Nikiski's Corey Smith looks for an opening above a Houston Hawk in the fourth quarter Friday night.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
In high school sports, there are many great moments, many of which have nothing to do with winning.
“That’s why we coach situations like this where we can help them become men,” Nikiski High School football coach Ned Clooten said after addressing his team following a gut-wrenching 7-6 loss to Houston on Friday evening at Nikiski.
The Bulldogs’ postgame huddle was an emotional one after the Hawks picked off a Nikiski pass in their own end zone in the last minute of play to deny the Bulldogs a victory. Clooten and his coaching staff spent quite awhile consoling emotionally spent players, and the coach emphasized that his staff wasn’t in it for the glory, but for the opportunity to help young people learn to become adults.
“Coach Clooten has this saying, that he’s not making us into better football players, he’s making us into better men,” said Nikiski senior Tyler Payment. “This is a small loss in the big picture.”
Small though the loss may have been, it was a painful one for the Bulldogs, who rallied from a 7-0 halftime deficit. In the first half, the Bulldogs twice turned the ball over in Houston territory and saw another drive end when they couldn’t overcome a fourth-and-eleven at the Hawks 34-yard line.
Nikiski's Evan Holloway and Jason Moore celebrate Holloway's third-quarter touchdown against the Houston Hawks on Friday.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Nikiski lost a fumble on its first possession of the third quarter, but the defense, which played tough all day, forced the Hawks to go three-and-out, and the Bulldogs offense got the ball back just inside Houston territory.
The Hawks stuffed a running play on first down, but quarterback Corey Smith connected with Evan Holloway on a quick slant on second down. Holloway slipped a tackle and outsprinted the rest of the Houston secondary down the right sideline to put the Bulldogs on the scoreboard with 5:21 left in the quarter.
The Bulldogs went for two points on the conversion attempt and ran a nifty reverse play in which Smith ended up with the ball on a sweep to the right side, and he easily connected with a wide-open Jason Moore in the end zone.
The Bulldogs were flagged for an ineligible player downfield, though, and the second attempt at two, from 5 yards farther back, fell incomplete.
Nikiski began its final drive of the game on its own 15-yard line with just under five minutes to play. The Bulldogs were able to grind out a 15-play drive, converting a fourth-and-eleven and a fourth-and-two along the way, to get as far as the Houston 15 before Hawks defensive back Matt Gardner dashed Nikiski’s hopes with his pick in the end zone with 43 seconds to play.
“They had been picking on him all day long, but he stayed home and took care of business,” Houston coach Norm Bouchard said. “We knew this game was going to be just like the way it was a great high school football game between two teams that are well-coached with evenly matched athletes. Today we scored an extra point, they didn’t and that was the difference.”
Bouchard credited Nikiski with making halftime adjustments to the Hawks stand-up defense, in which every player on the defensive line starts from a standing position, like a linebacker, rather than the traditional lineman’s stance. Bouchard said his line uses the defense to slip into gaps between offensive linemen and get into the backfield, but said the Bulldogs tightened things up in the second half.
Clooten lauded his defense, which held the Hawks to just five first downs and 108 yards of offense.
“I really do feel like we progressed today. I felt like our defense played phenomenally. On offense, it was our typical game of drive, drive, drive and then a mistake everyone made mistakes today, including me,” Clooten said.
Clooten also liked what he saw from Smith at linebacker and added that at quarterback, the senior made a number of good decisions that go unnoticed, such as taking a sack when trying to throw a pass would have led to a sure interception.
The Bulldogs also played with their characteristic heart, going hard until the final whistle.
“I’ve never seen a team with as much heart,” Payment said. “We were down 7-0 at halftime and I said, ‘Is that all you’ve got?’ I’ve never been yelled at that loud in my life.
“... These guys, you couldn’t ask for a better bunch I’m not going to call them guys, I’ll call them men. I’ve never seen a team that can win this well and lose this well.”
Hawks 7, Bulldogs 6
Houston 0 7 0 0 7
Nikiski 0 0 6 0 6
Hou Parker 24 pass from Thamm (Gardner kick), 4:21
Nik Holloway 51 pass from Smith (pass failed), 5:21
First downs 5 15
Rushes-yards 32-34 37-109
Passing yards 74 144
Return yards 30 24
Passing 3-7-2 10-25-2
Punts-avg 5-31.2 4-31.3
Fumbles-lost 1-0 3-2
Penalties-yards 8-60 8-60
Rushing Houston: Morales 8-55, Sumner 12-22, Steed 5-6, Parker 1-(-11), Thamm 6-(-30). Nikiski: Payment 16-65, Fagan 14-45, Calderwood 2-2, Smith 5-(-3).
Passing Houston: Thamm 3-7-274. Nikiski: Smith 10-25-2144.
Receiving Houston: Parker 3-74. Nikiski: Holloway 5-80, Payment 2-28, Moore 2-21, Vance 1-15.
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