When the Juneau-Douglas High School football team opted to leave the large school Railbelt Conference to play in the familiar territory of the medium school Southeast Conference, the expectation was a state championship.
“Each year is different, I will be the first one to point that out,” Juneau-Douglas coach Rich Sjoroos said. “This year, the medium school division is every bit as talented at the top as the large school division and that is shown on the field.”
The Crimson Bears face Kenai in the semifinals of the ASAA First National Bowl state football championships on Saturday at 1 p.m. on Dimond High School’s Alumni Field in Anchorage.
Kenai (7-1) is 1-0 against large schools, beating Wasilla 17-14.
North Pole (8-1), which also dropped out of the Railbelt and into the SEC, has gone 4-0 against large schools, beating Eagle River 40-8, Colony 44-26, West Valley 28-13 and Lathrop 24-13.
Soldotna (9-0) defeated large school Colony 47-24 and JDHS (7-1) has beaten Colony 33-24 and Wasilla 42-6.
“Soldotna, Kenai and North Pole will have a lot to say about who wins the state title,” Sjoroos said. “It is flattering to think that Juneau is held in that regard but we definitely have to prove it on the field.”
Football purists statewide have longed to see a JDHS and Soldotna title game as the two teams have compiled some of the most powerful seasons over the past 10 years.
The Crimson Bears have won large school state titles in 2007 (over Service) and 2005 (over Palmer); were runners-up in ‘08 and ‘03; finished third in ‘11, ‘10, ‘06 ‘04 and 1999; and fifth in ‘12, ‘09 and ‘01.
Soldotna has won medium or small school state titles in 2012, ‘10, ‘08, ‘07 and ‘06. In 1999, when the state had just one classification, Service won the title over Wasilla; JDHS was third and Soldotna fifth.
From 1983-89, the Cook Inlet Conference invited teams deemed worthy to play to the Invitational State Championship. Soldotna was a runner up in 1988 to Chugiak and in 1983 to Dimond.
When the Alaska School Activities Association began running the tournaments in 1990, Soldotna was runner-up to East and to Eielson in ‘92.
“At this point if we are playing Soldotna that means we win this weekend,” Sjoroos said. “So I would take it, that would be the silver lining, that means we have moved on. First things first. I have told the kids we do not focus on anybody other than Kenai right now. That would be a huge mistake to overlook them, especially with how well they played last weekend. They were very, very determined.”
Kenai walked over Kodiak 47-6 in the first round of the medium school playoffs at the Kardinals’ nest on Saturday.
Kenai has won medium/small state titles in 2011, ‘09, ‘05, ‘04, ‘03 and ‘02.
The Alaska Preps poll has JDHS ranked first in medium schools, followed by North Pole, Soldotna and Kenai. National poll Max Preps has a combined division ranking placing Soldotna first, followed by West, Service, JDHS, Palmer, Kenai, South and North Pole.
Kenai lost to Soldotna 58-10 in the final game of the season.
“It says a lot about them to come back and smother Kodiak,” Sjoroos said. “It showed everybody that they are not folding up the tents yet. I think our kids listened and we will have another good week of practice and both those football games this weekend should be excellent games on Saturday.”
The Kardinals and Crimson Bears have one common opponent on the season.
They both won on the road at Wasilla, Kenai in the second week of the season, JDHS in week seven.
“If you looked at it by timing of the year they could be completely different team,” Sjoroos said. “You could read into it a little bit but probably not too much.”
The Kenai and Wasilla game featured a delay due to thunder and lightening and was played in a torrential downpour.
According to Sjoroos, in the game video it is hard to even see the players.
“So that could have kept the score down too,” Sjoroos said. “But it was typical Kenai football. They played solid defense, ball control offense and field position.”
Kenai has relied on field position all season, pinning teams back and making them earn long drives.
“I haven’t seen them put anyone on a short field all year,” Sjoroos said. “That is why they are only giving up 11 points a game.”
If you back up a foe or two, the next closest similar opponents for the Crimson Bears and Kardinals would be Thunder Mountain. The Falcons lost to Soldotna 64-6, North Pole 64-0 and Kodiak 60-15. Kenai beat Kodiak twice (22-21 in week four) and lost to Soldotna.
JDHS beat the Falcons 57-0 and the Patriots 54-20.
Kenai, with a great kicking game, kept Soldotna pinned back except that the Stars had the athletes to break five touchdowns of 80 yards or more.
Along with the Crimson Bears, the Patriots also made the move down to the SEC and also cited the cost of travel and the wear-and-tear of playing against schools that nearly doubled their own in student enrollment as a factor.
North Pole disposed of Ketchikan in the first round of the medium school playoffs on Saturday, 55-6, and will get first shot at Soldotna. The Stars trounced Houston 69-13.
With Palmer, another former Railbelt foe of the Crimson Bears, beating defending state champion South 25-22 in the opening state playoff round, Dimond topping Colony (RB) 38-17, West blanking Lathrop (RB) 19-0 and Service besting Chugiak 55-34, the large school race seems to be up for grabs.
In any other season JDHS would be at the top of that pile. The Crimson Bears also beat the Knights this season, 33-24, at Colony.
“I know we don’t have many common opponents and stuff,” Sjoroos said of Kenai. “I think one thing we both share is that same desire to pin teams back, play good defense and solid special teams and limit our mistakes on offense.”
JDHS had a bye week in the first round.
That term meant little. Sjoroos perused professional football information to see how NFL teams handled their bye weeks.
“I have actually never experienced a bye week in all my years of coaching at the high school level,” Sjoroos said. “I wondered what NFL teams did. I figured they scaled back that week. They actually intensify their practices because they don’t have a game. They have a big scrimmage in a practice.”
The Crimson Bears “padded up” this week, meaning they went to more days of full gear and controlled contact, plus they had a game with chains and refs to simulate state play.
They beat on each other to keep their bodies toughened up, running well and tackling strong.
“We did a little more hitting in practice than we normally would,” Sjoroos said. “And now that we have a game this weekend we are back into our normal routine.”
SMALL SCHOOL STATE PLAYOFFS -
Friday/Saturday, Oct. 11-12
#1 Monroe Catholic 40, #4 Barrow 0
#2 Nikiski 38, #3 Eielson 20
Saturday, Oct. 19
SMALL SCHOOL STATE CHAMPIONSHIP -
12 p.m., Monroe vs. Nikiski at Anchorage Football Stadium.
MEDIUM SCHOOL STATE PLAYOFFS -
(NLC#1) Soldotna 69, (NLC#4) Houston 13
(SEC#2) North Pole 55, (SEC#3) Ketchikan 6
(SEC#1) Juneau-Douglas - Bye
(NLC#2) Kenai 47, (NLC#) Kodiak 6
Saturday, Oct. 19
MEDIUM SCHOOL STATE SEMIFINALS -
1 p.m. JDHS vs. Kenai at Dimond Alumni Field
4 p.m., Soldotna vs. North Pole at Dimond Alumni Field
MEDIUM SCHOOL STATE CHAMPIONSHIP -
12 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 26 at Anchorage Football Stadium.
LARGE SCHOOL STATE PLAYOFFS -
Friday/Saturday, Oct. 11-12
(CIC#1) West 19, (RBC#3) Lathrop 0
(RBC#2) Palmer 25, (CIC#3) South 22
(CIC#5) Dimond 38, (RBC#1) Colony 17
(CIC#2) Service 55, (CIC#4) Chugiak 34
LARGE SCHOOL STATE SEMIFINALS -
Friday, Oct. 18, 6:30 p.m., Palmer vs. West at AFS
Saturday, Oct. 19, 4 p.m., Dimond vs. Service at AFS
LARGE SCHOOL STATE CHAMPIONSHIP -
Saturday, Oct. 26, 4 p.m. at AFS