When the coins were flipped and Nikiski was the odd team out, Bulldogs head coach Ted Riddall wasn't upset.
Sure, Barrow and Eielson would be hosting playoff games. But unlike two years ago, his team lived to play another week.
And when the final games were played last weekend and another coin flip determined Nikiski would be heading south to Kodiak for a first-round matchup, the 13-hour ferry ride to The Rock didn't disturb him.
He'd rather have traveled there for the first-ever matchup between the two schools than have driven 18 miles down the road to play at Kenai, which edged the Bulldogs by a single point earlier this season.
"I think unless you've played a team it's going to be hard to stop an offense, specifically, our offense," he explained. "I think offensively we can really take advantage of some teams. Teams like to sit on Beau (Calderwood) but we can open it up with the pass. ... For a team to stop the run and also being concerned about a passing attack if we need to go there, it makes it a lot harder to do to that.
"A lot of people think it's all Beau," he added of the top earner of rushing yards in the state, "but there's quite a bit more to our offense, a lot to practice for and that's why I like that we're playing Kodiak."
The Bulldogs, seeded third out of the Greatland Conference, will try and prove Riddall's philosophy right when they take on the second-seeded Bears at noon on Saturday, the winner of that contest advancing to play the winner of the Houston-Barrow game.
Kodiak, which finished second in the Northern Lights Conference with a 4-3 overall record and a 3-2 mark in league play, is vying for its third consecutive berth in the small-schools state championship game.
The Bears have fallen to Soldotna the past two years and Nikiski (5-3 overall, 5-1 GLC) is hoping to save them the trouble of making another unnecessary trip to Anchorage in two weeks.
"You can't take a team like them for granted anyway," Riddall said. "They know how to win and their kids are going to compete all the way 'til the end and our kids should do the same. It should be a pretty special football game."
Unlike the past two seasons when Kodiak's offense carried it to the title game, it's the Bears defense this year that's propelled them to the postseason, having earned two shutouts and limited the NLC's third- and fourth-place teams, Kenai and Houston, to 14 and 10 points, respectively.
"They're defense is pretty snotty tough," Riddall said. "They're scoring points on defense and on special teams. That's definitely going to match up pretty well against our offense. A really good offense against a really good defense."
Nikiski's attack is led by Calderwood, who's amassed 1,792 yards to go along with 26 touchdowns. But the Bulldogs can still air it out with quarterback Wiley Bennett, who's thrown nine touchdowns to just four interceptions and leads all Kenai Peninsula quarterbacks with 530 yards. He was at his best against Barrow two weeks ago, when he completed 6-of-13 passes for 111 yards and two touchdowns in leading the Bulldogs to a shocking 40-30 win over the previously undefeated Whalers.
Don't be surprised, though, if Nikiski showcases some new facets of its game, considering both teams are relying on film to scout one another.
"If you play someone like Kenai a bunch, you know what their tendencies are," Riddall said. "We don't have that luxury with these guys.
"At this point there's no reason to hold anything back. If you lose you go home. Whatever we've got to do, we're going to throw it at them."
When the Kardinals traveled to Lathrop for their season opener, coach Jim Beeson stayed an extra day in Fairbanks to watch the Ravens take on Valdez.
As it turns out, it's a good thing he did.
Kenai (5-3 overall, 3-2 NLC), seeded third out of the NLC, and Eielson, the No. 2 seed out of the GLC, square off in an opening-round playoff game Saturday with the winner moving on to play either Valdez or Soldotna.
The Ravens (5-3 overall) finished tied atop the GLC standings at 4-1 with Barrow and Nikiski, all earning a share of the title. But by virtue of a coin flip, the Ravens earned the right to host a first-round game.
Meanwhile, the Kardinals destination also was determined by a flip of the coin. Had they earned the second seed out of the NLC, they'd have been hosting Nikiski instead. But one spot lower and Kenai could have been making arrangements for a flight to Barrow for its first playoff game since 2005.
"I think Eielson is better than going to Barrow but it would be much better playing Nikiski at home," Beeson said.
Either way, the Kardinals would be preparing for a balanced attack, as Eielson boasts one of the best in the state.
Quarterback Colten Growden is on the verge of what is believed to be the first player to top 1,000 yards passing and rushing in the same season. Through eight games, he has 982 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground and another 840 yards and eight TDs through the air.
"(Growden) might be as good an athlete as we're going to see all year long," Beeson admitted. "He's almost scary when he has the ball because he can ad lib and do whatever he wants to do and he is very good at doing that."
Growden scorched Nikiski's defense in Week 6, passing for 132 yards and one score while rushing for another 258 yards and three touchdowns.
Beeson and the Kardinals have seen the film.
"There's a reason why they do the things they do offensively because he is very, very skilled," he said. "The play can be designed to go right and he can end up going left and doing whatever. We can never give up on the play and have to gang tackle because he is very elusive."
Like for every team, though, it all starts up front.
Last week the Kardinals offensive and defensive lines were owned by a bigger, stronger Soldotna team, which handed Kenai a 50-0 defeat. Beeson is hoping this week the lines are more evenly matched.
"Physically, they're very skilled, but sizewise they're pretty comparable to us," he said.
A little inclement weather couldn't hurt, either.
"Snowy and cold is better suited for us," Beeson said.
If defense really does win championships, then the Stars should pencil themselves in for a spot in their third consecutive small-schools state title game.
Winning the past two crowns with perhaps one of the strongest offenses in Alaska history, SoHi (7-0, 5-0 NLC) now owns a complementary defense that has allowed just six points in the last five games -- a Houston touchdown against the Stars second-stringers the lone score.
"Last year we kind of bent a little bit and gave up some yards ... and this year it seems like our defense has been suffocating teams," SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. said. "They've been nothing less than sensational. With coach (Sarge) Truesdell, it's like having two head coaches. In my mind, he's the best defensive coordinator in the state.
"He's definitely not as rich as we are on the offensive side as far as maturity. There's times I look out there and there's five sophomores running around the field," he added. "It's made us a more complete football team."
So has quarterback Zayan Aberkane, who's tossed 10 touchdowns to no interceptions, and running back Anthony Griglione, who scores once every 4.4 times he touches the ball from the line of scrimmage.
Both played three complete quarters last week in the Stars blanking of Kenai, something many starters on Soldotna haven't done much of this season.
"At some point our kids are going to have to play four quarters of football. Someone's going to push us or we're going to make some mistakes along the way," Brantley said. "It was nice to push the envelope a little bit as far as playing deep into the ballgame."
The Buccaneers, who finished fourth in the GLC at 4-4 overall and 3-3 in conference play, are likely coming to town with revenge on their minds, having suffered a 53-12 loss to SoHi in last season's state semifinals.
Brantley and the rest of the coaching staff, along with many players, watched Valdez nearly upset Kenai in Week 2 before eventually losing, 20-13.
"I think they're a more potent offense this year than they were last year," he said. "I imagine they've made a ton of improvements, especially playing in that conference as deep as it is this year."
The Stars, however, seem to be improving on a weekly basis as they shoot for their 27th consecutive victory.
"The situation that we're in now, if we achieve the goals we set for ourselves, the streak will take care of itself," Brantley said. "No one's going to remember who had a perfect season and bowed out in the first round.
"It's very important that we finish what we started."Nikiski, Kenai, Soldotna venture into Week 1 of playoffs
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