When I attended Kenai Central High School, way back in the mid-1990s, the student population was roughly the same as it is today. Kenai was -- and is today --a midsize Alaska high school, larger than the more rural schools, smaller than the Anchorage, Matanuska-Susitna valleys and Fairbanks schools.
While I was at Kenai, the Kardinals football team went to the state playoffs three times, compiling a 1-3 record against East, Dimond and Service. Our victory, over Dimond in 1994, ranks up there with the biggest wins in the history of the program. That game, which was described at the time as looking like "the San Francisco 49ers against the Phoenix Cardinals practice squad," drew more than 1,000 fans to Ed Hollier Field and generated a level of excitement that is rarely seen at the high school level.
The next year, my senior year, our only conference loss came at the hands of the eventual state-champion Palmer Moose, in a close game at Palmer.
The season after I graduated, 1996, Kenai won its first-round playoff game against Lathrop, then nearly reached the final before losing a heartbreaker to Chugiak.
Why am I telling you all this? Because as it stands now, the only way Kenai Central (or Soldotna, Nikiski or Skyview for that matter) will ever get a chance to go to a state football championship game is if they buy a ticket.
That's because a few years back, the Alaska School Activities Association, the state's all-knowing athletic governing body, decided peninsula teams were simply not good enough to even compete with such football powerhouses as the West High Eagles -- who lost something like 20 straight games during the 90s.
The reasoning behind the large schools-small schools split was that the smaller teams (the peninsula schools, along with fledgling programs in places like Valdez and Sitka), needed to have something to play for. The argument was that since the Anchorage and Mat-Su schools were so big and fearsome, it was simply not realistic to expect a team with just 27 players on its roster to win a state championship.
In the first year of the new format, Nikiski High School rolled through the (small-schools) division en route to winning its first state (small-schools) football championship. Big deal.
That year, Nikiski was widely considered to be one of the best teams in the state, period. But that didn't matter, because they never got a chance to prove it in the playoffs. Instead, they rolled over Seward and got to take a nice, shiny ASAA trophy back to the North Road with them.
I mention that Nikiski team because it bears a lot of similarity to the 2003 version of the Kenai Kardinals.
Like the Bulldogs back then, Kenai featured a high-powered offense and iron defense. Like Nikiski, Kenai showed it could beat the Goliaths of the large-schools division, taking down both Colony and Lathrop. (Against the aforementioned West, however, Kenai fell, 16-7, proving beyond any doubt that West can, in fact, beat someone.)
And like Nikiski, the 2003 Kenai Kardinals got to take home a nice, shiny trophy last week after winning the state (small-schools) football championship. Big deal.
There's no doubt Kenai was among the best teams in the state of Alaska this year. The Kardinals won their final nine games, racking up nearly five times as many points as their opponents.
Kenai's Dakota Craig rushed for more than 1,700 yards while dishing out more than his share of bone-rattling hits from his defensive linebacker spot.
And what about the Kenai defense? Led by all-state performers Craig, Michael Scheffert and T.J. Hancock, the Kards were simply overpowering, holding the likes of Lathrop's Brock Graziadei --statistically the best quarterback in state football history -- to just 47 yards passing in Kenai's (upset) win.
East Anchorage won the state's large-schools division, beating Juneau in the championship game last weekend. After their win, the mighty T-Birds were instantly recognized as the true champions of Alaska football. Why not? After all, they're from Anchorage. Doesn't that make them automatically a step above the poor little small-schools teams?
I can't help but wonder, though, what would happen if there were a different system in place.
Is it possible that a playoff system could be devised that would allow all of Alaska's teams to have a shot to be No. 1? As it stands now, Kenai's state championship victory ranks them in a lot of people's minds -- right or wrong -- somewhere between a good small-schools team and an average large-schools team.
That's sad. Because in my opinion, Kenai had the best team in the state this year -- regardless of enrollment.
Then again, I thought we had the best team in the state in 1994, and we got thumped by Brandon Drumm and Service in the semifinals. But at least we had a chance at a true state title. That meant something. Under the current system, that's no longer the case.
This column is the opinion of Clarion reporter Matt Tunseth. Comments and criticisms can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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