The most telling moment after Saturday’s 35-8 win over Kenai Central that provided insight into what has made Rod Christiansen — now Alaska’s winningest ever football coach — so successful occurred moments after his Palmer Moose claimed the victory.
With shouts of, “You made history, coach!” emanating from the scrum of white-and-blue clad Palmer players at midfield, Christiansen responded, “You guys made history!”
It was a convincing victory Saturday at a cloudy Ed Hollier Field that pushed Christiansen above Alaska football coaching icon Buck Nystrom on the all-time state wins list with 151 career wins. Christiansen’s record in 27 years at Palmer now stands at a hefty 151-99.
“To get that many victories, you’ve got to be doing something right,” said Kenai head coach Ted Riddall. “He knows his kids and game situations and I believe he’s surrounded by a great coaching staff.
“My hat’s off to him.”
In addition to Christiansen’s milestone win, the Moose also locked up a playoff spot and the No. 2 seed from the Northern Lights Conference, which was clinched Saturday by Soldotna’s win over Eagle River.
“I told the kids earlier in the week, this is your year,” Christiansen said. “I have a 150 memories … but (Palmer’s season) hinged on today or a stinking tiebreaker.
“That really made the deal there.”
Nystrom spent 31 years at Ben Eielson and North Pole high schools, splitting a pair of state championships with each school, before succumbing to heart surgery complications in September 2006, just weeks after picking up his record 150th career win with North Pole.
Christiansen’s and Nystrom’s coaching careers paralleled each other for about 15 years, and the two faced off on a number of occasions.
“We were there, we lost when he hit 150 in North Pole,” Christiansen said. “He was a very special man, a very exciting guy to be around. The kids played hard for him.”
Christiansen credited a well of assistant coaches and volunteers that have helped him achieve 151 wins, particularly former Palmer athletic director Scott Dougherty and assistant coaches Brad Hanson and Keith Armstrong.
Spearheading the Moose on Saturday at Kenai was a fearsome stable of senior running backs in Jeff Glynn, Jared Oviok and Larry Cutsforth. The trio accounted for all but 20 of the 344 team rushing yards, with Cutsforth leading the way at 161 yards and a touchdown run.
Oviok added 93 yards and scored two touchdowns, while Glynn scored once and finished with 70 yards rushing. Oviok said Christiansen’s experience in his four years at Palmer has helped shape him as a player.
“He’s a great coach,” Oviok said. “Been around a long time, knows a lot of things.”
Cutsforth had the unique perspective of having played for the coaches on both sidelines Saturday. Cutsforth played under current Kenai head coach Ted Riddall as a freshman at Nikiski High in 2014 before his family made the move to the Valley, and said Christiansen’s quiet, unassuming presence on the sideline is what marks him as a natural leader.
“Our coaches put an unbelievable amount of hours into our program and coaching us,” Cutsforth said. “We’re coached very well. … I’m really grateful.”
Kenai’s playoff hopes ended Saturday with the combination of its loss and Soldotna’s win over Eagle River across town. The significance of Christiansen’s milestone win resonated with Soldotna head coach Galen Brantley Jr., who credited Christiansen’s longevity by pointing to a slew of hard-working assistant coaches.
“You add those couple of things together and you get 151,” Brantley Jr. said. “Buck would be proud.”
Overall, Palmer outgained Kenai 411-128 in offensive yardage Saturday. In addition to Palmer’s running back attack gashing the Kardinals defense, the Moose stood stout on several Kenai drives, something that made Christiansen’s proud.
Following a short touchdown run by senior Seth Kruse late in the third quarter and a two-point pass conversion from quarterback Connor Felchle to senior Zack Tuttle — it would be the only points of the day for the Kards — Palmer began to march down the field clinging to a 21-8 lead.
The Moose got down to Kenai’s 15-yard line before fumbling the ball away with 9:34 left in the game.
From there, Kenai drove 29 yards to the Palmer 42-yard line, but two straight incomplete passes forced Kenai to punt, and Palmer dropped the dagger just two plays later as Oviok got loose on the outside edge and scampered away to a 32-yard touchdown, pushing the lead to 28-8 with just over six minutes left.
“It’s kind of the telltale sign of what it’s been all season,” coach Riddall said. “This is the third coach in as many years for (Kenai), and for them to learn the offense and ask them to do the things we tell them, they’ve learned it, but there hasn’t been a lot of experience behind it.”
Senior Rykker Riddall led the Kardinals offense with 70 yards rushing on nine carries, while younger brother Titus Riddall added 22 yards on the ground. Felchle finished the day 6 for 13 through the air for 33 passing yards and an interception.
Coach Riddall said he believes the Kenai program has made big strides this year utilizing the Wing-T offense, and the opposition noticed it as well.
“(Rykker) Riddall’s got wheels,” Cutsforth said.
Palmer’s opening drive of the day ended with a diving interception by Titus Riddall on Palmer quarterback Luke Guggenmos near midfield. Kenai was unable to turn it into points, and when Palmer got the ball back after a Kards punt, the Moose drove 55 yards on eight plays to score on a 15-yard run by Oviok.
On Kenai’s ensuing possession, Palmer repaid the turnover favor with an interception of its own by Patrick Dickens. The Moose made Kenai pay for the mistake by scoring on a 25-yard sideline sprint from Glynn to take a 14-0 lead.
Although Kenai got a fumble recovery from Jarett Wilson, the home team came up empty-handed in the first half as the Moose went to the locker room up 14-0.
Palmer opened the second half with a nine-play, 80-yard drive that included a 37-yard charge by Cutsforth, who capped it with a 1-yard TD run.
Kenai will wrap up its season next Saturday at home with its annual clash with Soldotna.
Soldotna 42, Eagle River 8
The Stars clinched their 12th consecutive Northern Lights Conference crown Saturday with a dominant win over the visiting Wolves at Justin Maile Field.
For the first time in years, the postseason picture is set in stone entering the regular season finale between SoHi and Kenai, which SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. said gave the team an unfamiliar feeling.
“This is uncharted territory for us,” Brantley Jr. said. “It’s not life or death for us, but it’s still a rivalry game. They have nothing left to play for, so they’ll be playing for bragging rights and to break the streak.”
Soldotna (3-0 in conference, 7-0 overall) clinched the top seed heading into the Division II playoffs when Kenai (1-2 conference, 3-4 overall) lost its NLC contest to Palmer (3-1 and 3-4).
Brantley Jr. said the Stars got off to a slow start against Eagle River, but eventually the toll the SoHi offense took on the Wolves allowed SoHi to take a comfortable lead, which allowed Brantley Jr. to use some of his second-string players.
“It’s a work in progress,” he said. “We certainly know where we need to be.”
Moose 35, Kardinals 8
Palmer 7 7 7 14 —35
Kenai 0 0 8 0 —8
Pal — Oviok 15 run (Cutsforth kick), 3:04
Pal — Glynn 25 run (Cutsforth kick), 10:11
Pal — Cutsforth 1 run (Cutsforth kick), 7:29
Ken — Kruse 3 run (Tuttle pass from Felchle), 3:25
Pal — Oviok 32 run (Cutsforth kick), 6:07
Pal — Daniels 13 pass from Guggenmos (Cutsforth kick), :18
First downs 18 8
Rushing 49-344 29-95
Pass yards 67 33
Total yards 411 128
Comp-att-int 6-11-1 6-13-1
Return yards 49 68
Punts 0 6
Fumbles-lost 2-2 0-0
Penalties-yards 10-95 5-42
Rushing — Kenai: R. Riddall 9-70, T. Riddall 10-22, Burnett 2-4, Kruse 2-3, Felchle 2-(-16), Tuttle 2-6, McEnerney 1-1. Palmer: Cutsforth 20-161, Oviok 12-93, Glynn 9-70, Corbin 2-5, Guggenmos 5-15.
Passing — Kenai: Felchle 6-13-1—33. Palmer: Guggenmos 6-11-1—67.