While Nikiski and Seward met on the common ground of Anchorage Football Stadium Saturday to determine the small-schools state champion, the roads each team followed to get there couldn't have been different.
For the Bulldogs, who successfully defended their championship with a 35-13 win, anything less than the first-place trophy would have been a disappointment.
For the Seahawks, just getting to the playoffs was a surprise to just about everyone on the team, considering what coach Dan Bohrnsen had to work with when practice started July 31.
"It's really exciting, and it's a huge relief," Nikiski coach Scott Anderson said of Saturday's victory. "There were a lot of expectations this year that we would come in and do what we did. I'm just glad it worked out the way we hoped it would."
Nikiski opened the season with a senior-laden roster, returning just about every player from the team that defeated Soldotna for the inaugural small-schools championship in 2000. With their major pieces back in place -- Josh Reilly at quarterback, Steve Calderwood running the ball and David Holloway catching passes to go along with a big, physical offensive line -- the Bulldogs were expected to accomplish big things when the season started.
The team delivered on expectations. Calderwood gained 1,272 yards this season and found the end zone 26 times, including Saturday's 149-yard, four-touchdown effort, while Holloway caught 42 passes this season for 1,110 yards and scored 17 touchdowns.
Reilly didn't disappoint, either, with 1,509 passing yards, 20 touchdown throws and 10 interceptions.
"We all thought we were going to be here," Reilly said. "We tried not to get overconfident, just come out and play hard. We all had this vision of coming (to the championship) to play our last game."
The Seahawks had no such vision. In fact, Bohrnsen wasn't sure exactly what he had until the second week of the season -- at which point he started getting a feeling that he might have something special.
"When we lost to Skyview by one point, I realized at that point that these kids wanted it bad," Bohrnsen said. "They showed a lot of heart, and that's carried us more than athletic ability. One thing you can never count out is heart."
Seward pulled off a win over Houston to qualify for the playoffs -- one that some chalked up to a poor game by the Hawks -- then beat Soldotna to advance to the championship, again notching a victory that might have been considered a fluke.
But Seward proved it belonged in the title game with its effort Saturday.
"No way did we think we would be here," Seward's Darian Draper said following the game. "We didn't think we had the team that would take us to the state championship. But this turned out to be our best team. We've had great players in the past, but this is our best team."
While Seward was succeeding on guts, Nikiski was sweating the small stuff and doing it with execution.
"There was no doubt in the kids' minds that this was where we were going to be," Anderson said. "Our job was to keep the kids motivated to be their best every game."
Nikiski -- Nigel Penhale, Chris Pepper
Seward -- Jonah Swiderski, Ben Clock
Academic Award -- Nikiski
Sportsmanship Award -- Seward
HEAD:Preseason hopes for Nikiski, Seward varied
BYLINE1:By WILL MORROW
The Nikiski football team proved it was the 2001 small-schools state champion.
The Seward High School football team proved it belonged in the 2001 small-schools championship game.
The Bulldogs defeated the Seahawks 35-13 Saturday on the turf at Anchorage Football Stadium to defend their small-schools title. It was a game both teams will look back on with pride.
"Damn proud," said Seward's Darian Draper of how he felt about the Seahawks performance. "We knew coming into this game that we weren't going to give up. We had a lot more than a lot of people gave us credit for."
"We didn't expect anything less from Seward," said Nikiski coach Scott Anderson. "They were the best small-schools team we played this year. They put some pressure on us, especially through the first quarter and into the second. They're well-coached and they put together a great game plan."
The Bulldogs started the game with their typical fast-strike attack. After forcing Seward to punt away its first possession of the game, the Bulldogs took just three plays to cover 49 yards to put the first points of the game on the board.
Ryan Crumpacker and Steve Calderwood each carried the ball for modest gains, and quarterback Josh Reilly capped the drive on third-and-two with a 41-yard touchdown pass to David Holloway.
Chuck Seater added the extra point for a 7-0 Nikiski lead with 6:05 left in the quarter.
Seward got the ball back for one play, a pass intercepted by Jason Gerke and returned for 15 yards to the Seward 42-yard line.
The Bulldogs needed just three more plays to find the end zone. After an incomplete pass by Reilly and a 1-yard gain by Calderwood, the two connected on third down for a 41-yard touchdown pass with 4:47 left in the quarter.
To Seward's credit, the Seahawks refused to fold, blocking the extra-point attempt and the sustaining a drive through the end of the quarter.
"There were a couple of deep passes that hurt us," Draper said. "We knew all week that our defensive backs were going to get burnt once, and we told them if it happens, forget about it."
Seward's defense got the ball back with an interception and 19-yard return by Jonah Swiderski to the Seahawks' 45.
Draper moved the Seahawks into Nikiski territory with a 9-yard run and Swiderski broke off a 23-yard run that would have been even bigger but for a clipping call against the Seahawks.
The run still gave the Seahawks a first down at the Nikiski 33-yard line, and after a pass interference call against the Bulldogs kept the drive alive, Seward quarterback Garrett Boyle found Zach Rininger with a little swing pass that Rininger took 17 yards for the touchdown 7:35 left in the half, dragging two Nikiski defenders across the goal line with him.
Keith Wolfe added the extra point to pull the Seahawks to within a touchdown.
"Usually I can relax by the second quarter, but this game, I was nervous," Reilly said. "I could never relax -- this game felt so close."
Anderson said the Bulldogs earned their championship by driving for a touchdown before halftime.
"Our kids responded. They showed the mark of champions by going right down the field to get another one," Anderson said.
The Bulldogs started the drive on their own 16-yard line, using 15 plays and 5:56 off the clock to find the end zone, converting on a fourth-and-six with a 16-yard pass from Reilly to Calderwood and then scoring on a third-and-two with a 19-yard run by Calderwood.
Reilly found Holloway with a pass for the two-point conversion, giving the Bulldogs a 21-7 lead as they went to the locker room at half.
Nikiski opened the second half with a quick, six-play, 80-yard scoring drive. Zach Hall juggled a pass before hauling it in for 19 yards and a first down on Seward's 39-yard line, and Calderwood covered the rest of the distance in one play, dancing around the left side and dashing up the sideline for the score.
Calderwood scored one more touchdown to open the fourth quarter on a one-yard plunge up the middle.
"The line got it done," Calderwood said.
Seward got one more touchdown when Eric Johnson returned an interception 49 yards with 1:28 left in the game.
"We had fun," said Seward coach Dan Bohrnsen. "We got to play a team like Nikiski, and we scored a couple of touchdowns.
"The kids didn't give up. They kept fighting every down."
BULLDOGS 35, SEAHAWKS 13
Nikiski 13 8 7 7 -- 35
Seward 0 7 0 6 --13
Nik -- Holloway 41 pass from Reilly (Seater kick), 6:05
Nik -- Calderwood 41 pass from Reilly (kick blocked), 4:57
Sew -- Rininger 17 pass from Boyle (Wolfe kick), 7:35
Nik -- Calderwood 19 run (Holloway pass from Reilly), 1:39
Nik -- Calderwood 39 run (Seater kick), 9:47
Nik -- Calderwood 1 run (Seater kick), 8:38
Sew -- E. Johnson 49 interception return (run failed), 1:28
First downs 14 9
Rushes-yards 43-250 27-57
Passing yards 163 84
Return yards 56 68
Passing 8-15-2 11-17-4
Punts-avg 2-25.0 5-28.8
Fumbles-lost 1-0 0-0
Penalties-yards 7-60 7-45
Rushing -- Nikiski: Calderwood 20-149, Crumpacker 12-50, Reilly 7-30, Alexander 2-18, Mellberg 1-2, Allen 1-1. Seward: Swiderski 3-30, Draper 6-23, Rininger 6-13, Gilmore 1-1, Boyle 1-(-10).
Passing -- Nikiski: Reilly 8-14-1--163, Brigham 0-1-1--0. Seward: Boyle 11-17-4--84.
Receiving -- Nikiski: Holloway 5-87, Calderwood 2-57, Hall 1-19. Seward: Swiderski 5-25, Rininger 3-35, Draper 2-24, Svabik 1-0.
Missed field goals -- Nikiski: Seater.
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