The Kenai Central High School football team has been approaching its fourth straight small-schools state championship game with a calm intensity this week.
“They are excited about the opportunity to go up there,” said Kenai head coach Jim Beeson as his squad prepares to face Eielson in the First National Bowl Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Anchorage Football Stadium.
“It’s calm emotion more than anything else,” Beeson said. “They’re excited about it, but our goal wasn’t just to get there, our goal is to win. These kids have won a state championship before.”
Indeed, the Kardinals will be vying for their fourth consecutive small-schools title, and many of the players on the roster are ready for the pressure of a postseason trip to Anchorage.
“There’s a ton of pressure, but it’s my senior year and the end of my career. I’m trying to milk everything I can out of it,” said Kenai’s Les Krusen.
“... This is a big week for all of us. We need to get pumped up for a state championship game, but not let it get in the way of our preparation. We’re not just going to Anchorage, we’re going to Anchorage to win a state football game.”
For a few players, there are some jitters.
“I was on the team last year, but I didn’t get to play,” said sophomore Bill Chimphalee. “By the time I get there, before the game, I’ll be nervous. I’m nervous now.”
Kenai enters the game as the Northern Lights Conference champion. After dropping the first two games of the season to large-school powers Juneau-Douglas and Palmer, the Kardinals haven’t lost since. Kenai finished the regular season with a 6-2 overall mark and a 4-0 conference record. Kenai advanced to the title game with a 55-6 victory over Nikiski in the semifinals last week.
Eielson, the Great Land Conference champion, will play Kenai in the championship game for the second time in three years. Kenai beat Eielson 46-0 for the 2003 title, but the Kardinals had a much tougher time in a regular-season game last year, posting a 26-19 win.
Eielson posted an 8-0 regular-season record with a 6-0 GLC mark. The Ravens needed a second-half comeback to beat Homer 21-20 last week to secure a trip to the state title game. Nick Rogers ran for 146 and three touchdowns to lead Eielson to the win.
“They’re going to line up and run the football at us,” Beeson said of the Ravens.
Beeson said that while Eielson has better team speed, the Kardinals are a physically bigger team. Beeson said his squad will have to prevent Eielson from making big plays, and added that special teams will play a crucial role in the game.
“If we can eliminate the big plays and make them go the length of the field against us, we feel like we have a pretty good chance,” Beeson said.
While the plot line may sound the same, Beeson said this year’s team is a different type of squad than his past title contenders.
“We have a lot of the same players, but different in personality makeup,” Beeson said. “It’s been a harder group to get to focus on the team aspect. The leadership element is the weakest, but maybe they’re stronger athletically.”
While opening the season against Juneau-Douglas and Palmer, in Beeson’s estimation, made the Kardinals a better team, the two losses also led to some doubt that maybe Kenai wasn’t as strong as they thought they were.
Beeson pointed to the week between the team’s win at Kodiak and a win at Skyview, the fourth and fifth games of the season, as a turning point for the Kardinals.
“That’s when we started playing better, winning football games and believing in each other,” Beeson said.
“Once we started our conference games, everything started clicking,” said Kenai senior Papapa Nicholas. “I think this is one of the most together teams I’ve been on.”
As usual, the Kardinals have put together a solid running game this season. Brandon Miles has been the primary beneficiary of a big offensive line, carrying the ball 210 times for 1,083 yards and 16 touchdowns during the regular season.
Kenai quarterback Tyler Chappell has been just as likely to call his own number in the running game, and the Kardinals have been able to complement their ground attack with a consistent passing game this year. Chappell completed 47 percent of his passes during the regular season for 603 yards and eight touchdowns, with Chimphalee hauling in 15 catches for 188 yards and three touchdowns.
An efficient passing game in Kenai’s semifinal win Chappell was 3-for-5 for 134 yards helped loosen up a defense focused on stopping the run, enabling Kenai backs to rush for 354 yards.
Just as the offensive and defensive lines played a big role against Nikiski, Beeson expects them to be the difference-makers against the Ravens.
“It’s going to come down to who does a better job controlling the line of scrimmage will win the football game,” Beeson said.
Should the Kardinals prevail, the seniors on the roster will have been on four championship teams in their career, an impressive feat.
“They’re pretty focused on what we want to accomplish. ... We want to send this group out winning a state championship all four years of their career,” Beeson said.
“It’s going to be a great thing if it happens. I’m motivated by it,” Nicholas said. “I’ve been joking about it since the first one. It’s been a dream.
“Now the dream is coming true. Hopefully, it happens.”
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