Tears fell and heads hung along the Juneau-Douglas High School sidelines as the Crimson Bears football team teetered on the edge of a state title before succumbing 56-49 to Soldotna on Saturday at Anchorage Football Stadium.
The Stars scored first and last in the First National Bowl ASAA medium school championship, but in between they had their undefeated record and reputation as the best football team in the state tested by the Crimson Bears.
“If you don’t get here, you can’t feel what they are feeling,” Juneau-Douglas High School coach Rich Sjoroos said. “I have never been prouder of a team than I am of these guys right now.”
Helmets lifted and shouts carried from the SOHI side as the Stars took a knee to end the game and sprinted past their fans to topple in a celebratory pile across the field.
“I think it lived up to the billing,” Soldotna coach Galen Brantley, Jr. said. “It was two really good football teams, two well-coached football teams, battling it out to the last minute for a state title. Juneau has no reason to hang their heads. They are an awesome group of young men and the best team we have played in a couple of years. They are an extremely well coached team and they left everything they had out on the field. It could have gone either way, the ball bounces funny sometimes.”
The ball bounced seemingly outrageous at times.
Twice the Crimson Bears, normally sure-footed, had touchdowns taken away and twice the Stars, normally sure-handed, fumbled possession on the turf.
JDHS put their first play from scrimmage, a play they had rehearsed an hour-a-day for the past week, into the hands of senior running back Eric Nordgren, who ran over 40 yards into the end zone. Officials instead whistled the Crimson Bears for an ineligible receiver down field.
“The only thing going through my mind is that we lost the game,” Nordgren said. “Everybody was giving their all for most of the game. Around the end we just started choking.”
The drive would then stall and Soldotna senior running back Jake Kooly showed how the Stars could grind up time and yardage, using over three minutes to cover 50 yards on six plays, ending in the Stars touchdown as the game’s first score.
“Our coaches set the tempo and we follow,” Kooly said. “Depending on how they act, we react that way. Juneau has some great athletes and (Demetrius) Campos got it done today but luckily we came out on top. It was a great team victory for us. We never gave up.”
The Stars had reason to give up.
Campos ran for a 22-yard touchdown to tie the score on the Bears’ next possession. The Stars lost their second fumble of the day to JDHS lineman JD Hudson and, after a Campos touchdown was called back for an illegal block in the back, Nordgren caught a Dorian Isaak pass for a 45-yard touchdown. Nordgren would intercept a pass in the next series but was called for defensive pass interference. The Crimson Bears dug deep and stopped the Stars and Nordgren caught an Isaak pass to advance and Campos ran another score across to give JDHS an early lead.
Bears’ Hunter Hickok recovered the Stars third fumble of the day on the next series and Isaak passed to senior Adam Empson for a 49-yard touchdown. Kicks on all four scores by Manase Maake gave the Crimson Bears a 28-6 lead with seven minutes left before halftime. Suddently, the unbeaten Stars didn’t look so unbeatable.
The Stars rallied behind sophomore Drew Gibbs, who rumbled over 40 yards in an eight play series to score. Gibbs finished with 188 yards and three touchdowns. After an interception by the Crimson Bears, Gibbs pushed forward for over 30 yards in another short series that ended with the Stars’ Colton Young passing for a touchdown with no time left on the clock. Young threw only three passes on the day but rushed for 264 yards on 23 carries with two scores.
“The game was so explosive,” Sjoroos said. “We would make a big stop or big play and they would do the same. It was the most exciting game I have been in.”
The Crimson Bears’ George Sua would recover an on-side kick to start the second half and JDHS scored five plays later on an Isaak keeper.
Soldotna would answer on Gibbs’ second scoring rush of the day and the teams traded touchdowns through the third quarter to give the Crimson Bears a 49-42 lead. The Stars’ Kooly put in the sixth touchdown of the stanza with a four-yard battle to tie the score to start the fourth quarter.
The Crimson Bears had their second pass of the game picked off in the fourth quarter deep in their own territory as the Stars’ Drew Fowler faked a drop back defense and slid up to take the ball to the JDHS 15-yard line with eight minutes remaining.
The Stars scored four plays later to lead 56-49 with seven minutes remaining.
JDHS ran Sua and Campos for a first down but the drive stalled and Soldotna had the ball with 4:11 remaining. Eight plays later and the game was over.
“We played our hearts out,” said Campos, a senior. “They just came out on top. It hurts. I don’t want to go through this feeling ever again. It is rough. I feel for my teammates … one heartbeat.”
Overcome with emotion, senior running back and linebacker George Sua could not express his disappointment in the moment.
“I don’t know….,” Sua said. “I… I just don’t know.”
Sua finished the game with 90 yards on five carries and a touchdown, second on the team to Campos’ 217 yards and three scores. Isaak threw for nearly 200 yards with a pair of touchdowns and picks.
Both teams would tally well over 400 yards of offense, with Soldotna going over 500, and the defensive units battling in the trenches.
“I really feel for the seniors,” JDHS defensive coordinator Eddie Brakes said. “I just told them that they should have no regrets.”
The win gave Soldotna (11-0) their sixth state championship in eight years.
JDHS (8-2) has played in four state large school title games, winning the championship in 2007 and 2005.
“You have to get to this game before you can even feel disappointment,” Juneau-Douglas coach Rich Sjoroos said. “The fact that we had a pretty tough schedule this year, traveling as much as we do and the kids having to fundraise as much as they do, and as much effort and energy as the town of Juneau pours into football, I just don’t feel there is any disappointment. It stings. You would like to walk home with a different colored trophy but not every team gets to put a trophy in the trophy case of any color. So the fact that they were able to accomplish that and came close to knocking off the number one team in the state. Soldotna has not lost a game in two years and there is a reason for that: They are a good team. We have to regroup and hopefully we get a shot at these guys next year. It would be great if it were in the same situation, but you have to roll the dice and see how you do.”
Total Offensive Yards – SOHI 556 / JDHS 482
Passing Yards – SOHI 41 / JDHS 197
Rushing Yards – SOHI 515 / JDHS 285
Time Of Possession – SOHI 24:11 / JDHS 23:49
Turnovers – SOHI 2 / JDHS 2
First downs - SOHI 27 / JDHS 18
Return yards - SOHI 112 / JDHS 66
Punts - SOHI 1-22.0 / JDHS 2-33.0
Fumbles-lost - SOHI 6-3 / JDHS 0-0
Penalties-yards - SOHI 1-5 / JDHS 4-45
SOHI - Colton Young- 2-3 41 yards, TD.
JDHS - Dorian Isaak- 10-15 197 yards, 2 TD’s, 2 INT’s.
SOHI - Drew Gibbs 26 carries 188 yards, 3 TD’s / Colton Young- 23 carries 264 yards, 2TD’s / Jake Kooly- 11 carries 43 yards, 2 TD’s / Riley – 2 carries 18 yards / Fenton 2 carries 16 yards.
JDHS - Demetrius Campos- 26 carries 217 yards, 3 TD’s / George Sua- 5 carries 90 yards, TD / Dorian Isaak- 4 carries 6 yards, TD.
SOHI – Drew Fowler- 1 reception 35 yards / Brooks Furlong- 1 reception 5 yards,TD / Conradi 1 (14).
JDHS - Kris Hill- 3 catches 80 yards / Eric Nordgren- 3 catches 52 yards, TD / Adam Empson- 1 reception 49 yards, TD / Campos 1 reception 9 yards.
SOHI - Charlambos Asimakopoulos- 7-7 on extra points.
JDHS - Manase Maake- 7-7 on extra points.
Stars 56, Crimson Bears 49
HOW THEY SCORED:
Juneau 14 / 14 / 21 / 0 / - 49
Soldotna 6 / 15 / 21 / 14 / - 56
Soldotna — Kooly 1 run (run failed), 7:12.
Juneau — Campos 14 run (Maake run), 4:37.
Juneau — Nordgren 41 pass from Isaak (Maake kick), :58.
Juneau — Campos 8 run (Maake kick), 10:12.
Juneau — Empson 47 pass from Isaak (Maake kick), 7:53.
Soldotna — Gibbs 1 run (Gibbs run), 3:58.
Soldotna — Furlong 6 pass from Young (Asimakopoulos kick), :00.
Juneau — Isaak 5 run (Maake), 9:42.
Soldotna — Gibbs 37 run (Asimakopoulos kick), 9:00.
Juneau — Campos 52 run (Maake kick), 7:00.
Soldotna — Young 26 run (Asimakopoulos kick), 3:43.
Soldotna — Kooly 1 run (Asimakopoulos kick), 1:08.
Juneau — Sua 78 run (Maake kick), :48.
Soldotna — Gibbs 2 run (Asimakopoulos kick), 9:24.
Soldotna — Young 4 run (Asimakopoulos kick), 7:18.