The Alaska School Activities Association Small-Schools Football Championship has gone to the 'Dawgs.
Nikiski High School defeated Soldotna 20-14 Saturday at Anchorage Football Stadium, winning the inaugural small-schools title to complete a perfect 9-0 season.
"I'm proud of these kids," said Soldotna coach Rob Dimick. "They gave it everything they had. Their tanks are empty.
"It hurts a lot more when the tank is empty, but that's the way it should be. You never want to walk off the field thinking you could have done a little more."
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Nikiski head coach Scott Anderson talks to players in their locker room during halftime.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
The Stars defense played tough against Nikiski's blitzkrieg attack, but the Bulldogs still managed to put up some big numbers. Nikiski picked up 223 yards on the ground and another 119 through the air, and a few quick strikes brought the Stars back down to earth every time Soldotna got some momentum.
"I did everything I could, and then some -- everyone did," said Soldotna's Pat Rose of the Stars' effort.
Nikiski scored what proved to be the game-winning touchdown with 2:47 left in the third quarter. The drive took just 2 minutes, 11 seconds, and the Bulldogs covered the 68 yards in seven plays -- the biggest a 29-yard run by Steven Calderwood.
Josh Reilly capped the drive with his second touchdown of the afternoon, a 5-yard quarterback-keeper to give the Bulldogs their 20-14 lead.
Players and referees wait for the coin to land at the start of the game. Nikiski called heads, and heads it was. Nikiski elected to receive.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"Fourteen to 20 is nothing to be ashamed of," Dimick said. "It would have been nice if it had been flip-flopped."
The Bulldogs, as has been their habit all season, put the first tally on the board with 30 seconds left in the first quarter.
Nikiski started the possession after taking over on downs on their own 32-yard line with 1:31 left in the quarter.
The Bulldogs covered those 68 yards in a hurry. Steven Calderwood got 25 yards on first down, hauling in a Reilly pass with a diving, over-the-shoulder catch along the left sideline.
Calderwood and Ryan Crumpacker each carried the ball once for modest gains up the middle, and Reilly finished off the drive with a 31-yard scamper up the right side.
"He makes a decision," said Nikiski coach Scott Anderson, explaining the Bulldogs' waggle play in which Reilly rolls out of the pocket on a bootleg. "If the run is there, it's run first."
Reilly saw daylight and made a run for it.
Soldotna cheerleaders watch as awards are handed out following Saturday's game.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"They had (Nikiski receiver David) Holloway covered, but the lane was there," Reilly said.
Chuck Seater's extra point gave the Bulldogs a 7-0 lead.
Soldotna found the end zone just before the half, though. Shaun Williams returned a Nikiski punt 17 yards to set the Stars up with first-and-10 on the Nikiski 27, and Soldotna proceeded to pound the ball with its brutally efficient rushing game.
Quarterback Pat Rose picked up 11 yards on a third-and-12 play, and Sean Kelley got the first down -- by the nose of the ball -- to give the Stars a fresh set of downs on the Nikiski 18.
Cason Simpson carried the ball twice, picking up 6 yards on each carry, and on first-and-goal from the Nikiski 6, Kelley took the handoff and won the sprint around the right end of the Soldotna line to the pylon for six points, cutting Nikiski's lead to one.
The Bulldogs needed just 2:37 to recapture the game's momentum. After a holding call and a sack put the Bulldogs in a third-and-17 situation, Reilly opted to air it out on the waggle. He found Holloway with the deep pass, and after the receiver out-jumped the Soldotna defensive back to haul in the pass, he slipped out of an ankle tackle and finished off the 52-yard play in the end zone.
"We just ran deep and Josh laid it up for a jump ball," Holloway said. "I knew it wasn't going over my head, but I knew I had to come back to it and meet it at the highest point (of my jump)."
"I didn't think he was going to get there," Anderson said of the catch, "then all of the sudden, he's three feet in the air ..."
The Stars came out of the locker room after the half with a bruising drive to tie the ballgame. Soldotna controlled the ball for the first seven minutes of the third quarter -- save for one Nikiski play on which the Stars forced and recovered a fumble -- to score with 4:58 on the clock.
The Stars started the half with the ball on their own 34, and drove to the Nikiski 41 in eight plays. On a third-and-nine, the Stars looked to stretch the Nikiski defense and Rose threw the ball deep, but Nikiski's Reilly was there to pick the pass off.
Nikiski kept the ball for just one play, though, as Kelley forced a fumble and Simpson pounced on the ball. From there, the Stars took eight plays to cover 41 yards -- all of them on the ground -- for the score.
Rose capped the drive with his 3-yard keeper up the middle, and Simpson willed himself across the goal line for the two-point conversion to tie the score.
"They always come back hard," said Anderson. "Everything SoHi got today, they had to earn. SoHi is always going to come out and get after you."
That tie did not stand for long as the Bulldogs scored the game winner on their next possession. The Stars had a late fourth-quarter drive stalled because of a fumble, and ran out of time to mount one more charge.
"We ran out of time," Dimick said. "If Nikiski had been in that situation, they probably could have scored in a minute.
"I said before that it would come down to mistakes. We made a few at inopportune times. We fumbled the football when we had time to run. We're not a team to come out with two minutes and hit a big strike for a touchdown."
NIKISKI 20, SOLDOTNA 14
Nikiski 7 7 6 0 -- 20
Soldotna 0 6 8 0 -- 14
Nik -- Reilly 31 run (Seater kick), 0:30
Sol -- Kelley 6 run (kick failed), 3:43
Nik -- Holloway 52 pass from Reilly (Seater kick), 1:06
Sol -- Rose 3 run (C. Simpson run), 4: 58
Nik -- Reilly 5 run (kick blocked), 2:47
First downs 18 14
Rushes-yards 48-223 46-116
Passing yards 119 22
Return yards 11 34
Passing 7-12-2 3-11-2
Punts-avg 3-27.3 4-29.5
Fumbles-lost 3-2 4-2
Penalties-yards 9-74 6-50
Rushing -- Nikiski: Calderwood 20-130, Reilly 18-50, Crumpacker 10-43. Soldotna: C. Simpson 18-81, Kelley 15-41, DeRaeve 2-7, Metteer 1-0, Rose 7-(-3), Williams 3-(-10).
Passing -- Nikiski: Reilly 7-12-2--119. Soldotna: Rose 3-10-1-22, Williams 0-1-1-0.
Receiving -- Nikiski: Holloway 5-89, Calderwood 2-30. Soldotna: Kelley 1-16, Gleason 1-2, Williams 1-4.
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