It’s a brand-new season with all-new challenges, expectations and obstacles to overcome, and Juneau-Douglas is once again flying under the radar.
Nine months after finishing up in the semifinals with a disappointing 21-18 loss to West Anchorage in a game the Crimson Bears dominated statistically, JDHS is eager for another crack at a state title.
“It’s always a new challenge each year and one you look forward to, getting the pads on and finding out what kind of kids you’re going to have,” coach Rich Sjoroos said. “This year is definitely a different group after we graduated some kids that have been in the program for a while.
“We’re new in a lot of areas, but then we’ve got some veterans back in some key spots to blend it all together.”
And a key veteran in perhaps the most crucial position is junior quarterback Phillip Fenumiai, who returns for his third year under center after a First Team All-State season as a sophomore. Fenumiai, a team captain, already has 19 starts under his belt and threw for more than 2,000 yards last year.
“He’s kind of beginning his second high school career,” Sjoroos said. “Most kids get two years of varsity football and he’s already going on his third. It’s great to see that the game is really slowing down for him now and he’s able to read defenses and coverages, and really be that other coach out on the field.
“We’re challenging him now to not only keep getting better, but also to find a way to lift the play of his teammates around him.”
Fenumiai is in the best shape of his life, measuring in at 6-foot-2 and 201 pounds, nearly 60 pounds less than he tipped the scales as a freshman. He also clocked a 40-yard dash time of 4.78 seconds — blistering for a prep quarterback — at a camp over the summer.
“That’s all through hard work,” Sjoroos said. “He spent five weeks this summer at a nutrition and training center down in Las Vegas, and he’s become more of a threat that we can use to run the ball as well as throw it. That’s probably his biggest improvement is his ability to move. His accuracy’s also gotten much better.
“He’s really starting to put the whole package together. I’m glad he’s putting on a black and red jersey instead of something else.”
Fenumiai said he’s ready to show how much he’s learned after two years.
“My freshman year I was more of a game manager, handing the ball off and barely throwing because I had the seniors to rely on. Going into my sophomore year I knew I needed to step up leadership-wise. I put in the hard work during the offseason to lose all that weight,” he said. “This year, I need to perfect everything because this is a crucial year. Everything is going well so far. Hopefully it will show on Saturday.”
After having two All-State senior receivers a year ago in Colin Gozelski and Chris
Holloway, who both graduated, Sjoroos said Fenumiai has several new options to target.
“We’ve got some players this year, about six different guys that can go out and catch the football for us. We’re really fortunate in that area,” he said. “Demetrius (Campos) was the big playmaker on the JV team last year, Samson Nauer has really good hands, Brian Brassfield can play in the slot, Stefan Jones can catch well and Alec Calloway came over from the basketball team, and he’s a big target at 6-4.
“We also got Sean Niumataevalu, and he’s done what he needed to do to play football this year and I’m really happy for him.”
Sjoroos said Campos, a sophomore, is the fastest player on the team, clocking a 4.5-second 40-yard dash time. Junior Gary Speck provides another big target as a 6-foot-3, 245-pound tight end.
“He actually got the top tight end award at the camp we went to in Boise this year,” Sjoroos said. “And Phillip got the top QB award, so that’s pretty unusual for two guys from one team to win both of those.”
Fenumiai said he’s happy to have so many options to deliver the ball to.
“I think multiple guys are going to step up,” he said. “We’ll spread it around but if someone’s open every single time, I’m going to keep going to them.”
Senior Jerick Ibias (5-foot-8, 190 pounds) will start at running back after being third on the depth chart a year ago. Ibias ripped off a 48-yard, fourth-quarter run against Chugiak to spark a lethargic Crimson Bears offense to life, sending JDHS to victory in the first round of the state playoffs.
“He really gave us some big runs last year,” Sjoroos said. “He started coming on later in the year and he’s a kid that flew under the radar a bit when he was younger, but we got him in there some last year. He’s not a breakaway runner, but he’s deceptively fast. And he does not fumble. He’s so sure-handed with the football and that’s invaluable.”
“The backs are looking great,” Ibias added. “We’ve been working a lot on our footwork and vision to find the holes. I’m not all that fast but I’m shifty, and my feet are quick. I can hit the hole and make people miss.”
Junior Kohl Jaeger (5-foot-8, 170 pounds) also will get a lot of carries after moving up from the JV.
“He was one of the bigger running threats last year, he’s got pretty good speed and he’s a tough kid,” Sjoroos said. “He plays bigger than his size and he’s sure-handed, also.”
But the chains don’t move without the big boys in the trenches creating seams for runners and holding off the pass rush. JDHS returns two starters from last year’s offensive line, senior center Warren Eckland (5-foot-10, 213 pounds), and junior Jake Robinson (5-foot-9, 205 pounds) at right guard.
Junior Griffin Bozarth (6-foot-3, 213 pounds) crossed over from the JDHS hockey team, and sophomore Noah McVay (5-foot-9, 255 pounds) and junior Travis Duvernay (5-foot-11, 200 pounds) also will see a their share of snaps.
The Bears also got a boost in the form of Hawaiian transfer Velepoto “Bubbles” Enele, a 5-foot-10, 330-pound senior right tackle from Oahu.
“Those are our main linemen this year, but this takes time. You squeeze the most you can out of the time you have together,” Sjoroos said, referencing the short, two-week practice period the players have to mold into a cohesive unit before the first game. “You’ve got to get that chemistry. I’ll take chemistry over a bunch of individual athletes any day. We just have to get better each day.”
Enele is new to Juneau-Douglas and Alaska prep football, but linemen all speak the same language.
“We’re going to be nasty. Nasty,” he said twice for emphasis. “Football games are won on the line. We do the dirty work on the field.
“Everybody is working together and we just have to communicate and work hard.”
Sjoroos said the Bears will try a lot of things before ultimately finding out what their identity will be on offense.
“We have the ability to line up with some heavy sets, we have some tight ends and we can hammer the ball,” he said. “Or we can spread things out with some small, quick receivers. I think you’ll see a little bit of everything from us, especially early on.
“I just want to be good at something,” he continued. “I don’t want to do lots of things and not be good at anything. We want to have an identity, something we can look to and say, ‘Try and line up and stop us because this is what we’re good at.’”
The Bears’ identity is always the same defensively with coordinator Al Fenumiai calling the shots — blitz and attack.
Sjoroos said, much like the offense, opponents should expect to see a lot of variety on the defensive front.
“Coach Al is aggressive and I imagine it will be the same kind of approach we’ve had,” he said. “We’ll use a lot of different fronts and blitz a lot.
“If you look at what Juneau’s know for, it’s a hard-hitting, aggressive, bring-a-lot-of-heat-type of approach.”
In addition to a veteran at quarterback, Juneau-Douglas also returns its top defensive player, linebacker and team captain Lah Fifita, also a First Team All-State selection a year ago.
“To have him back there anchoring the middle, he can make up for mistakes by guys who miss an assignment and make up for any flaws that we have,” Sjoroos said. “He’s actually a really quiet, smart kid, and it’s his fourth year in the program.”
Fifita said this year’s unit will be a ball-hawking, blitzing machine that should be able to cover the entire field.
“We bring the heat every time,” he said. “The linebackers will be our strength this year. But we really just want to bring the heat and force the quarterback to make bad throws or fumble, and we want to force turnovers. Forcing turnovers will be a big key for our defense.”
Joining Fifita at linebacker are seniors Dylan Skrzynski, Alex Matheson and newcomer Junior Nauer, a senior.
“Alex returns from last year and is one of the more sure tacklers that we have,” Sjoroos said. “Junior is a little guy at 5-7 and 155 pounds, but he’s a spark plug, just tough as nails.”
Campos, Niumataevalu, Jaeger and newcomer Danny Nore make up the secondary. Billy Palmer returns and will be a hybrid linebacker-defensive back.
Enele will anchor the defensive line at nose guard.
“It’s going to be a challenge for teams just to try and move him,” Sjoroos said. “He’s a big body and he knows how to get leverage. I’m really looking for him to do some good things.”
Joining Enele up front is senior Matt Vandor and Jones.
Niumataevalu, Ibias and Campos are the primary kick returners this season.
“But there are a lot of guys that can jump in there,” Sjoroos said. “We’ve got a group of kids that if you lined them all up and go left to right, there’s not a lot of difference in their abilities. That’s what’s made the whole lineup so competitive as far as who’s going to start and who the backups are. They’re all challenging each other in practice.”
As is the tradition at JDHS, a soccer player, senior Adam Soto, will handle place kicking duties.
“We struggled to find a kicker this year and we’re glad he came in,” Sjoroos said. “He’s got a good leg, he can put the ball down near the goal line and he’s really accurate. He doesn’t seem to get fazed when we rush some guys at him in practice.”
Fenumiai and Billy Palmer are battling for punting duties.
Just like the start of 2010, when the Bears finished a few points away from the state championship game, Sjoroos said JDHS is flying under the state radar a bit.
“That’s fine. I think when you graduate your top running back in (Justin) Brooks and Colin and Vinh (Le), some of those All-State guys that are gone, people will look at you and say you don’t have much back,” he said. “That’s OK. You have to prove yourself from week to week.”
Sjoroos said Palmer is the team to beat in the Railbelt Conference.
“It’s a short season and you have to get wins and be playing your best in Week 7, 8, 9 and 10, or you’ll get knocked out,” he said. “We’ve got Palmer and Colony coming (to Juneau) this year, but it’s back-to-back in Weeks 3 and 4, so right off the bat we’ve got a really tough schedule. Opening with Thunder Mountain is such an emotional game, and then we go on the road to North Pole, which is such a tough, tough place to play.
“Right out of the gate, we’ve got to be playing some good football or it will be a tough road the rest of the way.”