PALMER -- Palmer High junior James Nisbett isn't the only reason the top-ranked Moose started the football season with six straight wins. But with more than 400 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in the past two weeks, he's the most noticeable beneficiary of Palmer's dominant play.
"He's blessed with some talent, and we like to find ways to get him the ball," Palmer coach Rod Christiansen said. "We have some other options, so if people key on him it's not all bad for us."
Nisbett, 16, is a consummate team player, pulling double-duty at running back and defensive back, where he earned second-team all-Railbelt Conference honors last season. After playing a limited role on offense last season, the 5-foot-10, 195-pounder didn't wait long to show off his ball-carrying skills this season.
On Palmer's first offensive play of the season-opener against Soldotna, Nisbett busted loose for an 80-yard touchdown run on his way to surpassing 100 yards for the game. After missing most of Palmer's second game with an injury, he bounced back with three touchdowns and 226 rushing yards in a 49-7 win over Kodiak in Week 3.
Nisbett said he put on about 15 pounds in the offseason and still managed to increase his speed, a byproduct of cross training on Palmer's basketball and track teams.
Nisbett saved his biggest performance for Palmer's biggest game, racking a career-high six touchdowns against previously undefeated North Pole last weekend. Nisbett scored on a game-winning 8-yard run with 1:16 remaining, lifting Palmer to a 49-42 victory over the Railbelt Conference foe and moving the Moose into solo possession of first place.
"After every touchdown, I just had to try to come back with another one, try to get my team back in the game," Nisbett said. "Two (North Pole) touchdowns were kinda my fault, so I had to make up for it."
Mustering the energy to keep fighting in the fourth quarter was hindered by an elbow injury suffered during the game, but Nisbett showed his mettle when Christiansen asked if he was able to make it through the closing minutes.
"He said, 'I'm ready to go. I want to help get this done. I want to help my team out there,' " Christiansen said. "He's kind of a humble guy, and he'll just tell you 'Whatever you want, coach. I'll block and I'll carry the ball and I'll go catch a pass and I'll try and guard that guy for you too.' "
A passionate hatred of losing propels Nisbett. He realized the importance of being a team player from an early age, gleaning some wisdom from his father, who played quarterback in his younger days. Born in Kodiak, where he played a lot of basketball, Nisbett didn't take up football until he moved to Palmer in the seventh grade.
"My first position was running back, and that's how I just started loving football," he said.
Nisbett prefers offense to defense and admits it has been a thrill to cross the goal line so frequently. Running for 211 yards against Colony two weeks ago and 202 yards against North Pole last week, Nisbett brought his season totals to 902 yards on 104 carries, 17 rushing touchdowns and a kick return for a touchdown, according to the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman.
Nisbett considers himself a balanced back, fast enough to outrun some defenders and strong enough to run over others, but he gives all credit for his success to his teammates.
"I love my team," he said. "It's special. Everyone just puts in hard work every day at practice. No one fools around, just hard work."
Prior to last week's narrow win over North Pole, the Moose had outscored five opponents 193-51, with their closest game a 19-point win over West Valley in Week 4.
The Moose (6-0 overall, 4-0 Railbelt) have clinched a spot in the playoffs for the 13th straight season. The 1995 state champions fell by just two points to eventual state champion Service in the first round of last year's playoffs.
"Most of the people on this team are returning defensive people, so everyone is still down about that, kinda mad, so they just want to come back," Nisbett said.
As strong as the Moose look, and as bad as they want to win a state title, they try not to talk about anything but their next game, Nisbett said. Palmer will play host to Juneau (4-2, 3-1 Railbelt) this weekend and play host to Wasilla (1-5, 0-5 Railbelt) in the annual Potato Bowl to close the regular season. Wasilla won the Mayor's Cup trophy last year, kicking a last-second field goal to take the annual grudge match for the ninth time in 33 tries.
"We really want that trophy back," Nisbett said. "That's what we're gunning for."
Reach Jeremy Peters at email@example.com or 257-4335.
By JEREMY PETERS
Anchorage Daily News