How do you follow up an 8-0 regular season?
Thunder Mountain hopes its next trick is to pick up its first playoff win in school history.
“That was a second-year program going 8-0, and that’s something that doesn’t happen a whole lot,” Falcons football coach Bill Byouer said. “But our goal for this year is to make it through the first round of the playoffs.
“We set our sights on the undefeated regular season last year and that happened. Maybe luck’s on our side and we’ll make it happpen,” he continued. “But we’ve got a big test against (Juneau-Douglas) right out of the gate so that will be a great measuring stick for us.”
But things haven’t started off as well as Byouer had hoped because the Falcons have been plagued by injuries and the roster has taken a hit.
“We started off with large numbers and now we have small numbers,” Byouer said. “The sick bug’s hit us, the injury bug’s hit us, and at one point we had just 10 kids at practice.
“We have quality players but not a lot of depth. But the guys I have are working hard and putting the time in. I can’t ask for any more than what they’ve given.”
Just like Juneau-Douglas, Thunder Mountain has a capable quarterback who will be under center for the third straight year in 6-foot-1, 200-pound senior Camden Thomas.
“He’s the general out there,” Byouer said. “Last year he grew and hopefully this year he grows even more.”
Ben Jahn, a 6-foot-1, 200-pound sophomore, is going to be a big target for Thomas.
“He’s been turning heads and he’s a quality football player,” Byouer said. “He’s football smart and has hands that snag everything. His routes are crisp and he has good speed. He’ll be out there catching a lot of balls for us.”
Replacing 1,000-yard rusher Cameron Fronimos and backfield running mate Jesse Conrad from last season is a tall order. Stepping in is Villie Tupou, a 5-foot-7, 215-pound junior, and classmate John Jolly, checking in at 5-foot-10 and 150 pounds. Jordan Hakala, a 6-foot, 265-pound battering ram will start at fullback.
“I think we’re really going to be pounding the ball this year on offense,” Hakala said. “The thing that I key on is I’m really quick off the ball. They might hit me in my legs but I’m still going to have 5-yard carries. I’m not going to be stopped in the backfield because that’s what heavy backs do — they get their five yards.”
Byouer said the running game will again be a strength.
“We’ll pound the ball and mix in some passing,” he said. “We’ve got some big backs who are going to make some holes.”
Byouer said Jolly also will play a big part in the passing game.
“He’s a speedster and he’s going to turn heads this year,” he said. “He’s got good cutting ability. He’s starts out slow to find the hole, and then he fires through it. He’s not afraid to go inside at all and he sees the cut-back lanes, and he can adjust.”
The Falcons boasted tremendous size on the offensive line last season but lost a few key cogs to graduation. Byouer said they’ll rely more on speed and technique this year.
“We’re fast. We’re just a fast O-line and we’re getting faster,” he said. “We’re not huge. Everything will show on Saturday and these kids have to step up. Practicing and playing games are totally different.”
Greg Gilchrest, a 5-foot-10, 190-pound junior, returns at guard, along with Paul Strickler, and Aaron Corcoran, a 6-foot-5, 265-pound senior. Josh Tupou also moved up from the JV to play center.
“It’s definitely going to be different from last year, but I think our offensive line is going to open up nice holes for us,” Byouer said. “I believe we’re going to be able to get to the second level and our backs are going to be able to get more yardage than they were able to get last year.”
Corcoran said it’s been a learning experience but the line is coming along.
“We have older guys but they were injured last season and didn’t get a whole lot of playing time,” he said. “Greg and Paul, they were both injured, but they’re in there now and they’re starters.
“Our timing is going well. I saw the most improvement (Wednesday) and I felt like we were all moving as one,” he continued. “We were really aggressive, and these boys are getting things really fast, which is a good sign.”
Corcoran said the line is going to be aggressive.
“We’re going up against a lot,” he said. “We have JDHS our first game and a lot of people are looking at us to do a lot of things, so we have to do it for them. We’re going to be aggressive and get stuff done.”
The Falcons are running a 5-3 defense, just like the last two years.
“We’re going to bring it,” Byouer said. “We’re not going to be sitting back waiting for you to hit us. We’re going to hit you first. Everything’s covered up and we know exactly where we’re supposed to be.”
Byouer expects big things out of Hakala on the line.
“He’s going to be the guy to watch,” he said. “He’s started to increase his skill level in regards to his hand movements and different pass rushing techniques. He’s becoming a complete package and he’ll be moving all around (at different positions).”
Hakala went to a defensive line camp at Oklahoma University, which is the preseason No. 1 team in college football.
“We had a lot of former NFL players there trying to show us the ropes,” he said. “They were looking for kids who were coachable and did what they were told. We did a lot of agility drills and stuff like that.”
Byouer said senior Eric Reyna will be at free safety.
“He’s been starting for the last two years and he’ll be out and about,” he said. “He’s got great closing speed and when he gets into you, he can make the tackle and take the ball away. He really understands what is asked of the position.”
Jorge Vasquez, Villie Tupou and Jahn will man the linebacker positions. Vasquez and Josh Tupou also will return kicks on special teams, while Hakala will punt.
“I’m calling out all soccer players,” Byouer quipped. “We’ve not been known for having a great kicking game and we need to change that.”
Byouer said the returnees learned a lot from last year’s playoff experience. He added that he didn’t think the team knew what it was getting into against traditional state power and eventual champion Soldotna, which averaged 64 points in the playoffs and rolled to a 77-42 win over Kenai in the title game.
“They’re going to take that experience and take us to the next level,” he said about the 55-20 defeat. “Nobody felt good coming back from that loss. We self-destructed up there, bottom line. We didn’t play our football. They had their heads down and they know what needs to be done this year.”
Byouer said the team, short-handed as it is, is ready to go Saturday.
“I’ve got several guys that aren’t going to be able to play in Saturday’s game because they haven’t had enough practices. It’s rough,” he said. “But just like (JDHS), we want those bragging rights. Us being a third-year program, we’re starting to be recognized and we’re being accepted, but we still have a lot of work to do to get to the level the Bears are at right now.”