Since the inception of the small-schools state football championship in 2000, either Nikiski or Kenai Central has come away with the crown.
The Bulldogs took the first two titles and the Kardinals have won the last three. One of those teams will get a shot at another state title as Nikiski and Kenai meet Saturday at 2 p.m. at Ed Hollier Field in Kenai for a state semifinal game.
The other state semifinal pits the Homer Mariners, who are making their first postseason appearance, against Eielson High School. That game is scheduled to kick off at 1 p.m. at Buck Nystrom Field on Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks.
“We’re always excited to be able to play another football game. There’s always some hurdles you have to overcome with the program Kenai has, but I think we look forward to the opportunity to play them,” said Nikiski coach Ned Clooten, now in his third year as head coach of the Bulldogs.
The Northern Lights Conference champion Kardinals, 6-2 overall and 4-0 in the NLC, are in the small-schools playoffs for the sixth straight season. The Bulldogs, 5-3 overall and 5-1 to finish second in the Great Land Conference, missed the playoffs last season and were eliminated by Kenai in the semifinals of the 2003 season.
Nikiski and Kenai had three common opponents this season, Seward, Soldotna and Homer. The Kardinals won all three of those games while Nikiski beat Seward but lost to Homer and Soldotna.
The teams last met last year during the regular season in a game won handily by Kenai. The teams scrimmaged during the preseason this year, and both coaching staffs are familiar with the tendencies of their opponents.
“They know what we’re going to do, we know what they’re going to do. It’s going to come down to execution. Maybe there will be a little wrinkle or two, but who wins the line of scrimmage battles on a consistent basis is who’s going to win the football game,” said Kenai head coach Jim Beeson.
Kenai’s offensive and defensive lines have been a strength for the Kardinals all season.
“All season long they’ve done a good job. That’s going to be a huge component for us,” Beeson said.
Clooten said a couple of late-season additions would help Nikiski in the trenches, and said his Bulldogs would “have to play an almost mistake-free football game.”
“I think we definitely need to control the clock,” Clooten said. “We need to keep their offense off the field. We need to execute. We can’t have any fumbles, and we need to do what we’re supposed to do, as a team, on every play.”
Clooten said his team has improved significantly during the course of the season.
“I think we’re a completely different team now than even when we played Soldotna (Sept. 9),” Clooten said.
Beeson also said his team has improved during the season and noted that early season games against Juneau-Douglas and Palmer favorites in the big-schools playoffs helped prepare the Kardinals for this part of the season.
“It’s done what we intended it to do prepare us for bigger football games,” Beeson said.
In addition to controlling the line of scrimmage, controlling the ball and scoring points, Beeson said the Kardinals needed to prevent the Bulldogs from coming up with any big plays.
“We need to make them drive the length of the field against us to try to beat us,” Beeson said. “If we can do that, we’re going to be successful.”
Homer at Eielson
Despite dropping their final game of the regular season, the Mariners are in the playoffs for the first time in school history.
The Mariners went 2-2 in NLC play and are 4-4 overall.
“It was a little disappointing to end the regular season that way, but we’re going to put it in the past,” Homer quarterback Canyon McKinstry told the Homer News. “We’re the first team ever from Homer to make the playoffs, and if we play our game, we’ll be fine. We’re all 0-0 right now.”
The Ravens, 8-0 overall and 6-0 to win the Great Land Conference, have hosted a first-round playoff game since joining the GLC in 2003 and made the championship game that season, losing the Kenai.
This year, the Ravens are led by quarterback Chance Renfro and running back Nick Rogers, who amassed more than 1,100 yards rushing this season.
Homer head coach Kelly Blake said the Mariners were too conservative in their regular season finale and that his team needed to get back to playing its own game to be successful in the playoffs.
“We have to get back to that playing to win and not playing not to lose,” Blake said.
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