The proverbial fat lady had to hold off her song until at least the second half, as Nikiski's football team allowed Kenai Central a glimmer of hope well into the third quarter before cuing up the music.
In the end, the Bulldogs handed the Kardinals a handy trouncing to advance to the small-schools state championship, but the 41-0 shutout score only partially tells the tale.
"We knew we were going to have to play competitively," said Kenai coach Jim Beeson. "They're a good team, but not 41-0. We had some success, but we kept shooting ourselves in the foot."
Beeson was referring to the Kardinals' inability to capitalize on key Bulldog turnovers and Kenai's failure to convert plays inside Nikiski territory.
"We came inside the 30," Beeson said, "and couldn't get it done."
The game began on somewhat of an even plain, with both teams going through their normal routines -- Kenai pounding the ball inside for hard ground yardage with Cory Janson, the Northern Lights Conference's leading rusher, and Nikiski aiming for the end zone.
On the first play of Nikiski's second possession, with 6:59 left in the first quarter, seniors Josh Reilly and David Holloway connected for an 85-yard airstrike that sailed high into the sky and gave Nikiski six points. The play was aided by a Kenai defender who lost his feet and fell down on coverage.
Nikiski coach Scott Anderson said he was pleased with the outcome of the play in spite of the scare it gave him.
Nikiski's Kyle Alexander and Steve Calderwood celebrate Calderwood's fourth quarter touchdown Saturday.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
"I told him (Reilly) it was a duck play," Anderson said. "But Dave is just that kind of player. He waited on the ball."
A Chuck Seater extra-point kick gave Nikiski a seven-point lead that would uncharacteristically remain intact through the quarter.
Nikiski returned to its usual self with a flurry of touchdowns in the second quarter. Three different players scored -- two within a time span of just more than a minute.
After recovering a Janson fumble, Nikiski advanced the ball 35 yards on six plays. Then Steve Calderwood carried the ball 10 yards into the end zone with 10:17 left in the first half. Seater's kick make the score 14-0.
On the following kickoff, Kenai players bobbled the ball and it fell into the hands of a Nikiski player, returning possession to the Bulldogs. Two plays later, at 9:36, Reilly hit Geoff Sanger for a 35-yard touchdown pass. Again, Seater's extra-point attempt cleared the uprights, running Nikiski's lead to 21-0.
Halfway through the quarter, Reilly ended a 77-yard drive with a 4-yard scamper around the right side of the defense and over the goal line. Including, the Seater point after, the seven points put Nikiski 28 ahead of the scoreless Kardinals at halftime.
Opportunities abounded for Kenai in the third quarter, but they could not make the most of the chances. T.J. Hancock intercepted a Reilly pass early in the quarter, but the Kardinals were only able to convert one first down from the possession before punting the ball away.
Kenai received another gift when a punt, late in the third, bounced off of a Nikiski player's helmet and rolled into the path of Kenai's punt coverage unit. Again, the Kardinals were unable to turn their fortune into points.
Meanwhile, Nikiski saw Reilly and Holloway connect for a second time, at 4:53 left in the third quarter, with a screen pass dumped over the middle. Holloway turned on the jets, leaving defenders in his wind as he steamed to another touchdown. Seater added the extra point, and the quarter closed with Nikiski soundly ahead by 35 points.
Kenai's Cory Janson (44) and Bobby Merchant zig as Nikiski's Steve Calderwood zags during the third quarter Saturday.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
In the fourth quarter, Nikiski switched gears, lining Reilly up in the backfield with the game's lead rusher, Ryan Crumpacker, and letting Todd Brigham take the helm. The team racked up one last score at 7:34, on a Calderwood run from 34 yards out. Seater, however, was unable to add the crowning point to the touchdown, as a high snap forced holder Jason Gerke to attempt an incomplete pass on the extra-point play.
Kenai ground-gainers Janson, Wally Ward and Dakota Craig combined for 134 of the 147 rushing yards for the day, but were unable to get into the end zone.
Crumpacker, a senior, had a breakout game, leading all rushers with 142 yards on 17 attempts. Anderson said he had not gained much yardage all year and today's game gave him the chance.
"That was a little bit different for him," Anderson said. "We ran the trap and it opened up (the defense) for him."
Anderson said his team was confident about their chances in this game, but he tried to keep them from focusing on completing their sixth shutout.
"It's a point of pride for our defense," Anderson said. "But we weren't aiming for it. We didn't want them to take it as a letdown if they didn't get it."
He said his team is anxious to take on their next challengers.
"Seward has a talented team," he said.
Nikiski will play the Seahawks for the small-schools state championship Saturday at the Anchorage Football Stadium at 5 p.m.
BULLDOGS 41, KARDINALS 0
Nikiski 7 21 7 6 --14
Kenai 0 0 0 0 --0
Nik -- Holloway 85 pass from Reilly (Seater kick), 6:59
Nik -- Calderwood 10 run (Seater kick), 10:17
Nik -- Sanger 35 pass from Reilly (Seater kick), 9:36
Nik -- Reilly 3 run (Seater kick), 5:42
Nik -- Holloway 83 pass from Reilly (Seater Kick), 4:53
Nik -- Calderwood 34 run (Pass failed), 7:32
First downs 11 9
Rushes-yards 36-275 40-147
Passing yards 223 32
Return yards 18 76
Passing 4-40-1 3-13-1
Punts-avg 1-38 8-34.8
Fumbles-lost 3-2 3-2
Penalties-yards 9-80 10-85
Rushing -- Nikiski: Crumpacker 17-142, Calderwood 12-98, Reilly 4-31, Allen 2-4, Mellberg 1-0. Kenai: Jansen 24-85, Ward 10-38, Tunseth 5-13, Craig, 1-11.
Passing -- Nikiski: Reilly 4-10-1-223. Kenai: Tunseth 3-13-1-32.
Receiving -- Nikiski: Holloway 2-168, Sanger 1-35, Alexander 1-20. Kenai: Cramer 1-16, Madrid 2-16.
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