The Juneau-Douglas High School football team will be show-casing a high-octane offense on Saturday night. However, it is coming from across the line of scrimmage, as the Wasilla Warriors will be the first opponent to run on the Adair Kennedy new turf field.
Wasilla graduated 21 seniors from a squad that won the Railbelt Conference title last season for rookie coach Kent Rilatos by winning their final six games. That team pummeled JDHS 53-33 at Wasilla.
“They just took it to us, to be honest,” Sjoroos said. “It was the first time in school history.”
The Warriors return senior quarterback Ben Fielder, a first team All-Railbelt and second-team all-state member who completed 85 passes for 1,691 yards last season (2nd in the conference) with 23 TD passes and just nine interceptions.
While the Warriors graduated Railbelt Offensive Player of the Year Devon Teeling, they return junior Mitchell Rilatos, senior Jake Lessard and junior Quace Wright in the backfield. The Warriors will rely on speed instead of power from the backfield.
The Warriors also return three starting offensive lineman to the front five, seniors Austin Ring, William Hightower and Jake Evans. Evans, Hightower, Billy Schultz, Cody Dedrick and Morgan Belgarde will anchor the D-line.
“They are known for their size,” Sjoroos said. “That is something they have always had, more size than their opponent. They are big and fast. I don’t know where they find some of these kids but they are huge.”
That was how Wasilla struck against Juneau last season. They hit tall receivers with quick passes against defensive backs and would run by them. This season, however, receiving could be the Warriors Achilles heel as the only returning players, Cash McGregor and Rilatos, have just two catches apiece from last season.
With two teams that like to throw the ball weather may be pivotal in the game.
The Crimson Bears had five different players catch the football last weekend and got a solid performance from Demetrius Campos with 13 carries.
“That is a good number,” Sjoroos said. “We like to see the ball in his hands 12-18 times, that is a good way to start off the year and not put too much stress on him.”
Defensively Eric Nordgren, Gary Speck, Stefan Jones, George Sua, Derik Vance, Samson Nauer and Brian Brassfield controlled the line of scrimmage.
“They stepped it up,” Sjoroos said. “They were challenged by the coaches and took the challenge.”
Defensive play will be key to slow Wasilla.
The Warriors stopped Bartlett last weekend 21-14 as Rilatos carried 22 times for 120 yards and Fielder connected on six of 17 passes for 79 yards. That translates to two tough players in good early season shape.
According to Sjoroos, last weekend was the first time that all the Railbelt teams won their opening games, many against the tough Anchorage Cook Inlet Conference.
Wasilla over Bartlett, West Valley over Chugiak 35-12, and North Pole over Dimond 32-14. Lathrop beat small school favorite Nikiski 44-41, Colony topped Skyview, and Palmer beat Soldotna 27-7.
“I still say this is the toughest year, with the most talent, I have ever seen,” Sjoroos said. “It is going to be a real dog fight to get one of those four playoff berths. I can’t find a game that is a guaranteed win.”
The Crimson Bears’ star senior quarterback, Phillip Fenumiai, will be a game-day decision Saturday as he recovers from a few bumps and bruises suffered on the defensive side of the game.
“He is getting better every day,” Juneau-Douglas High School football coach Rich Sjoroos said. “He is a very physical kid. And in college he will be such a good athlete that defense may be what he plays. I always thought of him as a finesse kid but he has shown that he can light people up.”
The Crimson Bears will have at least two dependable quarterbacks in the wings with sophomore junior varsity player Dorian Isaak and senior Trevor Pfaff.
Pfaff kept the offense stable in last weekend’s first half and Isaak put up some numbers in the second.
The Crimson Bears scored six touchdowns last weekend and an outstanding nine points on conversions, a majority from broken plays.
This weekend will see the addition of kicker Jackson Lehnhart back from vacation.
“The question that will be answered about us on Saturday is about intensity,” Sjoroos said. “The intensity they brought last weekend, was that because it was a football game? Or was it because they were playing their rivals Thunder Mountain? Because that intensity they kept all four quarters, they kept firing, there was no lull. The energy they brought out of the gates was unusual. My challenge to them was to bring that intensity every game. They flew to the ball and they tackled well.”
Offensively the Crimson Bears will need to sustain drives longer against Wasilla and not rely on big plays. They will also have to cut down on the seven turnovers from last weekend. Last season the Crimson Bears totaled six turnovers in eight regular season games.
“We were lucky to score on a kick off return last weekend,” Sjoroos said. “And we scored defensively and on conversations. Going into these games down the road we will not win if we total seven turnovers in a game. Our conditioning level will improve as the games progress.”
Another highlight for the game is the addition of a 25-foot high inflatable bear with an attached 20-foot tunnel the team will be announced through.
“We took it out to the field the other day and blew it up,” Sjoroos said. “It is pretty neat. It was really generous of Ike’s Fuel who bought it for the program.”
Saturday game time is 8 p.m. at Adair Kennedy Field (Junior Varsity play at 5 pm).
Across town, the Thunder Mountain Falcons will be traveling to Sitka for a 1 p.m. kickoff on Saturday.
The Sitka Wolves dismantled the Ketchikan Kings last weekend 30-8. While Ketchikan has 13 of 28 players new to the game; Sitka won their first road game in over a year. The Wolves totaled 279-yards on the ground with 35 carries and finished the day with 387 total offensive yards. Sitka’s Mitchell Boord scored four touchdowns - two rushing, one passing, and one receiving - and intercepted two passes on defense. The Wolves forced five turnovers.
Calls were not returned form Thunder Mountain coaches by press time.