Finally, the Kardinals are allowing themselves to smile.
After the quiet intensity and stoic demeanor following their Northern Lights Conference title-clinching win over Soldotna in the final game of the regular season and their semifinal victory over Nikiski last week, the Kardinals cut loose following their 42-10 win over Eielson for the Alaska School Activities Association small-schools football championship. The Kardinals won the First National Bowl for their fourth straight state championship.
"I'm relieved," said Kenai's Papapa Nicholas. "There was a little bit of pressure going into the season, and we had high expectations. I feel relieved for a lot of different reasons."
While the game plan has been similar for each of the Kardinals' championships dominate the line of scrimmage and control the ball with a solid running game while bottling up the opponent's offense each title-winning squad has had a very different personality.
"This was the most difficult of all the years with everything involved," said Kenai head coach Jim Beeson. "What makes it more meaningful is, No. 1, we have great kids, and No. 2, it's been the most enjoyable coaching with this group I've been coaching with.
"... We're not just a team with individuals on the football field, we're also a team with our coaches."
The toughest part of the season, according to senior Isaia Faumui, was that the 15 seniors on the Kenai roster had to learn how to be leaders.
"It's been different. Us seniors had to step up and take on a leadership role," Faumui said, adding that he tried to follow the example set by previous senior classes.
Kenai's season started with back-to-back losses to Juneau-Douglas and Palmer. Coincidentally, the Crimson Bears and the Moose will meet next week for the big-schools title.
"At least we can say we're No. 3. Those are both quality football teams," said Kenai coach Jim Beeson. "The only teams we lost to are playing for the large-schools state championship. What it does for us is validates playing them.
"When we play them like that, it's not as much about winning and losing, but preparing for this time of year."
Beeson said sending this year's senior class out with four state titles was special.
"The amount of time and energy we put in with these kids, you spend that much time, and they almost become your own kids.
"To send them out this way, it makes this special and winning never gets old," Beeson said.
Les Krusen, a Kenai senior, said he thinks of each season as a separate experience.
"It's four championships back-to-back-to-back-to-back, but each team was very individual and very different. We each had our quirks," Krusen said. "It's four in a row, but it took four different teams to do it."
While Beeson said he wasn't ready to start thinking about next season, he did say the groundwork had been laid for a possible fifth state title.
"I think we left (the program) in pretty good shape," Nicholas said, adding these words for next year's team: "Bring it home."
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