The pomp and circumstance that comes with homecoming weekend fell quiet for the Kenai Central football team after a 45-22 loss to West Valley on a brilliantly sunny Saturday afternoon at Ed Hollier Field in Kenai.
It took two fourth-quarter turnovers to kill Kenai’s comeback efforts to beat a nonconference, Division II opponent, as the mistakes eventually piled up enough to keep the Kards from challenging for the win.
“The first couple series were great, the offense was running and we were marching,” said Kenai head coach Dustin Akana. “But then we started to make mistakes and that hurt us. We’d have a couple of great plays, then a (penalty) flag. A couple more great plays, then a flag. It was the small little things like that was killing us.”
West Valley moved over .500 on the year at 3-2, while Kenai dropped its third straight to fall to 1-3 overall. The Kardinals have not played a Northern Lights Conference opponent yet, but will finish their season with three straight conference games to Eagle River, Kodiak and Soldotna, assuming the planned teacher’s strike Tuesday does not force game cancellations.
West Valley began the season under a dark cloud of controversy when reports surfaced of three players being hospitalized after nearly drowning during a football practice that took place in the school’s pool. The incident resulted in the resignation of West Valley head coach Roy Hessner. Norm Davis subsequently took over as interim coach.
Saturday at Kenai, Davis said he hopes the team’s winning start to the season helps to put the incident in the past for the team.
“I’m hoping we’ve turned a corner and put all that behind us,” Davis said. “And we’re going to keep focusing forward one game at a time.”
Leading the charge for the Wolfpack was senior running back Justin Cummings, who piled up 160 yards with two touchdowns.
“He’s a special kid,” Davis said. “He’s been doing that all year long, and obviously we’re going to feed him the ball as much as we can.”
When Cummings wasn’t terrorizing Kenai’s defensive line, West Valley junior QB Shaun Conwell stepped in, passing for four touchdowns and hitting 7 of 17 targets for 120 yards.
Overall, the Wolfpack outgained the Kards 340 to 234 yards, even while West Valley backed up 195 yards on 19 penalties. Davis said if West Valley can eliminate the mistakes and lapses in judgment, the Wolfpack can be a difficult team to play.
“Obviously when you play together as a team and your emphasis is on execution, if you can out-execute the other guy, that’s when you can be successful,” Davis said. “We did that in the second half. Not so much in the first half.”
Kenai had a shot to rally back in the fourth quarter, but two crucial turnovers turned out to be the team’s undoing. Kenai started the fourth quarter with an 80-yard drive in four plays, capped by an 18-yard rumble up the middle by Justin Anderson. A two-point pass play from Daniels to Anderson cut the lead to 30-22 with 11:00 left.
However, the Wolfpack countered with drive that ate up 3:38 of clock and ended with a 39-yard touchdown bomb from Conwell to tight end Dylan Thomas to push the gap back up to 38-22 with just over seven minutes remaining.
The biggest blow of the game came on Kenai’s ensuing drive, as the Kards faced fourth down from their own 34. Daniels was was pressured from the pocket and lobbed up a pass that landed in the hands of West Valley defensive back Malachi Brooks.
The interception was followed by one scoring play, a 40-yard TD pass from Conwell to Tyriq Nance with 4:30 to go that effectively sealed the win for West Valley.
Kenai fumbled the ball away on the next drive, putting an end to any comeback hopes.
“We can’t have that,” Akana said. “I told the boys about the turnovers, we just can’t have it. There were some mental breakdowns that we just can’t have. On the two long touchdowns, we had a mental breakdown. That kills us.”
The Kardinals were led by senior Zach Burnett, who scored a TD while racking up 73 rushing yards a team-high 20 carries, and junior Tucker Vann, who also had a TD run with 43 yards.
Kenai also had senior QB Kayden Daniels back under center. Daniels missed the previous two games due to a disciplinary issue on the team’s Aug. 31 trip to Juneau, but returned Saturday to pass for 64 yards on 8-for-19 efficiency, throwing three interceptions along the way.
Kenai started strong by forcing a West Valley fumble, which sophomore Corvin Bookey fell on to recover for Kenai. The Kards score with a Burnett TD run on their first possession of the game to take a 7-0 lead.
Kenai then forced West Valley to punt on consecutive possessions, but the Wolfpack eventually found a groove in the second quarter. Cummings burst free for 50 yards to cut the gap to 7-6, after a failed two-point pass.
West Valley continued to press, forcing a Kenai fumble that set up another scoring possession, this time on a 12-yard pass from Conwell to Thomas. The TD gave West Valley a 14-7 halftime lead that it would never give up.
Saturday at Kenai
Wolfpack 45, Kardinals 22
West Valley 0 14 16 15 —45
Kenai 7 0 7 8 —22
Ken — Burnett 2 run (Pitsch kick), 6:14
WV — Cummings 50 run (pass failed), 8:11
WV — Thomas 5 pass from Conwell (Conwell run), 6:01
WV — Cummings 11 run (Daoust run), 10:23
Ken — Vann 5 run (Pitsch kick), 5:42
WV — Nance 17 pass from Conwell (Conwell run), :00
Ken — Anderson 18 run (Anderson pass from Daniels), 11:00
WV — Thomas 39 pass from Conwell (Daoust run), 7:22
WV — Nance 40 pass from Conwell (Golden kick), 4:30
First downs 8 13
Rush yds 220 195
Pass yds 120 39
Comp-att-int 7-17-0 4-12-3
Return yds 8 110
Punts 4-38.0 3-26.3
Fumbles-lost 1-1 3-2
Penalties 19-195 8-80
Rushing — Kenai: Burnett 20-73, Vann 11-43, Sylvester 5-50, Daniels 3-(-2), Anderson 2-22, Sparks 2-9. West Valley: Cummings 15-160, Daoust 7-37, Conwell 6-22, Weston 2-(-2), Mease 1-3.
Passing — Kenai: Daniels 4-12-3—39. West Valley: Conwell 7-17-0—120.