Another tough one
Any team that kicks to Kelechi Madubuko clearly isn’t paying attention.
With a pair of kick returns in Friday’s Sept. 2, 41-23 loss to Dimond High, the Eagle River senior has six returns for touchdowns in the past 12 games.
“I just find a way to the end zone,” Madubuko said.
Madubuko’s brilliance in the Wolves’ four straight losses — he has scored seven of the their 10 touchdowns this season — is all for the good of the team, he said.
“I try to keep my guys up,” Madubuko said. “I do it for them.”
Trailing 21-3, Madubuko took an 85-yard kickoff return to the end zone with 5:27 to play in the first half. Great blocking allowed him to scamper in virtually untouched, Madubuko said.
“That’s one thing we’re really good at, special teams,” he said.
Last year’s first team all-Cook Inlet Conference return specialist also took a 76-yard punt return to the house late in the fourth quarter for his third score of the game.
After Madubuko beat the first Dimond defender, only the punter was left, he said.
“I was just gone,” Madubuko said.
Between his pair of special teams scores, Madubuko took a 60-yard slant pass from sophomore quarterback Peter Kott for a touchdown in the third quarter.
Lined up to the left, Madubuko caught the quick strike, cut to the middle and was gone. He strolled in untouched as three Wolves blocked Dimond’s lone deep back.
“Madubuko had the game of his life,” Dimond head coach Chris Borst said.
Equally as impressive was Dimond senior back Nathan Stephens.
He rushed for 205 yards — more than double Eagle River’s output — and two touchdowns. With 47 receiving yards, Stephens accounted for 252 of Dimond’s 361 total yards.
“He’s our Madubuko,” Borst said. “He’s tough. He’s hard to tackle. That’s why he gets the ball.”
Stephens has a superior work ethic to complement his athletic ability, Borst said.
“There isn’t a coach in the Cook Inlet Conference that wouldn’t love to have him on their team,” he said. “And I’m no different.”
The loss drops Eagle River to 0-3 in the conference and 0-4 overall. The Wolves travel to Anchorage Football Stadium on Friday, Sept. 9, to take on West at 7 p.m.
Eagle River has the talent to notch its first win of the season against the Eagles, head coach Kenny Ray said.
“West is very beatable if we play good football,” he said. “We got four games left. Maybe we can salvage something.”
Dimond’s Elijah Pili began and finished the game’s first drive. After recovering a muffed kickoff, Pili capped off an 87-yard drive with a 4-yard touchdown run. The 14-play drive chewed up more than half of the opening quarter.
The Lynx scored 46 seconds later after Malcolm Bell mishandled the ensuing kickoff, giving Dimond possession just inside Eagle River’s 17-yard line.
Three straight Stephens runs put Dimond up 14-0. A 29-yard field goal by Josh Oberlander gave the Wolves their first points of the game nine seconds into the second quarter.
Dimond marched 70 yards in 11 plays on its next possession finished off by a 12-yard Damon Griffith score to take an 18-point lead.
Madubuko’s first kick return 11 seconds later cut the lead to 12.
Then it was Stephens who factored in on special teams.
He blocked an Eagle River punt inside Wolves territory to give Dimond possession at the 34. Stephens recovered a fumble by quarterback Ryden Hines three plays later.
With seconds left before the end of half, Hines found Paul Duclos for a 20-yard reception, putting the Lynx on the 1-yard line. Hines scored on the next play with four seconds left to give Dimond a 27-9 halftime lead.
Eagle River can’t afford to turn the ball over three times in a game, senior lineman O.J. Hall said.
“Lack of discipline, that’s what kills us,” he said.
But the team wasn’t lacking in effort, Hall said.
“We played a good game,” he said. “We hit hard, they hit hard.”
Having just 24 suited up for a second straight game limited the Wolves, Kelechi Madubuko said. Despite its small roster, Eagle River continues to push hard each game, he said.
“They keep fighting,” said Madubuko, whose younger brother, Jachi, is also one of the team’s top players. “I love all of those guys. They will never give up.”
Injuries forced others into new roles against Dimond, Hall said.
“A lot of guys stepped up this game,” he said.
Armani Tufaga took a 30-yard interception in for a score to seal the victory for Dimond with 7:41 to play. Stephens rounded out the scoring with a 45-yard touchdown up the middle on the first play from scrimmage after Madubuko’s second kick return. A failed onside kick gave the Lynx great field position.
When asked about Madubuko’s stellar return-game performance this season, a choked-up Ray credited the other 10 players on the field with providing him room to run. But it’s clear Ray knows just how special Madubuko is.
Long after the team dispersed from its post-game meeting in the end zone of Dimond Alumni Field, Ray approached Madubuko as he left the turf.
All Ray said to his senior captain was, “I love you.”
Madubuko responded, “I love you, too, coach.”