PALMER — The offense may have pulled Palmer into the postseason. But Friday, the stout Moose defense pushed PHS into the second round of the playoffs.
Seniors Chris Cooney and Hayden Niekamp each recovered key fumbles, and the Moose defense allowed only 29 total yards and two first downs during the second half as Palmer earned a 13-6 state quarterfinal victory over the East Anchorage Thunderbirds during a wet night at Palmer High School’s Machetanz Field.
“The defense won today,” Palmer head coach Rod Christiansen said after the victory, which set up a semifinal date with South Anchorage next weekend at Chugiak High School.
Niekamp recovered a fumble on Palmer’s 5-yard line in the first quarter, and Cooney jumped on a loose ball late in the second half to help Palmer move into the semifinal round for the first time since 2009.
“Just being able to come out and stop them over and over again was the big thing tonight,” Christiansen said.
East controlled the clock for much of the first half, running 31 plays to Palmer’s 19. But the Moose defense managed to hold the T-Birds to just a 2-yard Jakeil Bell touchdown run in the second quarter.
“It was definitely a change,” Cooney said of Palmer spending so much of the first half on defense. “We’re conditioned to go through anything that comes at us. What our defense did, we adjusted. We figured out what was wrong, and whatever happened, we just took care of business.”
East put together a pair of 11-play drives in the first quarter. The Thunderbirds marched down to the 25-yard line on their first offensive series of the game, but East was forced to turn the ball over own downs. East put together another 11-play drive late in the first quarter and reached the 5-yard line. But that’s where Niekamp came up big for the Moose.
The defense continued to come through for the Moose in the fourth quarter. Even though East was held to less than 30 total yards and the two first downs during the final two quarters, the T-Birds did have chances to threaten Palmer’s 13-6 lead.
In the fourth quarter, Palmer put together a 13-play drive, but was forced to turn the ball over on downs at the East 22. Two plays into East’s ensuing drive, Cooney recovered a Thunderbird fumble.
East would have another chance after picking up a Palmer fumble late in the quarter. The T-Birds started their final possession of the game at their own 23-yard line, but Palmer forced a turnover on downs before East could reach midfield.
Junior James Nisbett and senior Luke Heun each reached the end zone for a Palmer team that entered the contest averaging 40 points per game. Nisbett and the Moose needed only three offensive plays to take the early lead. The junior, who now leads the state with 1,525 yards rushing, broke away for a 51-yard run on Palmer’s first play from scrimmage. Two plays later, Nisbett posted a 5-yard score, his 22nd rushing touchdown of the season. Nisbett rushed for a game-high 146 yards in the win.
Nisbett accounted for 60 percent of Palmer’s 240 yards on offense. The Moose, playing in steady rain on a field with inches of standing water in most areas, were held to zero yards passing for the first time this season.
“I was disappointed we didn’t finish a couple times,” Christiansen said. “It was so hard for our guys to pass and catch the ball effectively.”
East Anchorage finished with 128 yards rushing and 23 yards passing in the game, but the bulk of that yardage came in the first half. East had 21 plays, to Palmer’s three, in the first quarter alone.
Diego Sua’Teo’o led East with 75 yards rushing. All but four of those yards came during the first two quarters as the T-Bird sustained the long drives.
“They were a big team, they biggest we played all year,” Cooney said of the T-Birds.
Heun provided the go-ahead score for the Moose. The senior fullback capped an 11-play drive on the opening series of the second half with a 1-yard score.
Palmer, making its state-best 13th straight trip to the postseason, improved to 4-0 against East since 1995. The Moose have met the T-Birds twice in the playoffs since 1995, in both 1995 and 1996. Palmer would go on to play in a state championship game in each of those seasons.
The Moose will face the South Anchorage Wolverines, the second seed from the Cook Inlet Conference, either Friday or Saturday at Chugiak’s Tom Huffer Sr. Field. The exact time was not available prior to press time. South moved into the semis with a lopsided victory over West Valley, the No. 3 seed from the Railbelt.
Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman sports editor Jeremiah Bartz at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him @matsu_sports and find him by searching Valley Sports Huddle on Facebook.
Palmer 13, East Anchorage 6
Friday, Machetanz Field
Palmer — Nisbett 5 run (run failed) 9:48.
East — Bell 2 run (kick failed) 6:55.
Palmer — Heun 2 run (Pempek kick) 6:35.
RUSHING — East: Vanilau 15-56, Sua’Te’o 7-75, Bell 5-13, Laws 3-15, Jones 3-5, Afifale 3-5; Palmer: Nisbett 16-146, V. Aumavae 13-49, Christiansen 7-21, Heun 6-21, Myers 1-2.
PASSING — East: Vanilau 8-15-0—23; Palmer: Christiansen 0-9-0—0.
RECEIVING — East: Laws 4-4, Luafulu 2-14, Bell 2-5; Palmer: none.