The Nikiski High School football team made some history Saturday in the Alaska School Activities Association Small-Schools State Championship played at Anchorage Football Stadium.
The Bulldogs' 20-14 win over the Soldotna Stars broke new ground for Nikiski in a number of categories. Not only do the Bulldogs finish the season with a perfect 9-0 record, they lay claim to the inaugural small-schools title and, in the process, notch a win over the only peninsula team they had not previously beaten.
"We know it," said Nikiski lineman Seth Tauriainen of the whole experience, "but I don't know if we realize what it means yet."
Nikiski's David Holloway made a little bit of history himself in Saturday's game. With his five catches for 89 yards, his season totals swell to 45 catches for 1,002 yards in nine games (seven regular-season games and two playoff contests), eclipsing the total-yardage record of 965 yards set by Soldotna's Troy Karsten on 51 catches in eight regular-season games in 1996.
Holloway's 45 catches also tie him for a team record for receptions, a mark James Arness set in nine games (eight regular-season games and the Great Land Conference Championship) in 1997.
But neither the Bulldogs nor the Stars dwelled too much on history this season, other than to learn from past mistakes. Instead, their focus was on the present.
Nikiski High School fans erupt in celebration as the clock ticks off the final seconds Saturday at Anchorage Football Stadium. The Bulldogs left the field with their first football state championship.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
And both the Stars and the Bulldogs proved that doing things the right way -- the "hard way," if you were wearing Columbia Blue on Saturday -- does produce championship results.
"We talk about team, family and sticking together," said Soldotna coach Rob Dimick. "It's about camaraderie. It's family. It's taking care of each other.
"A lot of teams we've beaten this season, on paper, they're better, but they're lacking in something. I think it's a belief in yourself."
Four years ago, the Bulldogs stuck their necks out to form the Great Land Conference -- a move that has developed just the kind of self-confidence to which Dimick was referring.
"We made that decision four years ago to move away from the big schools, and that's been a real confidence builder," said Nikiski coach Scott Anderson in an interview prior to the game. "Kids have to learn how to win. When kids learn how to come out of adversity with a win, then you can start building a program.
"The teams we played four or five years ago, we'd be lucky to be in the game at the half. We're beating those teams this year, and that says a lot about how we've developed."
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
Anderson spread the credit for Nikiski's progress around.
"A lot of credit goes to the head coach, but our assistant coaching staff has to be the best in the state," Anderson said. "We've got coaches with tons of experience that the kids look up to and respect.
"When you've got great coaches, you let them coach. Our coaching staff is more of a democracy where we're all working together, rather than one guy doing all the work."
Both programs have gone about their season with class befitting champions. When Sitka visited Nikiski in the second week of the season, the Bulldogs hosted the Wolves for a pregame barbecue. The team, knowing their coach was sacrificing an evening at home on his wedding anniversary to be with them, set aside a table for two so Anderson could enjoy a dinner with his wife, Sari.
"Those are good kids," Sari said at the time.
The Bulldogs went out and beat the Wolves the next day, and despite the physical nature of the game, Anderson was impressed with the clean, sportsmanlike manner in which it was played.
"It just goes to show that you can go out and play good, hard-nosed football and not be a jerk," Anderson said after the Sitka game.
The Stars subscribe to the same philosophy.
"We could flip-flop our coaching staffs, because we believe in the same things," Dimick said. "We've had compliments every place we've been about their class and sportsmanship."
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