Nikiski saw more of the ball, but Kenai did more with it.
Despite running 30 plays to Nikiski’s 70, the Kardinals notched a 43-14 victory at Ed Hollier Field at Kenai Central on Friday.
After losing games to Homer and Soldotna, the Kardinals got their first victory of the season.
“It felt really nice to get a win at home, especially the last home game the seniors will play,” said Kenai senior Riley Graves, who returned a fumble for a touchdown and also had an interception. “We want to leave a legacy on the field that others can look at.”
A week prior, Kenai was scheduled to play Soldotna but the Kards backed out of the game because the majority of the team was sick with a non-COVID illness. The schools are looking to reschedule the game this week, but nothing is official yet.
“I’m super proud of the boys,” Kenai coach Dustin Akana said. “Last week was frustrating. We wanted to play the game, but the majority of the boys were sick and it would not have been smart.
“We challenged the boys to show true grit and they did.”
The Kards also showed big-play ability. The six scores came on a 26-yard return of a blocked punt for Reagan Graves, a 40-yard fumble return by Riley Graves, 46- and 53-yard runs by Tucker Vann, and 17- and 25-yard runs by River Tomrdle.
Kenai jumped out to a 30-0 lead before the Bulldogs outscored the Kards 14-13 the rest of the way.
“We had huge, backbreaking mistakes,” Nikiski coach Paul Nelson said. “Overall, I thought we played pretty well. Our turnovers led to touchdowns immediately. A couple of breakdowns on defense led to their big plays.”
Nikiski, which finishes the regular season 1-2 overall, announced earlier in the day that the school will host a playoff game against Houston on Saturday at 2 p.m. Nelson said the Bulldogs are the No. 2 seed in Division III on the Kenai Peninsula. Nikiski is behind Homer but beat out Seward.
After having a game at Seward canceled last weekend due to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District taking an “abundance of caution” after possible COVID-19 transmission at Seward Elementary, Nelson said playing a game again is nice. He said he preaches to his team that many states aren’t playing football this fall, so the squad should cherish every moment.
“We’re glad we’re getting a chance to compete, and now we’ve got a spot in the playoffs,” Nelson said.
The Kenai coaching staff brought Reagan Graves up from junior varsity and moved Riley Graves from inside to outside linebacker. That paid immediate dividends with the two big returns by the brothers putting the Kards up 16-0 with 11:00 left in the second quarter.
“Our offense came out slow, but we found our blocking fits and started finding the holes,” Akana said
The two scoring runs by Tomrdle resulted in a 30-0 lead with 3:21 to go until half. Vann, who led all rushers with 135 yards on eight carries, would then finish off Kenai’s scoring in the second half.
“We’re not worried about Tucker,” Akana said. “Every time we give him the ball, we don’t stress. We know he’ll make the best of his carries.”
For Nikiski, Simon Grenier scored on a 12-yard pass from Brady Bostic and on a 1-yard run. Holden Warnke had an interception and fumble recovery for the Bulldogs. Nelson also said Caileb Payne was tough on defense.
“Our goal is to get better each week, and I thought we accomplished that,” Nelson said. “With all the adversity early, we hung in there and played together.”
Kardinals 43, Bulldogs 14
Nikiski 0 6 8 0 —14
Kenai 8 22 13 0 —43
Ken — Reagan Graves 26 punt block return (Sparks run), 8:58.
Ken — Riley Graves 40 fumble recovery return (Vann run), 11:00.
Ken — Tomrdle 25 run (Tomrdle run), 7:47.
Ken — Tomrdle 17 run (run failed), 3:21.
Nik — Grenier 12 pass from Bostic (run failed), 0:37
Ken — Vann 53 run (kick failed), 11:10.
Nik — Grenier 1 run (3 run), 2:25.
Ken — Vann 46 run (Baisden kick), 0:56.
First downs 13 2
Rushes-yards 67-186 28-221
Passing yards 91 0
Comp-att-int 3-9-1 0-2-1
Return yards 6 106
Punts 5-12.8 2-28
Fumbles-lost 3-2 3-2
Penalties 7-65 8-75
Rushing — Nikiski: K. McCaughey 15-74, Zoda 16-55, Harris 7-23, Grenier 16-50, Bostic 6-(-21), C. Payne 1-(-26), T. McCaughey 3-16, Warnke 3-15. Kenai: Sparks 6-40, Vann 8-135, Beck 4-2, Tomrdle 3-45, Good 2-20, Baisden 1-(-26), Arness 2-8, Anglebrant 1-(-4), Diorec 1-1.
Passing — Nikiski: Bostic 3-9-1—91; Kenai: Beck 0-2-1—0.