While the Nikiski High School football team has plenty of postseason experience -- the Bulldogs have won the Great Land Conference championship game in each of the past three seasons -- Friday's small-schools state playoff game against the Kenai Central Kardinals will have a slightly different flavor.
"It's a little bit different situation than what we're used to," said Nikiski head coach Scott Anderson. "The Great Land championship was one game. Under this format, you have to win to move on."
Nikiski will host the Kardinals in a semifinal game Friday. Kickoff is slated for 4:30 p.m.
In the other semifinal, the Soldotna Stars will host the Houston Hawks Saturday at 3 p.m. at Justin Maile Field in what Soldotna players are calling a "double-or-nothing" rematch -- winner goes to the title game, loser goes home.
Nikiski finished the regular season as the Great Land Conference champion, going 4-0 in the conference and 7-0 overall. One of Nikiski's nonconference wins came at the Kardinals' expense, a 17-8 win at Kenai on Aug. 25.
The Kardinals grabbed the second Northern Lights Conference playoff berth with their win over Skyview in the final week of the regular season, finishing 3-1 in the NLC and 3-4 overall.
Anderson said that the Bulldogs' perfect record means little once the Friday's game starts.
"I think the kids aren't focused on that -- record indicates something in the past," Anderson said. "The records go out the window. Both teams are 0-0 in the postseason."
Anderson is expecting another tough battle from the Kardinals defense, but said that the Bulldogs might have an advantage facing a team they've already played this season.
"The kids have a real healthy respect for what Kenai can do," Anderson said. "We're going to take what's there. If we execute what we can do, we'll be fine."
The Kardinals defense has not been in the habit of giving opponents so much as an inch, though.
"Our whole defense has played well," said Kenai head coach Jim Beeson, whose Kardinals will be making their first playoff appearance since 1996.
"That's the biggest reason we're at where we're at right now."
Beeson said the key to stopping Nikiski will be taking away the big play from the Bulldogs' offense arsenal, turning the game into a 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust slugfest.
"You don't have to be an Einstein to figure out that you need to slow down (wide receiver David) Holloway and (quarterback Josh) Reilly," Beeson said.
That's easier said than done -- last weekend's downpour in Seward didn't slow down the Bulldogs.
"It was a real confidence-builder that we can go out and do that in any conditions," Anderson said.
The Kardinals offense rediscovered its physical running game in the second half of last weekend's game, a fact of which Anderson was well aware.
"Kenai runs the ball very well," Anderson said. "They're very well coached. Their coaches are smart, and they bring that aspect to the game."
Beeson expects to see eight or nine Bulldogs crowding the line of scrimmage to stop the run when the Kardinals have the ball, forcing Kenai to throw some passes. Kenai has struggled with its passing game this season.
"They have a good idea of what we're going to do," Beeson said. "It's going to come down to who can correct the mistakes from the last game."
HOUSTON HAWKS (3-3, 3-1 GLC) at SOLDOTNA STARS (5-2, 4-0 NLC)
Soldotna makes its second straight trip to the playoffs, albeit this year's format is a little different. Still, the Stars face a tough challenge from a Houston team they beat 34-12 on Sept. 2.
"They played us really tough for a half, and that was early in the season," said Soldotna quarterback Pat Rose. "This late in the season, we're both pretty experienced, so it should be a good game."
"It's good and bad," Soldotna defensive back Shaun Williams said of facing a team for the second time in a season. "We get to look at the mistakes we made the first time and correct those, but they get to do the same thing."
Defensively, the Stars will be working to shut down Houston's passing tandem of quarterback Peter Clemens and receiver Shaun Haragan.
"If we can shut them down, that changes the look of their offense," Williams said.
Then it turns into Soldotna's favorite kind of game, one that will be won or lost at the line of scrimmage.
The Stars are anticipating just that sort of challenge for their offense.
"We'll stick to our normal game plan -- smash-mouth football," Rose said.
"We need to play smart, stick our blocks and run the football -- all the stuff that we do good," said Soldotna lineman Travis Bass.
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