The Nikiski football team may have history and numbers on its side, but that will not do much to slow the roll of the Eielson Ravens.
The Bulldogs and Ravens will meet Saturday at 12:30 p.m. at Dimond Alumni Field in Anchorage to rehash a fierce rivalry and battle for the 2015 small-schools state football championship.
With a semifinal win over Barrow last Saturday at home, Nikiski punched its ticket to the championship for a fifth straight year, tying the small-schools record held by Soldotna, which played in five straight title games from 2006 to 2010.
It’s a record that Nikiski coach Ted Riddall holds great pride in.
“It’s a program built on the success of those that have went before, because we don’t change anything in our system,” Riddall said Thursday during football practice.
One thing the ’Dogs will have to change is their recent record against Eielson, which stands at three straight losses, including last year’s state title bout. Nikiski last topped its rival to the north in the 2013 state semifinal round.
This year, Eielson dropped Nikiski 34-7 on a Sept. 19 nonconference matchup that gave the Ravens the perceived edge heading into Saturday’s title game.
“Let that be a motivator for you,” Riddall said. “If you play well, it’s still going to be a great football game.”
One thing riding in Nikiski’s favor is its penchant for beating teams in championship games that had previously gotten the better of the Bulldogs in the regular-season contest. Nikiski avenged regular-season losses to Barrow in 2011 and Monroe in 2013 to capture the big trophy.
As a four-year starter for the Bulldogs, senior linebacker Luke Johnson has been through it all, and has experienced both sides of the coin in championship situations. Standing at 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, Johnson is a defensive leader.
“We just got to play our game,” Johnson said. “It’s a big game, but the way I see it, we need to play it as any other game.”
The two sides have met before in the championship finale. Both times, Eielson has gotten the better of Nikiski.
Eielson beat Nikiski 27-7 in a snow-laden finale in 2012, and the Ravens escaped with a 55-51 win over the Bulldogs in a game of epic proportions one year ago to stamp their name as one of the top small schools in the state.
“Typically what it comes down to is not making mental errors,” Riddall said. “You don’t want to be behind the sticks when you’re working so hard to stopping a first down.”
Nikiski had Eielson forced to third down on several occasions but an offsides call negated any progress the Bulldogs had made of getting the ball back.
“For a team like that, it doesn’t take much to give them an opportunity to score on you,” Riddall said. “We have the line to compete against them, but for whatever reason, it didn’t happen on that day.”
Cade Anderson, Nikiski’s three-year starting quarterback, said he realizes the tough task at hand for his squad, but also the importance of leaving behind old frustrations and focusing on a new day. Anderson used that mindset to guide his team to a small-schools title in 2013 as a sophomore.
“I just want to play to the best of my ability and leave it on the field,” Anderson said.
Anderson is not only a leader on the field, but off it too. When asked how special it would be to go out as a winner, Anderson modestly declined to speak of personal joy and instead celebrated the opportunity to play a maximum 10-game season including playoff contests.
“More importantly, we’re ending the year with the most games we could’ve played,” Anderson said. “Playing 40 games overall in four years is pretty special to me.”
So what was the spark that gave Nikiski a playoff jolt? Anderson points to Week 7 against Thunder Mountain, a bigger team that found itself in the medium-schools semifinals last weekend.
Nikiski drove down the field late in the fourth quarter and scored the go-ahead touchdown with 1:52 left to secure a 28-21 victory. And that was even after the Bulldogs lost senior lineman Jon McCormick to injury.
“Playing without Jon showed us that we really are a team that is hard to stop,” Anderson said.
Coach Riddall said McCormick will be back for Saturday’s title tilt, but the game presented Nikiski an opportunity to make up for a loss in the season opener against Kodiak. Just like its battle against Thunder Mountain, Nikiski scored on Kodiak to take a late lead on Aug. 15, but the Bears nullified it with a touchdown of their own en route to the 25-15 win.
Anderson is 45 of 82 this year on pass attempts with 753 yards and 12 touchdowns. Part of that success comes with the Wing-T offense that Nikiski throws at opposing teams (and has for years). When the Bulldogs establish a running game led by sophomore Rykker Riddall (821 rushing yards in 2015) and senior Corin Cooper (492 yards), it opens up the passing game for Anderson.
Coach Riddall said he noticed Eielson moving to the Wing-T system, which has been a key to Nikiski’s sustained success.
As an offensive guard, Johnson has learned to recognize certain tendencies of opposing offenses, and said Eielson switching gears to a similar scheme that Nikiski uses is all the better for the Bulldogs.
“It’s great for me playing (offensive) guard, because then at linebacker, I know where the ball’s going,” Johnson added. “In our offense, we follow the guards. Same as theirs.”
The biggest threats from Eielson remain running backs Kalib Dunlap and Caleb Velez and quarterback Antonio Griffith. All three exhibit a plethora of speed and dynamic running that can break a defense. Johnson said he is well aware of that threat.
“It’s about keeping their speed down,” Johnson said. “I watched them all last year in track season, and they’re fast.”
Riddall said as long as Eielson is concentrating on defending the Nikiski rushing attack, Anderson will have the receivers needed to create scoring plays.
“(Eielson) can’t do both,” Riddall said. “It’s about getting the ball to the person that can make them pay for sitting nine (players) in the box.”
In the four years the Bulldogs have made a title game appearance, they have come away with the trophy in odd-numbered years (2011 and 2013). As the old saying goes, maybe the third time (against Eielson) is the charm.
“This is a team that can beat Eielson,” Riddall said. “This is a team that can put a lot of points on Eielson.”