For one group of seniors on Friday and Saturday night it will be the last time they put on their high school uniforms, walk across a grassy field, and prepare for athletic combat.
“It doesn’t matter who you play this time of year, it is going to be a tough game,” Juneau-Douglas High School head coach Rich Sjoroos said. “What is key is which group of seniors can keep their emotions in check. For one of two teams, both nights, their season and high school career is going to end. That doesn’t happen until the first playoff game. If you can get through that than you can just relax and play some football.”
The Railbelt Conference Number 1 seed Crimson Bears (7-1 overall, 5-1 conference) are hosting a rough and tumble group of pigskin carriers from Cook Inlet Conference No. 3 seed East Anchorage High School (4-4, 4-3) on Saturday. The Thunderbirds can pack a wallop, both on defense and with a strong run game.
“They bring some of the biggest kids people will ever see,” JDHS head coach Rich Sjoroos said. “With some of the hardest names to pronounce. If I went through their roster I would have to get some practice saying their names. They have a lot of size.”
East will bring a varsity roster of more than 45 players, almost as many seniors as JDHS has varsity football players.
“Just the sheer numbers allow them to withstand a few more injuries than we can,” Sjoroos said. “We have been pretty fortunate, every one will be in uniform Saturday night.”
Defensively East is as good as any one in the state. The Thunderbirds haven’t surrendered 300 yards to a single opponent all year.
“I think it is a stretch to think we will push these guys around,” Sjoroos said. “We will have to just match up and try to create some running lanes and give Philip (Fenumiai) time to throw.”
Under new coach Jeff Trotter and a new system East is in the playoffs for the first time since 2005. Thunderbird wide receiver Jarrad Laws is, statistically, one of the state’s best and is thrown to often by quarterback Jesse Vanilau.
The only common opponent the two teams have played this season is Palmer; East lost 14-0 to the Moose in the first week of the season and JDHS stopped the Moose 29-13 in week three.
Juneau-Douglas and East have met in the playoffs just three times.
In 2003 East beat JD in the state championship game 33-15. The Crimson Bears had a 15-13 halftime lead and, according to Sjoroos, “They made adjustments after the break and we didn’t.”
In 2004 the Crimson Bears won by one point, 27-26, on a touchdown pass with 30 seconds left in the game. In the 2005 state semi-finals the Crimson Bears throttled the Thunderbirds 21-3.
East hasn’t accumulated any frequent flier miles out of Anchorage this season. Their lack of playoff experience on the current team and the fact they are on the road in the foggy and chilly confines of Adair-Kennedy Field will work in Juneau’s favor.
“We have about 15 kids who have experienced this before,” Sjoroos said. “That is definitely an advantage and might help.”
In the Crimson Bears bracket of the playoffs Cook Inlet Cconference No.1 seed Service (7-0, 7-0) hosts Railbelt Conference No. 4 Palmer (4-4, 3-3). On the other side of the bracket RBC No. 1 seed Wasilla (6-2, 5-1) hosts CIC No. 4 seed West Anchorage (4-4,3-4) and CIC No. 2 seed South Anchorage (6-2, 6-1) hosts RBC No. 3 seed West Valley (5-3, 5-1).
“At this time in the season there is really no next weekend,” Sjoroos said. “If we take care of business our seniors play another day.”