Nikiski hung with Soldotna in its season opener before losing by 33 points.
Two weeks later, the Bulldogs led Kenai by seven with 11:45 left, but eventually lost when the Kardinals scored with 7:22 remaining and added a two-point conversion in winning 27-26.
Both were stern tests for a Nikiski squad hoping to advance to the playoffs for the first time in three years, but they still weren't the most difficult part of the Bulldogs 2008 schedule.
That begins on Saturday when second-place Eielson travels to Nikiski at 1 p.m. to take on a team tied with Barrow for first place in the Greatland Conference.
The undefeated Whalers, Eielson's only conference loss this season, then head south to Nikiski the following week.
"The caliber of teams on the (Northern Lights Conference) side, they're usually a little bigger schools and they play quite a bit more football ... and they've competed at a higher level, it really has prepared us," Bulldogs coach Ted Riddall said. "Obviously playing SoHi gives you a barometer where you are earlier on in the year. Same with Kenai. ... If you can compete it means you're doing pretty well.
"It kind of works out to our advantage having them here at home, later in the season when we're competing at a pretty high level."
Sitting at 3-2 overall and 3-0 in the GLC, including shutouts of Delta Junction and Monroe Catholic before edging Valdez, 42-28, last week, the Bulldogs need a win to assure themselves a playoff berth.
More importantly, though, a victory would turn next week's matchup with Barrow into a winner-take-all showdown.
"It's kind of a must-win for us. We don't want to be seeded fourth," Riddall said. "You win this game, you'll be No. 1 or No. 2."
Riddall expects a shootout, especially considering the way his offense has been performing lately.
Aside from Beau Calderwood, Kenai Peninsula's leading rusher with 994 yards and 16 touchdowns, quarterback Wiley Bennett has been keeping the offense balanced, having completed 5-of-6 passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns in last week's win over the Buccaneers.
"He's throwing the ball real good," Riddall said. "His last game was his best game as a quarterback. We're hoping that he can kind of repeat that."
Previous opponents have drawn up game plans around slowing down Calderwood, which obviously hasn't worked.
Riddall welcomes the Ravens to try.
"If they want to put eight in the box, nine in the box, we have a way to kind of make them pay for it. We've been working on it all week. We're probably going to throw a little bit more than normal," he said. "If we can connect on a few long passes it will get them to loosen up on their run defense and that will help Beau.
"That's kind of what the plan is going in. It could change on the second play."
Eielson clinched the Greatland crown in Week 7 last year with a 48-28 win over the Nikiski, a crushing blow to the Bulldogs playoff hopes.
This year, Nikiski is hoping for revenge.
"Two quality teams going at it and a lot on the line," he said. "It should be a fun game to watch."
Tested Nikiski set to host EielsonThe Stars (4-0 overall, 2-0 NLC) are looking to capture their 24th consecutive win.
The Panthers, on the other hand, are vying for their first of the season, and should they get it, it could make it all worthwhile.
"It'd be huge," said Skyview coach Jerry Byrne. "It would kind of salvage our season."
And while SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. doesn't seem worried, he's certainly aware the Panthers (0-5 overall, 0-3 NLC) are going to lay it all on the line, especially after their penalty-riddled loss to Kenai last week when they missed a crucial extra point in falling by one.
"They're the best 0-5 team we've seen," he said. "A game like this can make their season."
Last season Skyview tried to derail the Stars undefeated campaign, but ended up losing, 48-0, in falling to 1-17 all-time versus Soldotna.
"We definitely have history on our side and tradition on our side but they're putting their pants on one leg at a time on Friday night just like we are. Their kids want to win," Brantley said. "When we saw them at the jamboree, we thought they were a team that had a very good shot at making the state finals. They came to the jamboree and played us very even.
"They've had some bad luck with some eligibility and some injuries and some things like that. The record is very, very misleading."
Credit that in part to costly penalties, such as a pair of roughing the kicker calls on Friday, the latter of which afforded the Kardinals a clock-draining and game-clinching drive in their 7-6 win. Overall, Skyview was penalized 11 times for 90 yards.
"That's something that we talked about all week, not making mistakes," Byrne explained. "We're a good team if we could just get past those penalties. That's what's been killing us all year."
What's kept them in games has been their defense, which limited Kodiak to just one offensive touchdown in a 19-0 loss earlier this year.
"They're an extremely dangerous team. They'll be extremely motivated for us, more so than any game they've played all along," Brantley said. "They're a more aggressive defense than anyone we've seen all year, including Colony."
And as usual, what's been propelling Soldotna has been its unstoppable offense, one that's averaging 53.5 points a game and welcomes the return of fullback Chris Nolden, who's been sidelined the past two games.
"I think if we can get the offense rolling and not have those penalties at key points, I think we can keep up with them," Byrne said. "We've been working against their run. We know where their plays are going, and I think everybody else does, but they do it so well ... it's really hard to compete."
In their first season playing in the NLC, the Hawks surprised some of the competition in jumping out to a 4-0 overall start, two of which came against conference opponents.
Then they ran into Soldotna last week, which put a 65-6 hurting on them and brought the Hawks back to Earth.
Now the Kardinals (3-2 overall, 1-1 NLC) come to town in a pivotal conference matchup between two teams likely to qualify for the postseason.
"I'd rather lose by 60 than lose by one because then there's a lot less things to worry about," said Kenai coach Jim Beeson. "I don't think it will affect them much.
"Watching the film, at times, they moved the football, which is scary."
Kenai escaped with a 7-6 win over Skyview last week when the Panthers missed an extra point and also committed a few crucial penalties in losing the game.
The Kardinals, though, weren't without their own mistakes, as they were whistled nine times for 75 yards
"Actually after watching the film, we played better than what I thought we did," Beeson said. "We have to improve upon the mental mistakes that we've been doing for the past five weeks. It seems like we're doing the same things every game. Eventually we have to learn from them."
Beeson is expecting a playoff atmosphere, as a Houston win would earn the Hawks a date in the postseason, and a victory by the Kardinals would go a long way toward assuring themselves one.
"For us, realistically, if we win it doesn't guarantee us a spot in the playoffs. If we win, Homer would have to win the rest of their games," Beeson said. "It goes a long way to getting us in the playoffs if we can find a way to win."
After opening the season with a 52-26 win over Monroe Catholic, the Mariners have been in a free fall, losing their next four games by a combined score of 165-41.
Seward, however, is 0-5 overall and the schedule isn't getting any easier.
After their date with Homer, the Seahawks -- who lost 32-0 to Monroe last week -- travel to Eielson and host Nikiski, two teams vying for the top spot in the Greatland Conference.
Homer, which is 0-3 in the NLC, gave nonconference and first-place foe Barrow a run for its money last week, but fell just short, 24-19.
The Mariners close their season with a road trip to Kenai and a home game against Skyview.
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.