Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion (From left to right) Top row: Kenai Central coach John Marquez, Zach Koziczkowski, Draiden McMinn and David Beck. Bottom row: Toby Randall, Andrew Welborn and Connor Johnson.

Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion (From left to right) Top row: Kenai Central coach John Marquez, Zach Koziczkowski, Draiden McMinn and David Beck. Bottom row: Toby Randall, Andrew Welborn and Connor Johnson.

3 Kardinals sign up for college football

Three Kenai Central High School seniors penned their commitments to play college football on signing day, giving head coach John Marquez one of his largest college-bound classes in his four-year coaching career with the Kardinals.

But what made Marquez happiest of all was that all three players are getting there on academic scholarships.

In last year’s runner-up season in the Alaska high school medium-schools division, the Kardinals picked up the academic award among all rival schools with a combined 3.8 grade-point average. Marquez said as proud as he was for the team to battle for the medium-schools championship last October — a 33-18 loss in which they gave Northern Lights Conference rival Soldotna a real challenge — he is just as happy to see the leading members continue their careers at the collegiate level.

“It’s a tribute to the kids,” Marquez said. “These kids made the team, and they made it all the way (to the championship) and had a shot.

“I wouldn’t trade these kids for anyone else.”

Seniors Toby Randall and Connor Johnson will both be joining a Division II team, while Andrew Welborn will move on to NAIA football.

Marquez said in his four years of coaching Kenai — 2011, 2012 and the past two seasons — he has had eight total players sign letters of intent to play in college. The three that committed Feb. 3, the traditional signing day for college athletes, bumped that total up to 11.

Toby Randall signed with Saginaw Valley State, a Division II school in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Randall, the son of Stephanie and Keith Randall, made the decision on gut instinct and home appeal, as much of Randall’s extended family hails from central Michigan. Randall’s older brother plays for Division I Central Michigan.

“I just really like it there, and it feels right,” Randall said.

The senior also said he liked the idea of attending a bigger school, as close to 20,000 students have made Saginaw Valley State their home for secondary education. The university is about a 40-minute drive north of Flint, Michigan.

Randall said he hopes to pursue a nursing degree, putting him on the inside track to a successful career if football doesn’t work out.

But, of course, that’s a big if. Randall, who plans to redshirt his first season, said he has been lifting five to six days a week throughout the winter to add bulk to his 6-foot-2, 240-pound frame, hoping to expand his repertoire at any position.

“Being undersized, it’s forced me to work extra hard,” Randall said. “I’ve had to work hard with the basics, you know, getting leverage on guys when I block, being speedy.”

At Kenai, Randall was an offensive lineman, helping to pave the way for star running backs like Welborn and Chase Logan in the past two years. Randall began getting time on varsity his sophomore year before becoming a full time starter his junior and senior campaigns.

“Toby was that type of guy that led by example,” Marquez said. “All he needs is that opportunity.”

Connor Johnson will be headed to Division II Adams State University in Alamosa, Colorado, where he is leaning toward a history major which he hopes to use to become a teacher.

Marquez said Johnson has a lot of untapped potential, which the Grizzlies hope to expand upon.

“I wish I had him all four years on the team,” Marquez said. “His frame is built to go to the next level.”

Standing at 6-foot-6, Johnson was the tallest player for the Kards last year, giving him an advantage in his tight end role, and at 240 pounds, one of the heaviest, helping him to block and tackle. Johnson will likely be moving to play defensive end with the Grizzlies.

Johnson did not get many touches of the football his senior year — which culminated with October’s championship game in which he made a crucial 29-yard catch late in the game for a new set of downs — but chalk that up to relative inexperience. Johnson has a grand total of three years of football experience under his belt, and two of those were in high school. Johnson said he played a year of Pop Warner in his youth, but other than that, he has been an on-and-off player.

It makes his admittance to a DII school all the more impressive.

“I think the (Adams State) coaches liked my size and my coachability,” Johnson said. “Coach (Jim) Beeson and (Jim) Dawson helped me to learn the ins and outs of football two years ago, and coach Marquez helped me a lot this year, and (Jeff) Baker taught me a lot about the (defensive) line.”

In the years Johnson did not play football, he was busy with hockey. Ultimately, he realized his biggest potential lie in the nation’s most popular sport.

Johnson, the son of Gwen and Shorty Johnson, said he visited the Adams State campus and quickly took a liking to the school.

“It looked like there were a lot of good guys there,” he said.

Welborn committed to Southern Oregon University, an NAIA school in Ashland, Oregon, where he will be likely studying for a business degree.

The son of Cherri and Mark Welborn, Andrew also had an offer from Eastern Oregon University, another NAIA school, but Welborn chose Southern based on location and size. Tucked between the mountains in the southwest corner of the state, not far from the California border, Southern Oregon competes in the Frontier Conference.

“I liked the area, and I liked the coaches,” Welborn said. “There’ll be 90 guys on the team, and every one of them will be helpful.”

Welborn finished off his senior year at Kenai with 682 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in only five games played, good enough to garner medium-schools Offensive Player of the Year.

“He’s one of the top players in the state, bar none,” Marquez said. “Anyone in the state would love to have him.”

More than likely, Welborn will be making a move to defense, filling in as a linebacker for the Raiders.

“He’s only going to prosper, he’ll be bigger and stronger, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he eventually moves back to the offensive side of the ball with more speed,” Marquez said.

In addition to the three college-bound athletes, four other players will be pursuing purely academic ventures. Zach Koziczkowski, a two-time Lineman of the Year for Kenai who had several offers on the table to play football, chose the academic route with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and David Beck will be headed off to Montana State University in Bozeman for an engineering degree. Draiden McMinn and Corbin Strieff will both be pursuing their academic career through the National Guard.

Marquez said that all seven had offers to play college ball, but made the decision they felt fit their career path the best.

“These kids used football as a tool to work hard,” Marquez said. “They did it to continue their academic careers, and that’s why I’m proud.”

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