In one of the most exciting high school football games in recent memory, Kenai Central High School defeated archrival Soldotna 7-0 Saturday afternoon at Anchorage Football Stadium to claim the Alaska State Small Schools Championship.
It was the first state football championship for the Kardinals, and the second loss in three years in the small-schools final for the Stars.
With SoHi driving deep into Kenai territory with just 11 seconds left, it looked as if the Stars had a chance to even the score. However, Kardinal sophomore linebacker Dakota Craig led a pack of Kards to SoHi ballcarrier Derek Martin, who was unable to reach the sideline as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
"I just wanted to win, so I tackled him," was Craig's matter-of-fact description of his game-saving play.
The game's final play mirrored the entire game -- a tense, back-and-forth affair that featured few big plays on offense but plenty of overall excitement.
Kenai controlled the first half, racking up 200 yards of offense to just 120 for Soldotna. Much of Kenai's possession time was due to three clutch interceptions by safety T.J. Hancock.
Kenai coach Jim Beeson said defensive adjustments made in practice were the key to Kenai's ability to hold SoHi's powerful offense in check.
"One of the big things was moving T.J. to safety and having Corey on (SoHi receiver Ricky) Simpson," Beeson said. "We mixed it up a little, moved people around and the kids just made plays."
As solid as Kenai's defense was in the first half, it was an offensive adjustment that provided the eventual margin of victory.
With 3:25 left in the second quarter, Soldotna called a timeout. Coming out of the timeout, Kenai lined up in "trips" formation, sending three wide receivers to the right of junior quarterback Cole Chappell. Chappell fired a quick pass to senior tight end Drew Cramer, who took advantage of several key blocks, sprinting 79 yards to the end zone.
Soldotna players sit on the bench after their 7-0 loss to Kenai in the ASAA state small-school championship football game in Anchorage, Alaska, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2002.
AP Photo/Al Grillo
It was a formation SoHi didn't see two weeks ago, when the Stars thrashed Kenai 28-0 in Soldotna. SoHi coach Sarge Truesdell admitted his squad was caught off-guard by the new wrinkle in Kenai's offense.
"We were kind of caught on that touchdown," Truesdell said following the game. "Those things happen."
Cramer's touchdown was made possible by the efforts of Kenai tailback Cory Janson, who sprinted the length of the field to make a key block to spring the tight end. Kenai's star tailback was held to just 22 yards on 16 carries, but his speed made the difference in getting Cramer into the end zone.
"I don't even know where he came from," said Cramer after the game.
"He's just faster than you are," said an eavesdropping Beeson, to which Cramer could only laugh in agreement.
The touchdown stood up despite a furious second-half comeback by the Stars, who piled up 229 yards in the second half, moving the ball inside the Kenai 10-yard line on four separate occasions. However, each time SoHi threatened, Kenai was able to come up with an answer.
"Kind of a bend but don't break," was how Beeson characterized the Kardinals' second-half effort.
Soldotna controlled the entire half, led by junior running back Dan Ghormley's several second-effort carries through the Kenai line. Ghormley finished the game with 125 rushing yards, all coming in the second half.
Ghormley was able to chalk up the yards behind the bruising blocks of his linemen. However, in the end he wasn't able to outrun Kenai's speedy defensive backs, led by Hancock and Janson.
Soldotna's all-Northern Lights Conference lineman Caleb Sizemore said the difference may have been Kenai's never-quit attitude.
"They just outworked us," Sizemore said. "They wanted it more."
Kenai's Cole Chappell, right, runs through the Soldotna defense during their ASAA state small-school championship game Saturday, Oct. 12, 2002, in Anchorage, Alaska. Kenai won 7-0.
AP Photo/Al Grillo
Beeson said the game proved that the state's football playoff system was paying dividends for fans and players alike.
"The small-schools thing has really paid off," Beeson said. "Its purpose has been served."
Indeed, the game lived up to its billing as a true championship; a hard-fought, thrilling contest pitting two bitter rivals in a game decided on the final play. And was it made more sweet by the fact that Kenai hadn't beaten SoHi in six years? Maybe a little.
"It feels real good. Hopefully it's the start of a new trend," Beeson said, unable to keep a wide grin from his face. "It sure is a good time to get a win against Soldotna."
KARDINALS 7, STARS 0
Soldotna 0 0 0 0 --0
Kenai 0 7 0 0 --7
Ken -- Cramer 79 pass from Chappell (Reynolds kick), 3:10.
First downs 14 11
Rushes-yards 43-248 34-126
Passing yards 101 95
Return yards 78 118
Passes 6-19-4 4-8-2
Punts 2-36.5 4-39.8
Fumbles-lost 2-1 1-1
Penalties-yards 7-40 3-25
Rushing -- Soldotna: Ghormley 13-125, Martin 3-44, Laurion 10-33, N. Gardner 6-24, E. Simpson 8-16, Metteer 2-4, R. Simpson 1-2. Kenai: Craig 11-70, Chappell 7-34, Janson 16-22.
Passing -- Soldotna: E. Simpson 6-19-4-101. Kenai: Chappell 4-8-2-95.
Receiving -- Soldotna: Martin 3-62, R. Simpson 2-30, Ghormley 1-9. Kenai: Janson 2-10, Cramer 1-79, Reemtsma 1-6.
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