In an entertaining football game that pitted the power running game of Nikiski against the potent air attack of Monroe, the running game prevailed Saturday at Anchorage Football Stadium.
Nikiski scored three unanswered touchdowns to come from behind and claim its second state title in three seasons and its fourth overall with a 36-28 over Monroe in the First National Bowl small-school championship.
Nikiski ran for 363 yards and Monroe threw for 341 in a game that was closely contested throughout.
"We were just gonna pound the ball all day long," said Christian Riddall, one of two 100-yard rushers for Nikiski. "It was definitely redemption. We had a sour taste in our mouth all season long."
Nikiski (7-3) lost to Eielson in last season's title game and it looked as though the Bulldogs might lose to another Fairbanks team Saturday.
Monroe (6-2) was an unlikely state finalist, a team that had to cancel two nonconference games early this season because it didn't have enough players to field a team.
The Rams suited up 14 on Saturday, a band of brothers that scored two unanswered touchdowns in the third quarter to turn a 16-15 halftime deficit into a 28-15 lead.
But Nikiski battled back.
Riddall sprinted in for an 11-yard touchdown run to get the Bulldogs back to within 28-22 with less than three minutes to play in the third quarter.
On the ensuing possession, Monroe was passing its way to another impressive drive as the fourth quarter began. Nikiski's Michael Stangel brought the drive to a halt when he nabbed the first of his two interceptions and returned the ball 37 yards.
"That was huge," Riddall said. "That was the turning point of the game."
Stangel's interception put the Bulldogs in Monroe territory, and they turned it into points with a five-play drive that ended with a 1-yard scoring dive by Stangel. The score put Nikiski up 29-28 with 9:01 to play.
Monroe (5-2) appeared to pull off the play of the season on its next drive. Quarterback Tyler Wells, who had already thrown four touchdown passes, appeared to catch a touchdown pass too, but the double-pass play was called back. Wells tossed the ball into the left flat for receiver Scooter Bynum, a pass that was supposed to be a lateral, but was ruled a forward pass. Bynum turned and heaved the ball deep down the right side to a streaking Wells, but Monroe's jubilation quickly vanished as the referees deemed Bynum's pass an illegal forward pass.
Nikiski took over on downs and marched down the field for a final touchdown to seal the victory.
Monroe played all season with anywhere from 11 to 15 players. The small group proved capable, beating Nikiski 37-27 two weeks ago in the final game of the regular season.
"It's not the end I was hoping for for our Cinderella season," said Monroe coach Bobby Pace. "I'm extremely proud of these guys. It's a small group of guys that played beyond their means all season long."
First National Bowl
Small-school state football championship
Nikiski -- Eide 1 run (Riddall pass from Anderson), 5:38
Monroe -- Bynum 65 pass from Wells (Callahan kick), 3:18
Nikiski -- Stangel 10 pass from Anderson (Eide run), 10:53
Monroe -- Callahan 19 pass from Wells (Neville pass from Wells), 5:10
Monroe -- Neville 30 pass from Wells (Callahan kick), 9:25
Monroe -- Bynum 18 pass from Wells (pass fail), 5:34
Nikiski -- Riddall 11 run (run fail), 2:37
Nikiski -- Stangel 1 run (Feller kick), 9:01
Nikiski -- Eide 4 run (Feller kick), 3:19
Rushing -- Nikiski: Eide 25-144; Riddall 16-124; Stangel 19-95; Anderson 1-0. Monroe: Gavora 5-13; Callahan 3-6; Bynum 2-2; Wells 4-(-20).
Passing -- Nikiski: Anderson 5-8-0--36. Monroe: Wells 15-33-2--341
Receiving -- Nikiski: Stangel 3-16; Carstens 1-17; Feller 1-3. Monroe: Callahan 6-122; Neville 5-107; Bynum 4-112.
Small-school state champions