A decade after Nikiski reigned over Alaska's small schools for consecutive seasons, the Bulldogs returned to the throne Saturday afternoon.
Buoyed by an offense that was especially deadly in the first half, sparked by memories of a loss at Barrow earlier this season and reminded of the reward at stake by a bejeweled assistant coach, Nikiski again lords over the state's smallest football-playing schools.
Nikiski operated its wing-T offense for nearly 400 yards rushing and parlayed five first-half touchdowns into a 52-21 victory over Barrow in the First National Bowl at Chugiak High's Tom Huffer Sr. Stadium.
After they redeemed themselves for that September loss in the sport's farthest-north football-playing community and added to a program resume that includes state titles in 2000 and 2001, the Bulldogs formed one massive hug, held their helmets aloft and chanted:
"Yes, we did! Yes, we did! Yes, we did!''
Suddenly, that 34-28 loss in Barrow, when the Bulldogs fell behind by a couple of touchdowns, didn't matter so much.
"We came out ready to play,'' said Nikiski quarterback Colton Anderson, who threw for three first-half touchdowns. "The first time we played them we were kind of shell-shocked because we got behind early. Today, we knew we had to get points early.''
Anderson delivered touchdown passes of 25 yards each to Walter Moore and Jesse Eide in the first quarter and connected with Josh Brown for a 9-yard strike in the second quarter, when the Bulldogs also got a pair of 11-yard touchdown runs from Stephen Hartley.
All of that offset Barrow's two first-half touchdowns -- Eddie Bensen hit Xavier Edwards for a 12-yard strike and Colin Long launched a 65-yard halfback pass to Trace Hudson.
Nikiski (9-1) in the first half ran off 36 plays for 363 yards. Anderson, who did all of his passing in the first half, went 6 for 8 for 128 yards, with one interception and those three touchdowns. And Nikiski's running game proved nearly unstoppable. By game's end, the Bulldogs racked 391 yards rushing and generated 519 yards of total offense.
Hartley rushed 18 times for 148 yards, Kaden Spurgeon bagged 126 yards on 19 carries and Josh Brown furnished 82 yards on 14 carries. All three of those backs favor muscle over moves -- they hit the hole hard, square their shoulders and drive forward.
"We know if we block to our full potential, they'll run to their full potential,'' said Nikiski center Allen Oskolkoff. "We feel like a team, like we're together in this.''
On an overcast afternoon, fans from both communities made their way to the battle for supremacy in the division for schools with 325 students or fewer.
Whalers fans chanted, "Let's go, Barrow; Barrow, let's go!'' Bulldogs fans held up a cutout of the letter "D'' and a cutout of a fence -- Defense!
If the Bulldogs needed more inspiration, assistant coach Tim Johnson wore it. Four championship rings adorned his hands -- he wore a Nikiski championship ring on each index finger, and he also wore two rings signifying the Big Sky championships he won at the University of Idaho.
Johnson said the rings, which he breaks out only for the playoffs, are symbols of good teams and good times. None of that was lost on the Bulldogs.
"It's really encouraging, and he knows the tradition at Nikiski,'' Oskolkoff said.
Barrow (7-2) was in the championship game for the first time, though the Whalers have made four straight trips to the playoffs.
After trailing 38-13 at halftime, Barrow cut the margin to 38-21 midway through the third quarter when Bensen scored on a 1-yard run and ran in the two-point conversion. Barrow's defense also stopped Nikiski on its first two possessions of the second half.
"We felt like we had it,'' Bensen said. "But we missed a couple of tackles and they made a couple of big plays.''
The Whalers were crippled by five turnovers.
"Nikiski is a very talented team, and they played a great game,'' said Barrow coach Brad Igou. "And we didn't play very well, either.''
Even so, North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta praised the Whalers when they gathered afterward.
"We're all so proud of you -- your first championship game,'' Itta told the players. "You guys have made history. You set the course.''
To hear Nikiski's Anderson tell it, a playoff loss to Homer last season served as fuel for the Bulldogs this season. His teammate, Eide, who produced a monster game -- one touchdown catch, one interception, one fumble recovery and two sacks -- seconded that emotion.
"We had high hopes all year,'' Eide said. "The lifting over the summer, the 7-on-7s, all the dedication, it was all for this.''
Nikiski coach Ted Riddall said it seemed fitting his team got one last shot at Barrow after losing to the Whalers on the road. The Bulldogs used that loss to marshal themselves for the rematch.
"We said, 'Let this propel you to the end of the season,' '' Riddall said. "It was storybook to get to play them at the end of the year, very cool.''
After celebrating with his teammates and posing for his family, which took pictures of him, Oskolkoff walked off the track surrounding the football field and savored the moment.
"We got better each week,'' he said, "and this was the result.''
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Nikiski 15 23 0 14 -- 52
Barrow 6 \t7 8 \t0 -- 21
Nikiski -- Moore 25 pass from Anderson (Feller kick), 8:34.
Barrow -- Edwards 12 pass from Bensen (pass failed), 3:02.
Nikiski -- Eide 25 pass from Anderson (Hartley run), 1:03.
Barrow -- Hudson 65 pass from Long (Bensen kick), 7:20.
Nikiski -- Hartley 11 run (Feller kick), 5:46.
Nikiski -- Brown 9 pass from Anderson (Brown run), 3:30.
Nikiski -- Haertley 11 run (Spurgeon run), :43.
Barrow -- Bensen 1 run (Bensen run), 6:18.
Nikiski -- Spurgeon 12 run (Hartley run), 7:40.
Nikiski -- Riddall 1 run (run failed), 1:16.
First downs 24 12
Rushes-yards 59-391 23-62
Passing yards 128 211
Return yards 49 105
Passes 6-8-1 10-30-4
Punts 2-36.5 2-35.5
Fumbles-lost 1-1 1-1
Penalties-yards 7-40 8-56
RUSHING -- Nikiski: Hartley 18-148, Spurgeon 19-126, Brown 14-82, Stangel 2-46, Riddall 2-0, Sauve 2-(-1), Anderson 2-(-10). Barrow: Hudson 12-55, Edwards 3-10, Long 1-3, Snow 1-2, Benson 6-(-8).
PASSING -- Nikiski: Anderson 6-8-1--128. Barrow: Benson 8-28-4--133, Long 2-2-0--78.
RECEIVING--Nikiski: Moore 2-53, Parrish 1-32, Eide 1-25, Brown 1-9, Hartley 1-9. Barrow: Edwards 3-51, Hudson 2-102, Long 2-27, Masterson 2-18, Bensen 1-13.