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Nikiski faces Barrow for small-schools state title

For the past 10 years the Nikiski football team has consistently fielded playoff teams only to see state championships go to neighboring schools on the central Kenai Peninsula.

Five for Kenai Central. Four for Soldotna. Zero for the Bulldogs.

That could finally change Saturday.

Nikiski makes its first trip to the small-schools title game since 2001, facing Barrow at noon at Chugiak High School.

"It's been a long process to get an opportunity like this," Bulldogs coach Ted Riddall said, crediting his staff and players. "They have sacrificed quite a bit to get to this point."

If that's not enough motivation, the Bulldogs face the only team to which they lost this season.

Nikiski enters with an 8-1 record, earning a share of the Greatland Conference regular-season title despite a 34-28 loss to Barrow (7-1) early this season.

It's been a dominant campaign for the Bulldogs, who won eight games by double digits and six by at least 39 points.

The lone blip is the defeat on the road against Barrow, which capitalized on a slow Nikiski start to salt the game away.

"It's the only unfinished thing they have before them," Riddall said. "We've said the whole time the best thing you can do is play together as long as you can. That means standing in Chugiak playing for a state title, and there's where we are."

Riddall said the key for his unit is to start fast.

In the early season loss, the Whalers built a 28-7 halftime lead and thwarted a last-minute Bulldogs drive to secure the win.

But quick starts have become commonplace for the Bulldogs, who have scored more than 50 points every game since the loss.

Much of the success stems from the offensive line, which has opened holes for running backs Kaden Spurgeon, Stephen Hartley and Josh Brown.

The trio has combined for more than 35 rushing touchdowns and each eclipsed 600 yards during the regular season. Throw in last week's playoff win over Eielson, and those three Bulldogs are closing in on 1,000 rushing yards apiece.

With efficient passing from quarterback Colton Anderson, who finished the regular season with 10 touchdowns to two interceptions, and the offense is clicking on all cylinders.

What it amounts to is a ton of momentum heading into the biggest game of the season.

"Momentum is a great thing. If you can get it going, it's hard to get it stopped," Riddall said. "When you are putting 50-plus points on the board a couple weeks in a row, it's a high-octane offense."

The Whalers, who came into existence as a program less than five years ago, have never competed in a championship game.

Barrow plays in the northernmost location of any high school team in the country, meaning the players are accustomed to rough conditions and long road trips.

That makes the Whalers a tough, versatile unit.

"They are big, physical kids," Riddall said. "They want to run the ball, but they also want to throw a little bit."

Barrow's biggest threat is running back and linebacker Trace Hudson, a player on whom Riddall said the Bulldogs will key.

Hudson scored twice in the teams' first meeting.

"We've talked a lot about trying to contain him," Riddall said. "He is definitely a huge part of their offense. Defensively we will pay attention to where he is."

Since neither team has played a game of this magnitude, Riddall told his players this week to focus on what's happening on the field - not in the stands or on the sidelines.

Do that, the coach said, and the small-schools state title will come back to Nikiski for the first time since it won consecutive championships in 2000 and 2001.

"Focus on the game, not the surroundings - one play at a time," Riddall said of his message to the players. "They haven't been in a game of that magnitude. It's going to be a battle."