Dedication. Discipline. Giving 100 percent. Playing like you practice. Those words came not out of the mouth of Juneau-Douglas High School head coach Rich Sjoroos but from jubilant Crimson Bears players after they defeated East Anchorage High School 7-6 in the first round of the state football playoffs at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park Saturday night.
“We just had tons of discipline on the line,” senior linebacker Alex “Boom Boom” Matheson said as his teammates celebrated around him. “It just frees it up for us on the outside.”
Matheson had at least five unassisted tackles and teamed up with Samson Nauer on six more.
“That’s how we practice everyday,” Matheson said. “One hundred percent. Over 100 percent.”
With starting quarterback Philip Fenumiai, the fifth-rated offensive player in the state, not available to play due to a leg injury, the Crimson Bears relied on an experienced backfield to grind up yardage against a monster front line from East. The Thunderbirds featured 260-pound Edward Jones, 300-pound Siaki (Jack) Ameperosa, 281-pound Jeremiah Ieremia and 325-pound Sivia (Budha) Thompson across the line.
Backup junior quarterback Trevor Pfaff showed that he could be a starter on any other team in the state by controlling the athletic JDHS offense around the defensive pillars opposite his own offensive line.
While the Crimson Bears stood tall and strong against East across the line, limiting their first possession of the game to midfield, Pfaff engineered a time consuming drive in the middle of the first quarter to give Juneau-Douglas momentum.
After forcing a punt the Crimson Bears took the ball on their own 38. Sean Niumataevalu took a 47-yard scamper to the East 22-yard-line. Lah Fifita brought the pigskin to the 10-yard-line; Niumataevalu took it to the two and Fifita scored at the 1:08 minute mark.
Adam Soto made what would prove to be the game-winning extra point and JDHS made a statement that they can bump and grind with any team in the state.
“I don’t know what we do, we just do it,” Fifita said after the game as Velepoto “Bubba” Enele wrapped him in a celebratory hug. “We just keep trying. We play hard in practice, so it is just game time every day. We do it together.”
On the ensuing kick off, Soto made a saving tackle on East’s Austin Gardner at the JD 45
An East reception by Tyler Rowles from quarterback Jesse Vanilau brought the ball down to the 3-yard line as the quarter ended.
With 11:35 on the clock Vanilau hit Rowles in the end zone to bring the Thunderbirds within one point. Rowles had five receptions for 58 yards.
The Crimson Bear defensive line pushed into the backfield on the extra point attempt and it fell well short.
JDHS continued to grind out yardage and keep the ball out of the hands of East’s top threat Jarred Laws.
Niumataevalu and Fifita each rushed for more than 100 yards and Jerrick Ibias more than 60.
JDHS also accumulated a number of yellow flags, which cancelled out other big gains but a solid Crimson Bears defense kept East back pedaling all night.
With East threatening at the end of the second quarter from the Bears’ 21-yard line, Dylan Skrzynski and Matheson sacked Vanilau twice and Nauer chased him down again as time expired.
The Crimson Bears enjoyed possessions of longer than eight minutes in each of the third and fourth quarters.
“We controlled field position,” Sjoroos said. “And we controlled time of possession. That is how we won this football game, that is how you play as a team.”
When East threatened at the 10:12 mark of the final period and Laws appeared to be alone waiting to receive a touchdown pass, Nauer made a last second tip of the ball. The Crimson Bears would chew up the next seven minutes.
With 3:35 remaining the JDHS defense had to stop East one last time. Working from their own 36 the Thunderbirds couldn’t get past the hungry Crimson Bears defensive line. After four straight plays JDHS got the ball and ran the clock out to the semifinals next weekend.
“I loved coaching you guys tonight,” Sjoroos said as his players knelt around him. In the background the East team lay exhausted. “There were so many selfless guys playing on this team tonight. That is why we won.”
Juneau will next play Service High School in the semifinals next weekend at Tom Huffer Sr. Stadium at Chugiak High School. Service beat Palmer on Saturday 34-32.
“Next week you will be faced with the biggest challenge you have ever had since putting on this uniform,” Sjoroos said. “But I tell you what, if we pay attention to what Palmer did we will win the football game. They laid the blueprint out there on how to give these guys a game. All the pressure is on Service. Everything is on these guys; they probably already have the championship rings ordered. Let’s work hard this week and get ready and shock the state.”
In other large school playoff action West beat Wasilla 59-36 and South beat West Valley 38-0.
How they scored
JDHS – Lah Fifita 2-yard run (Adam Soto kick) 1:08 ; JDHS 7 East 0
East – Tyler Rowles 11-yard pass from Jesse Vanilau (kick failed) 11:35; JDHS 7 East 6