In order to hold on to their small-schools state championship, Kenai Central will have to hold on to the football Saturday at Anchorage Football Stadium.
The Kardinals (8-1) will face Eielson (8-1) at 3:30 p.m. in the small-schools state championship game.
Many on the central peninsula were looking forward to a championship game rematch between Soldotna and Kenai. The Kardinals defeated the Stars 7-0 in last year's championship game and 14-7 in the last game of this year's regular season.
But while Kenai did its part by taking apart Nikiski in the semifinals, the Ravens canceled the reunion by blocking a Soldotna extra point in the final minutes of a 21-20 semifinal victory.
Although the blocked extra point was the final nail in the coffin, the biggest reason the Stars are sitting home this week is fumbles.
Soldotna fumbled the ball six times against the Ravens, losing possession three times.
"We were picking up huge chunks of yards on offense, and then we'd fumble," Soldotna coach Sarge Truesdell said. "I consider Kenai's offense more high-powered than ours, so they should be able to run the ball."
If they don't fumble, that is.
"They'd bend, but once they need to get tough, when Soldotna hit our 20, they'd turn it up another notch," Eielson coach David DeVaughn said of his defense. "Hopefully, the defense learned how to play with that intensity, and they can stay with it the entire game."
Kenai coach Jim Beeson said his team has been able to move the ball on the ground against every team it has faced this season, except for West.
But he also knows that moving the ball well on the ground against an opportunistic defense like Eielson's doesn't always equate to points and victories.
"It's all about getting in the end zone," Beeson said. "Soldotna was able to move the ball up and down the field on us last year in the state championship game, but that didn't matter because they didn't score any points."
Kenai, which lost the ball on fumbles more than once in a game just once this season, plans to entrust the ball most often to junior running back Dakota Craig, who burned Nikiski for 333 yards on 28 carries last week.
Craig has fumbled the ball just once this season, but he's quick to note that it takes more than him to make Kenai's offense go.
"Everybody on the field for us is important," Craig said. "Last year, it wasn't just Cory (Janson) out there. This year, it's not just me out there. Everybody has to do their job."
Junior center and outside linebacker Michael Scheffert said having a running back like Craig to block for makes the line's job a lot more fulfilling.
"Dakota's only fumbled something like twice playing varsity football for three years, so the offensive line loves him getting the ball," Scheffert said. "It's exciting to make your block because you know that on any given play, he could break it."
While the Kenai offense must avoid fumbles and other drive-killing mistakes, the Kenai defense must keep Eielson from big plays.
"They've lived off of big plays all year," Beeson said.
Added Kenai senior quarterback and defensive back Cole Chappell: "That's what it all comes down to. Either it's going to be us stopping the big plays, or Eielson making the big plays."
Eielson's two big playmakers are junior quarterback Evan Skinner and senior utility player Chad Odom.
Skinner, who is 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, passed for 78 yards and rushed for 45 yards against Soldotna.
"Their quarterback is big, strong and pretty mobile," said Kenai senior inside linebacker Geordon Main. "We need to keep him from getting outside by himself."
Skinner has plenty of weapons in his arsenal. Against Soldotna, the Ravens had two players with over 50 yards rushing and two more with over 20 yards receiving.
The Kardinals defense stopped a similarly potent Lathrop offense by putting pressure on the quarterback.
"We had a specially designed defense that we used against Lathrop, and we plan on doing that again against Eielson," senior defensive end Justin Lee said. "In the Lathrop game, I had a bunch of sacks, and it was the same thing for the other defensive end."
Beeson joked early in the season that a tough nonconference schedule, which included games Kenai ended up winning against big-schools semifinalists Lathrop and Colony, must have meant athletic director Tim Delaney was trying to get him fired.
But as the Kardinals roll into Saturday's final, he's happy to have had the experience.
"It's easy to say after we got through those games 2-1 without getting people hurt, but those games really helped us," Beeson said.
"We've been behind and we've been in close situations, so we know how to respond if we have to Saturday."
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