Nikiski senior Cody Handley handled business through one half of football on a cloudy Saturday afternoon at Nikiski High School, and his teammates handled the rest.
Handley led Nikiski to a halftime lead, then sat on the sidelines with an injury while the Bulldogs rolled to a 48-28 nonconference victory over Valdez on home turf. The win was the first of the season in Nikiski’s (1-1) home opener, and helped squash memories of the previous week’s loss to Barrow.
“We just played really good,” Handley said. “It was a good confidence booster.”
“I think we were just really confident this week,” added junior Sam Berry.
Berry broke out for 214 rushing yards and three touchdowns in what he considered his best game of his young varsity career.
“I was really happy with how I ran,” Berry said, crediting the front line of Quentin Oskolkoff, Dustin Mullins, Hamilton Cox, Joseph McLeod, Caleb Weeks and Levi Anderson. “I got some big blocks in front of me and just waited patiently for the holes to open.”
The Nikiski defense also broke out with three turnovers, plus an additional two forced fumbles that Valdez recovered.
It took just three plays after the opening whistle for Nikiski to force Valdez into a mistake as Owen Chadwick was stripped of the ball and Bulldogs defensive back Chris Druesedow came up with the football.
One play later, Berry was off sprinting 47 yards to the endzone for the first points of the day.
Handley, one of the biggest, tallest players on the field, bulldozed through linebackers nearly every time he touched the ball and had a touchdown catch in the first half before being sidelined the rest of the way with a high-ankle sprain. Handley brought down a 20-yard shot from quarterback Noah Litke with 38 seconds left in the first half to put Nikiski ahead 26-14, but stayed on the ground in pain.
“I dove out for the catch and two guys rolled over my ankle,” Handley said.
Litke finished with a touchdown pass on 4-for-11 efficiency and 62 yards.
Handley’s absence didn’t sink the Bulldogs, however, as Berry and senior Brock Sarks led the team in the second half. Nikiski racked up 428 team yards on 52 carries, with Sarks getting 128 yards while scoring twice.
Nikiski head coach Paul Nelson said with Handley nursing an ice pack on his left leg, it was up to the rest of his Nikiski teammates to shoulder the load.
“The offense really came together more (from the previous week) and 48 points today was a good effort,” Nelson said. “It’s better than eight (points against Barrow).”
Sarks helped seal the victory in the second half, scoring consecutive touchdown runs to push the lead to 40-14 early in the fourth quarter, using brute speed and fiery passion to energize his teammates.
“Brock fires up the whole team, he really gets us pumped,” Berry said.
After Berry’s long run on Nikiski’s first offensive snap of the game put the Bulldogs up 6-0, Valdez responded with a 60-yard drive that was capped with a one-yard plunge by Hayden Howard, and the ensuing two-point conversion pass from Tate Chadwick to Jimmy Chavez put the Buccaneers up 8-6.
From there, Nikiski unleashed one of its most impressive drives of the day, an 18-play, 68-yard drive that ate up 7:51 of game clock and included three fourth-down conversions. The drive ended with a four-yard scoring dash by Dylan Harris to give Nikiski a 12-8 lead.
Overall, the Bulldogs converted a staggering six of seven fourth-down attempts on Saturday.
Nelson said the team took a big lesson in not coasting with a big lead, and Berry, Sarks and sophomore Dylan Harris were integral in keeping the momentum up.
“They could’ve let off, but they stuck with it the whole time,” Nelson said. “Being able to convert fourth downs is a big confidence boost, it’s big that we have three or four guys that can do that.”
Another Valdez fumble, recovered by Simon Grenier, led to another scoring drive by Nikiski, this one ending in a six-yard dive by Berry for an 18-8 lead.
The Buccaneers came back with a 65-yard drive that was capped with a 14-yard touchdown pass from Chadwick to Chavez on fourth down, cutting the lead to 18-14.
That would, however, be the closest the Bucs got to the Bulldogs the rest of the way. A 10-play drive by Nikiski to start the second half ended in another fourth-down conversion, this time an 18-yard rumble by Sarks to push Nikiski’s lead to 34-14 after a two-point Sarks run.
A 31-yard touchdown run by Sarks and a 60-yard scamper by Berry in the fourth quarter helped equal out a pair of Valdez touchdowns.
Nikiski will host Redington next week in another nonconference, Division III, matchup at home.
BULLDOGS 48, BUCCANEERS 28
Valdez 8 6 0 14 —28
Nikiski 12 14 8 14 —48
Nik — Berry 47 run (pass failed), 11:02
Val — Howard 1 run (Chavez pass from Chadwick), 8:15
Nik — Harris 4 run (pass failed), :26
Nik — Berry 6 run (run failed), 7:04
Val — Chavez 14 pass from Chadwick (run failed), 2:41
Nik — Handley 20 pass from Litke (Berry pass from Litke), :38
Nik — Sarks 18 run (Sarks run), 7:33
Nik — Sarks 31 run (run failed), 9:13
Val — Turner 6 run (Chadwick run), 6:22
Nik — Berry 60 run (Sarks pass from Litke), 3:30
Val — Chadwick 58 run (run failed), 1:51
1st downs 12 17
Rushing yds 34-287 52-428
Pass yds 27 62
Comp-att-int 2-5-0 4-11-0
Return yds 120 13
Fumbles-rec 5-2 2-2
Penalties 5-37 6-60
Rushing — Nikiski: Berry 26-214, Sarks 11-128, Litke 1-5, Harris 4-20, Handley 9-61, Napoka 1-0. Valdez: O. Chadwick 16-180, Howard 13-68, Turner 3-48, T. Chadwick 1-(-7), Woodgate 1-(-2).
Passing — Nikiski: Litke 4-11-1-0—62. Valdez: T. Chadwick 1-3-1-0—14, O. Chadwick 1-2-0-0—13.