cleared the way for Janson to pick up small-schools offensive player of the year honors.
Craig, a first-team all-state inside linebacker in the small schools, also played a key role in a Kenai defense that shut down Soldotna in a 7-0 victory in the small-schools championship game.
The victory gave Kenai Central its first state championship in football, but Beeson is not about to dwell on that.
COLORS: Red and black
2002 RECORD: 6-2 (2-1 in NLC)
HEAD COACH: Jim Beeson (15th year)
ASSISTANTS: Jim Dawson, Rocky DeMello, Clayton Holland, Aaron McCubbins, Jim Montgomery, Ken Roser
CAPTAINS: Cole Chappell, TJ Hancock, Michael Scheffert
2003 VARSITY SCHEDULE
Aug. 9 WEST 3 p.m.
Aug. 16 at Lathrop 5 p.m.
Aug. 23 COLONY 3 p.m.
Aug. 31 at Kodiak 5 p.m.
Sept. 5 at Skyview 6 p.m.
Sept. 13 at Seward 2 p.m.
Sept. 20 HOMER 2 p.m.
Sept. 27 SOLDOTNA 2 p.m.
Home games in CAPS
"Last year is over and done with," the coach said.
But several things that happened last year bode well for the Kardinals this year. Kenai lost 13 seniors from the championship squad, meaning many of this year's players did more than sit and watch the championship from the bench.
At the head of that list is Craig, who rushed for 472 yards and seven touchdowns in the eight-game regular season. He then exploded for 170 yards on 14 carries in a playoff semifinal victory against Houston.
Another development in the playoffs last year has the Kardinals in a nice position this year. In the last game of the season, 2003 graduate Michael Tunseth broke his wrist, forcing senior Cole Chappell to step in at quarterback and lead the team to a state title.
"It really helps us out this year that Cole got that experience," Beeson said. "Last year, we obviously didn't like to lose Michael before the playoffs like that. But now it will make us a better team."
While Beeson is excited about the team's talent, which includes the returning small-schools utility player of the year in senior TJ Hancock, he said there are still unanswered questions.
"We have as much talent as we had last year," Beeson said. "The big question is where the leadership is going to come from.
"Michael, Drew (Cramer) and Casey Crowder were such a big part of our success because of their leadership."
Craig and Chappell will be joined in the backfield by a fullback committee of juniors Ryann Hansen and Ronnie Rainey and sophomore Brandon Miles.
At receiver, Beeson said he has an athletic group with good hands. The group includes seniors Billy Loosli and Hancock, and juniors Marcus Reemtsma and Cory Whiteley. The tight end will be junior Josh Bennett.
On the offensive line, Beeson said he has a big group with comparable skills. That will allow him to do some platooning.
The only returning starter on the offensive line in that group is junior Michael Scheffert. Others are senior Kenny Dormady, juniors Zach DeMello and Danny Autrey, and sophomores Papapa Nicholas and Les Krusen.
The defense will be keyed by Craig and Scheffert, a pair of junior linebackers who have started all three years, and Hancock, whose multiple tackles and interceptions doomed SoHi in last year's championship game.
Senior Geordon Main also will play inside linebacker, while the base of the defensive line will be senior Justin Lee and many of the starting offensive linemen.
Finally, Hancock will be joined in the secondary by Reemtsma, Loosli, Miles and Tyler Chappell.
Beeson said one of the keys to the season will be getting through a tough early season schedule. The Kardinals started with a loss to West, and now face Lathrop and Colony before starting their conference schedule.
"We can't afford any key injuries in those first three games," Beeson said.
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