Nikiski High School football coach Scott Anderson said that making the state small-schools playoffs this year feels a lot like it did a season ago.
And well it should.
For starters, the Bulldogs will be hosting the Kenai Central Kardinals in Saturday's noon semifinal, a rematch of last season's first-round game.
The Bulldogs had established themselves as the team to beat last season, much as they have this season. Nikiski enters the playoffs as the Great Land Conference champion with a 7-1 overall record, the lone loss coming in the season opener against big-schools power Chugiak.
Kenai, meanwhile, is coming off a tough loss to Soldotna that bumped the Kardinals (7-1 overall) to the No. 2 spot in the Northern Lights Conference, much the same scenario that set up the Kardinals-Bulldogs matchup last season.
Of course, Anderson was making reference to the thrills that playoff football brings, rather than the particulars of the situation.
"It's the same emotions and excitement going around," Anderson said. "This is what we spend the season getting ready for and anticipating. The kids have set a lot of personal goals for themselves. They're focused on being the best they can be. They got things they're shooting for."
Kenai coach Jim Beeson described the Kardinals goal for Saturday's game in one word: Respond.
"Obviously, Nikiski's a very good football team," Beeson said. "All week, we've kinda had that empty feeling in our stomach. Last week was a tale of two games. We didn't feel like we played the first half like we were capable.
"We just need to respond, that's the word on our goal cards. We've had a couple good days of practice. We'll go out and play hard."
On offense, Beeson said he plans to be running the ball as much as possible, putting it in the capable hands of running back Cory Janson.
Janson finished the regular season with 1,233 yards rushing on 191 attempts in eight games, an average of 6.5 yards per carry. Janson has scored 19 touchdowns, rushing for 17 of them.
"They're going to try to take Cory out of the game," Beeson said. "We're going to have to run the football."
On defense, Nikiski has been tough against the run, allowing 91.8 yards per game this season. The Bulldogs line has been outstanding, while linebackers Neil Fucci and Josh Reilly have been stalwarts for the Nikiski defense.
Add David Holloway in the Nikiski secondary and it's hard to find a chink in the Bulldogs armor.
Nikiski's wing-T offense has just as many dimensions. Steve Calderwood has rushed for 1,025 yards in eight games this season, averaging 7.3 yards per carry. Calderwood has 20 touchdowns to his credit this season, including 17 rushing scores.
Then there's Reilly at quarterback and Nikiski's waggle play, a rollout designed to give the quarterback the option to throw or run. Holloway has been an effective receiver this season, catching 35 passes for 862 yards and 11 receiving touchdowns.
"In scouting them over the past three years, we're seeing the same names, but you really notice how much better they've gotten," Beeson said. "They've gone from seven or eight basic plays to 25 or 30. It's the same basic kids, and they've been able to add some things and get better at it."
Anderson said the Nikiski offense is pretty simple.
"It may look complex, but really it's not," Anderson said. "We're running the same plays out of different formations. The whole point of the offense is deception, hiding the football. We keep things simple and focus on execution."
The Bulldogs are quick to attribute the offense's success to their play along the line.
"The linemen know the backs are going to give them credit, and the backs know they're not going to get any yards unless those guys open the holes," Anderson said. "It's a very selfless group of kids. They could care less whether they're going to carry the ball. You look at kids like Nigel Penhale, who's not very big, but he's all heart, and Gabe Lavigueur. That's the key to what we do offensively."
Anderson said that Tim Johnson, a volunteer assistant coach, has done a phenomenal job with the Bulldogs linemen.
Beeson said every Nikiski game this season has had a common thread -- the big play, whether it comes on offense, defense or special teams. While stopping the entire Nikiski attack is a daunting task, the Kardinals will start by trying to take away the big play.
"In every game they've played, they've come up with big play after big play," Beeson said. "We need to limit the big plays."
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