The last time the Kenai Central football program made the postseason, all of its players were in elementary school, and the team played in what is now classified as the Division II state championship. In 2015, it was called the medium school division, and the Kardinals fell short to Soldotna.
The 2023 Kardinals didn’t just end their seven-year playoff drought with a dominant 20-8 win over Barrow on Saturday at Service High in the Division III state finals — they ended an 11-year title drought as well.
“It’s going to take some time to sink in, but I’m just so happy for our kids because it’s all about them,” Kenai Central coach Jake Brand said.
Since its last trip to the postseason, Kenai Central hadn’t won more than four games in a single season. That mark came last year when the Kardinals finished 4-4. That was also Brand’s first year as head coach after being on the staff as an assistant and he has some coaches on staff that were on the last state championship team.
“The streets aren’t necessarily paved with gold down there in Kenai,” Brand said. “The community loves their kids, they love football, and they love the high school. It’s been a long time coming, and it means everything to Kenai.”
The junior-heavy team was led to victory by senior captain Zeke Yragui who never came off the field as played quarterback on offense and free safety on defense. He orchestrated three touchdown drives using his legs to extend them and his arm to throw a pair of scores.
“He’s an unselfish quarterback, and that’s why he’s so good on defense, too,” Brand said. “He’s a gamer. He’ll put the team on his back. He’s not about himself. He’s about getting the plays made that need to be made.”
After being sacked on the first play from scrimmage of the game, Yragui marched the Kardinals’ offense 68 yards including a 30-yard run by him. Kenai scored the first points of the game on an 11-yard touchdown pass from Yragui to junior Sawyer Vann.
“Our coaches found plays that worked and he kept calling them,” Yragui said. “They didn’t catch on until later on so we kept picking up big yards.”
Yragui led a defensive effort, recovering a pair of fumbles before the Kardinals offense extended their lead to double figures after he and fellow senior William Wilson joined forces on a run-heavy drive that featured two passes in the first four plays and then seven straight runs. The last five were all carries by Wilson who plunged across the goal line from a one-yard out on his last with less than two minutes until halftime.
Kenai Central controlled and held onto the ball for most of the second half, limiting Barrow to just four possessions in the final two quarters.
After recovering the Whalers’ fourth fumble of the game, the Kardinals went on a nine-play scoring drive Yragui finished with a 20-yard catch and run touchdown to junior Makai Johansen, who weaved his way through a sea of defenders to find the end zone with just over three minutes left in the fourth quarter.
The defense was pitching a shutout until Barrow managed to spoil it in the final minute when junior Gabriel Dominic Ortilla finished a drive that was sparked by a 53-yard completion. Barrow scored on a one-yard touchdown run and then successfully converted a two-point conversion attempt.
Even though he and the defense weren’t able to keep the Whalers off the scoreboard entirely in their third meeting of the season, the fact that they dominated for the vast majority of the game and were still crowned as champions at the end is fine for Yragui and the Kardinals.
“In the first game, we were figuring things out, and the second time we pretty much dominated them,” he said. “This game I felt like we could do the same thing, and they couldn’t run their offense at all on us.”