Things are changing after 21 years of prep football tradition in Juneau — change that has been on the horizon since a new high school opened two years ago.
This is no longer a one-team town.
A new Southeast rivalry begins Saturday when the Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears face the Thunder Mountain Falcons at 8 p.m. for hometown bragging rights in the first-ever Glacier Bowl at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park.
The game marks an historic event for local high school football, which began in the late 1980s.
ASAA set up a qualifying process for its first state tournament in 1990, with East topping Soldotna 36-7 in the first championship game. Prior to that, teams played in the Anchorage Invitational, dating back to 1983 when Dimond defeated Soldotna 21-0 for the invitational title.
Juneau-Douglas football coach and historian Rich Sjoroos was a senior in 1986-87, when Juneau’s first football team wasn’t sanctioned by the high school.
It essentially was a club team known as the Juneau Youth Football League Bears.
“We played Lathrop, Eilson and Ketchikan twice,” Sjoroos said, “and that was our schedule.”
Juneau-Douglas High School football was officially born in 1990, with Dave Haynie as its first coach. Sjoroos said the early stages were a contentious time between the JYFL and new JDHS coaching staff.
“Jeep Rice and Dave Hunt were running the team up until 1990, and all of a
sudden the school took it over and they wanted a teacher in there,” Sjoroos explained. “So basically on that first day, you had two coaching staffs show up and it was a bit of a power struggle as to who was going to run the team.”
The two staffs came together, with Reilly Richey serving as its defensive coordinator until he took over the head coaching position in 1998.
The Crimson Bears won their first game 32-20 over a visiting team from Paonia, Colo., the No. 1 3A team in the state that year, on Aug. 31, 1990. The first team went 2-2, the second went 5-1 and the third finished 3-4.
Sjoroos said the first few years of Crimson Bears football boasted a couple of great teams, including a 6-1 finish in both 1993 and 1994, with the only loss in ’94 coming to eventual state champion Service, 16-0.
JDHS also pulled out a 29-26 win that year over Notre Dame, a Canadian team that came in with a 39-game win streak. Notre Dame returns to Juneau this season on Sept. 17.
“They were tough and there were some excellent football players here back in those days,” he said.
But the team suffered from its independent status from 1990-95, and was ineligible for the state playoffs unless it finished with an undefeated instate record.
“They would play a seven- or eight-game schedule against five Alaska teams and two Canadian teams, or whoever they could find to fill the schedule,” he said. “They’d usually run into some powerhouse, like a Service or a Chugiak, and they’d lose maybe one game, keeping them out of the playoffs.”
Sjoroos said the Bears were seconds away from their first berth in 1993.
“That team was so good they actually had Chugiak beaten. A foreign exchange student kicked a 37-yard field goal, which at that time was the school record, and it gave Juneau the lead with about 30 seconds to go in the game,” he recalled. “But they kicked it deep to the best running back in the state and he returned it 70 yards for a touchdown, and Chugiak won.
“Chugiak made the state semifinals that year and kept Juneau from going to the playoffs. That was probably the best early team.”
Juneau-Douglas joined the Cook Inlet Conference in 1995, giving the school its best shot to make the postseason. A couple of lean years followed, with Richey taking the helm in 1998. He led the team to its first playoff berth and victory — 37-10 over Lathrop in the snow — in 1999, when he was named Coach of the Year for the state of Alaska.
JDHS won its first conference title in 2001, but was beaten by eventual state champion Dimond in the first round of the playoffs.
The school hosted its first postseason game and made its first state championship contest in 2003. The local community raised $10,000 to pay NBC for the rights to broadcast the game in Juneau, which was football crazy by that time, Sjoroos said.
“That was just amazing. At that time, there were so many former players that never got the chance because it just wasn’t an option for them. They were living through the kids on that team,” he said. “Those kids felt like they were representing something bigger than themselves.
“2003 was really a special year,” he continued. “We started the season ranked 12th out of 15 teams and people didn’t expect anything from us coming off a 2-6 year. Week by week, we kept turning everybody into believers.”
The Bears lost that first state title game 33-15 to East, but returned soon after.
Juneau-Douglas made the state semifinals in 2004 but tragedy struck when Richey died in March of 2005 after a prolonged battle with cancer and hepatitis C, which he contracted during a bone marrow transplant in 1989.
“He was an amazing man,” JDHS activities director Sandi Wagner said in a 2005 article after Richey’s death. “He built Juneau football into what it is — an outstanding program.”
A sad spring of ’05 for the Crimson Bears and community was followed by the team’s greatest achievement to that point — its first state championship run.
“He was there in spirit,” Sjoroos said, “and that was a magical year.”
Bill Chalmers took over the head coaching position that season, and Sjoroos said the Bears dominated the state of Alaska like no team he’d seen before.
“We had a bunch of seniors and that team had the best chemistry of any we’ve had,” he said. “They knew each other inside and out, and I still see a lot of them around Juneau. When they come back, it’s nice run into them. They still talk about what a highlight that was to play on that team.”
Running back Tres Saldivar set the state rushing record in the Bears’ 49-29 win over Palmer with 351 yards, punctuating the victory with his only touchdown in the final minutes on a 15-yard run.
“It’s still a state record and it’s one that’s probably going to last for a long while,” Sjoroos said. “USA Today picks one kid throughout the country as its player of the week, and he was chosen as the National Player of the Week.”
Juneau-Douglas finished off the school’s lone undefeated season with a 23-13 win over Palmer in the 2007 state championship game. Eddie Brakes coordinated one of the best prep defenses the state has ever seen. The Bears gave up just three rushing touchdowns the entire season, with two coming in a 49-29 win over Palmer in the title game.
“We pretty much had a new team, but it was the best defensive unit we’ve ever had,” Sjoroos said. “We held teams to six points a game and in 11 games, with as much as teams run the ball in Alaska, we only allowed three rushing touchdowns the entire year. All to Palmer.”
The team returned to the state finale in 2008 but came up short, falling 22-14 to Service.
“That was tough. We had a lead at halftime and just couldn’t hold it,” Sjoroos said. “Things just kind of went against us in the fourth quarter.”
One of the school’s most memorable games and finishes came the week before against undefeated No. 1 South.
“We were down 27-14 with six minutes to go and we beat them 28-27,” Sjoroos said. “Eric Fagerstrom, as a freshman, scored the winning touchdown to put us in the state championship game. It was the biggest fourth-quarter comeback that we’ve had in school history, and it was our 100th victory.”
Juneau-Douglas made the state semifinals again in 2010 and now has 113 wins. The Crimson Bears are looking for No. 114 on Saturday.
But the circumstances are completely different than any the school or community has ever seen.
Juneau-Douglas isn’t facing a long-time rival from far off, like Palmer. The Crimson Bears will meet the crosstown Falcons for the first time, a team made up of many of the same kids that would be wearing crimson and black if not for the new school.
“In my mind, in my team’s mind and in a lot of the parents’ minds, the game Saturday is not the biggest, but it’s the most meaningful game we’ve ever played in Juneau,” Sjoroos said. “There will be a lot of emotions out there because of all the history that’s gone on between the players that will now be playing against each other. You’ve got coaches that coached together going against each other, referees that, for the first time, will be calling two groups of high school kids from the same town.
“There are so many dynamics going into it, it will be which team can keep those emotions in check and concentrate on football that will get out of the gate faster.”
No brothers are facing each other — this year — but there are cousins.
“There are probably going to be a lot of families torn, pacing back and forth between both sides,” Sjoroos said. “It’s a different direction now because for so many years, we’ve only had one team. You couldn’t help but root for them because they were always going against big, bad Anchorage, or teams from outside Juneau.
“Now you’ll have a town that’s split up a little bit because people are going to pick one side or the other,” he continued. “A lot of people in Juneau aren’t used to that. Eventually, we’ll be in the same conference and then those games, one team may go to the playoffs and one won’t. Nobody’s season or playoff chances are going to be hurt Saturday night, but it’s all about bragging rights.”