PALMER — The Palmer Moose endured an unceremonious end to the 2011 season.

Not only did the Moose cap the regular season with a gut-wrenching loss to Wasilla in the Potato Bowl, but Palmer was forced to face an early postseason exit with a heartbreaking defeat to Service in the first round of the playoffs.

But that left plenty of time to work, and throughout the offseason, Palmer head coach Rod Christiansen saw a group of linemen take advantage of it.

Now, in 2012, the Moose are seeing that hard work pay off.

Palmer’s starting front five (center Lance Cassagranda, guards Caleb Nielsen and Ben Button; and tackles Nick Benshetler and Cole Frohling) and tight end Hayden Niekamp have paved the way for Palmer through an undefeated regular season, and are reasons why the Moose are steamrolling into the state playoffs as the top large-schools team in Alaska.

The 8-0 Moose, who host the East Anchorage Thunderbirds in a large-schools quarterfinals tonight at 7 p.m. at Machetanz Field in Palmer, have the top running back and are averaging about 420 yards of total offense per game.

Recently, Christiansen said he believed his players’ work in the weight room would lead to good things for his team.

“I really hoped it would,” Christiansen said of the Moose, who finished the regular season undefeated for the first time since 1996 and won their first Railbelt Conference title since 2003. “We put in a good offseason. Lot of days in the weight room I’d come in, and there was the starting line. There were seven different guys who could have started. A lot of years we were a lot less fortunate. But paying those dues, that dedication level pays big dividends.”

Behind that Moose front, Palmer has run for more than 250 yards in all but one game this season. Palmer has topped the 300-yard mark six times and the 400-mark twice. Palmer enjoyed a season-high 476 yards rushing during a 50-16 win over Lathrop earlier in the season.

Since the Moose were held to a mere 154 against West Valley, Palmer pounded its way through the second half of the season chewing up mass totals of yardage against Colony (424 yards), North Pole (342 yards), Juneau (354) and Wasilla (361).

The Moose have three runners who have topped the 100-yard mark in a game this season, but the bulk of the damage has been done by junior James Nisbett, who enters tonight’s contest with a state-best 1,379 yards on the ground.

“We continue to ask a lot of him, but he’s doing a good job,” Christiansen said after a recent win. “He’s a hard runner and has speed to go with it.”

Nisbett has used that combination of speed and power to run around, through and by opposing defenses all season long. Nisbett (who had 229 yards rushing, 105 yards receiving and six total touchdowns as a sophomore) started his junior season with a bang. On his team’s first offensive play of the season, Nisbett broke away for an 80-yard touchdown run to spark a 27-7 win over Soldotna.

That would not be the last time Nisbett would break off a long run. The junior has three touchdown runs of 79 yards or longer, and returned a kickoff 86 yards for a score against North Pole.

Nisbett has six touchdowns of 43 yards or more, and 11 of his 21 rushing touchdowns were at least 18 yards.

Senior quarterback Cameron Christiansen has provided some balance to the Palmer offense, completing 66 percent of his passes this season. Christiansen, who tossed a career-high three touchdowns against Wasilla last week, has nine touchdown throws and only one interception this season.

Palmer is also boasting the best defense in the Railbelt. The Moose lead the conference in scoring defense, allowing only 16 points per game, about six points less than second-ranked West Valley. The Moose are also third in the state in scoring defense, behind only Service and South.

Palmer’s opponent tonight, East Anchorage, is the fourth seed from the Cook Inlet Conference. East finished 5-3 overall and 4-3 in CIC play. The Thunderbirds — who are led by CIC Utility Player of the Year Jarred Laws and CIC Lineman of the Year Ma’o Tosi — have won their last three, beating Chugiak, Eagle River and Bartlett all by 25 points or more.

East beat the bottom four teams in the CIC (Dimond, Bartlett, Eagle River and Chugiak) by a combined total of 135-31, but the T-Birds were beat by the top three teams in the CIC (Service, South and West) by a combined total of 126-28.

The Palmer-East game is one of four large-schools playoff games this weekend. CIC top seed Service hosts Juneau-Douglas. North Pole, the second seed from the Railbelt, is hosting CIC No. 3 West Anchorage. Railbelt No. 3 West Valley travels to Anchorage to face CIC No. 2 South.

Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman sports editor Jeremiah Bartz at sports@frontiersman.com, follow him @matsu_sports and find him by searching Valley Sports Huddle on Facebook.

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