A botched punt by the opposition. A field goal miss doinking off the goal post on a short kick. An untimely sack with time running out. The opposition dropping the ball an astounding nine times.
For all the missed chances the Nikiski football team let slip away Friday in a rainy 27-7 loss against Eielson, no one would blame the Bulldogs for putting their heads down in another defeat to their interior rivals.
Instead, the Bulldogs walked off their sodden field brimming with hope that the three-time defending Division III football champs are mortal after all.
”We’re encouraged,” said Nikiski head coach Paul Nelson. “We moved the ball well, we just couldn’t finish. We competed with Eielson, which we haven’t done in a couple years, so we’re proud of that.”
Jaydenn Manibusan ran for three touchdowns and 93 yards to lead the Eielson attack, while senior Jeremiah Brown made his return from an injury sustained last week against Barrow to post 86 rushing yards, and quarterback Payton DeVaughn threw a touchdown pass en route to finishing with 108 yards passing.
Junior receiver Cody Handley scored Nikiski’s only points with a one-yard, fourth-down touchdown plunge on the first play of the second quarter, which tied it up at 7-all. Handley finished with 96 rushing yards on 24 carries, but his scoring run would be the last time the Bulldogs saw the endzone.
While Eielson outgained Nikiski 322 to 194 in total offense, the Bulldogs showed that, if not for a select few mistakes, they could have handed the Ravens their second straight loss.
But for a seventh time in a row, dating back to 2013, the Ravens left with a victory over their peninsula rivals.
Eielson head coach David DeVaughn explained that his sophomore signal-caller had difficulties getting snaps from freshman Caleb Gum, who was getting his first start at center.
“Those two getting on the same page made it hard,” DeVaughn said.
A persistent rain made life difficult for both teams throughout the contest, but Eielson had the most trouble hanging on to the ball. In all, the Ravens dropped the ball nine times, with the Bulldogs recovering three for turnovers.
“This weather, this is what fish live in,” DeVaughn said.
After Handley tied the game up early in the second quarter on a mammoth 16-play, 69-yard drive that ate up 6 1/2 minutes of clock and included two fourth-down conversions, Eielson got a great return on the kickoff that put them at midfield.
Although Eielson’s drive ended on a pick by Justin Harris at the Nikiski 30-yard line, the Ravens later caught a break on a meager punt by Nikiski midway through the second quarter that put Eielson at the Nikiski 25-yard line.
All it took was one play for Manibusan to break through on the edge and rip off a touchdown run that gave Eielson a 14-7 lead.
From there, Nikiski turned the ball over on downs near midfield, and Eielson scored again to cap a six-play drive.
The Bulldogs staged another behemoth drive in the final 2:19 of the first half, going 64 yards on 10 plays to the one-yard line, but couldn’t punch it in on third down with 4.6 seconds left, and a 24-yard field goal kick by Mykel Mysing at the buzzer clanged off the left goal post, leaving Nikiski down 21-7 at the half.
Nikiski opened the second half with another long drive, going 50 yards before Eiter was picked off by Eielson’s Colin Donahue on a spectacular midair snag.
“What a play by that linebacker,” Nelson said. “It was a good pass, but he just went vertical.”
As the fourth quarter began, both teams were cashing in fumbles for punts, and with just over seven minutes to play, Eielson was ready to punt with the ball at the Ravens 47.
Nikiski received a huge break when the Eielson punter bungled the snap and had to fall on the ball amidst a scrum of Nikiski tacklers, leaving the Bulldogs at their opponents’ 24-yard line.
Unfortunately for the home team, a holding penalty and a sack on consecutive plays backed Nikiski up near midfield for a very long fourth down, and an off-tackle run by Handley came up empty.
Eielson finally dropped the dagger with a 66-yard drive that ended with a third Manibusan touchdown run with just over three minutes to play.
“It was a heartbreaker,” Nelson said.
With one week left in the regular season, Nikiski controls its destiny in the Division III playoff hunt. A win over Seward next Saturday would give Nikiski the second of two postseason spots from the conference, but a win would force a tiebreaker between the two sides, and Seward would win it on head-to-head record.
Homer 55, Redington 0
A dominating victory sent the Homer Mariners to their first ever Division III (formerly small-schools) Peninsula Conference crown Friday at Joe Redington Sr. High School.
Homer’s 3-0 conference record (6-1 overall) clinched the crown over any possible tiebreakers that should arise at the end of the regular season. At 2-1, Nikiski is the only school that could finish tied with Homer, and the Mariners own the tiebreaker courtesy of a 38-0 win over the Bulldogs earlier this season.
Noah Fisk got the party going with a 52-yard touchdown run, then added a one-yard plunge to put the Mariners up 13-0.
Joe Ravin got in on the action with a 43-yard scoring catch to put Homer ahead 20-0. Ravin had four touchdowns in the first half en route to a 41-0 lead at the break.
Seward 12, Voznesenka 0
The Seahawks stopped a five-game losing streak with a shutout victory over Voznesenka Friday evening at a water-logged Seward High field.
The victory kept Seward (1-2 conference, 2-5 overall) alive in the playoff race, and a win over Nikiski in next weekend’s regular season finale will put the defending Peninsula Conference champions into the postseason. Voznesenka dropped to 0-3 in conference, 1-4 overall with the loss, eliminating the Cougars from postseason play.
“It’ll be interesting,” said Seward head coach Kelly Cinereski.
Cinereski praised the efforts of his defense, which shut out an opponent for the first time this year.
“Our defense played really well, and they’re getting better and better,” he said. “We had a lot of young guys that stepped up.”
On a sloppy, wet field made muddy by the persistent rains that Seward has seen recently, the Seahawks were able to score first in the first half on a Derek Hirschman pick-six from just over 20 yards out, leaving Seward with a 6-0 lead at halftime.
Brandon Lynch scored for Seward on a short touchdown run that capped a long drive in the second half, helping the home team ice the victory.
Ravens 27, Bulldogs 7
Eielson 7 14 0 6 —7
Nikiski 0 7 0 0 —7
Eie — Brown 47 pass from DeVaughn (Paul kick), 6:26
Nik — Handley 1 run (Mysing kick), 11:57
Eie — Manibusan 25 run (Paul kick), 7:21
Eie — Manibusan 7 run (Paul kick), 2:19
Eie — Manibusan 6 run (kick blocked), 3:11
First downs 12 12
Rushing 39-214 50-130
Pass yards 108 64
Total yards 322 194
Comp-att-int 3-5-1 4-14-1
Return yards 60 50
Punts 2 5
Fumbles-lost 9-3 3-0
Penalties-yards 10-65 9-54
Rushing — Nikiski: Handley 24-96, Eiter 9-24, Harris 7-(-16), Johnson 10-26. Eielson: Manibusan 12-93, Dobashi-Noa 8-39, Brown 11-86, DeVaughn 5-(-6), Benjamin 1-1.
Passing — Nikiski: Eiter 4-14-1—64. Eielson: DeVaughn 3-5-1—108.