Before the 2001 small-schools football season, no change was expected at the very top of the pecking order. Before the 2002 season, change is the order of the day.
In 2001, Nikiski came into the year returning 22 seniors from a team that had gone undefeated and taken the small-schools state title in 2000.
This year, not only are those 22 seniors gone from Nikiski's 2001 small-schools titlists, but the Bulldogs have changed head coaches. Seward, the state runner-up last year, also has a new head coach and lost 17 seniors.
That means the favorite for this year is up in the air as the season begins.
"All the teams on the peninsula are well-coached, and everybody's similar in size," said Kenai coach Jim Beeson. "I think who does well will be the team that ends up making the fewest mistakes in close ballgames."
There has just been one minor change in the way the small-schools season will be organized this year.
Sitka, Houston, Anchorage Christian Schools, Seward and Nikiski will still make up the Great Land Conference. In the Northern Lights Conference, Homer, Skyview, Kenai and Soldotna will face off. Ketchikan has dropped out of the conference.
The top two in each conference will still advance to the state playoffs.
Kenai, which will be led by all-state running back and defensive back Cory Janson, is probably earning the most respect as the season churns into gear.
"The Kenai group scares me because they have speed," said Soldotna coach Sarge Truesdell. "They have as much speed as anybody around here.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Soldotnas Cason Simpson (84) tries to break away from a flock of Kardinals as Kenais Wally Ward attempts a tackle.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
"Speed is tough to defend against."
Despite Kenai's speed, nobody is willing to proclaim the Kardinals the overwhelming favorite.
"It's going to be a step up from last year's conference play as far as competition goes, and I thought last year's play was very competitive," said Skyview coach Wade Marcuson. "Last year, except for Ketchikan, anybody could beat anybody.
"With Ketchikan gone this year, it should be even closer."
Soldotna is another team drawing respect because the Stars have so much experience.
Soldotna lost Cason Simpson, who carried a great deal of the offensive load, to graduation. However, the Stars return 22 seniors from a team that won its second straight Northern Lights Conference crown and also went to the semifinals of the small-schools playoffs.
"You just know that Soldotna's going to be tough with all those players they have returning," Marcuson said.
Truesdell had similarly kind things to say about the Panthers. Skyview has an athletic group of 12 seniors that are drawing rave reviews around the league.
"Skyview had some players come over to a camp over here, and I was impressed," Truesdell said. "Those players were flying all over the field."
Finally, Homer is a team that is also drawing respect. The Mariners have a number of key returners from a defense that was tops in the conference last season. Homer also is expecting to have a more balanced offense this season.
"Homer very well could have been the best team in the conference last year," Marcuson said. "The games they lost were because of a lot of weird things, like mistakes on special teams."
Over in the Great Land, Nikiski is still earning respect despite the loss of 22 seniors. Lee Moore takes over as head coach, while Scott Anderson, last year's head coach, moves to offensive coordinator.
So, essentially, the Bulldogs have almost the same coaching staff in place.
"You just watch," Beeson said. "By the middle of the season, Nikiski will be there. They have an advantage because their kids have experienced so much success.
"They know what it takes to win football games."
In Seward, Cliff Draper, a former assistant to 2001 small-schools Coach of the Year Dan Bohrnsen, takes over the program.
"Cliff Draper's kids were some of the toughest football players I've seen," said Moore, who doesn't play the Seahawks until the last week of the season. "That guy breeds toughness.
"They may start off slow, but by the time we play them, they're going to be a problem."
Moore also said Houston returns a number of key players and should be tough. Also, ACS and Sitka have young football programs that continue to grow by leaps and bounds every year.
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