Pigskins will fly

Crimson Bears, Falcons throwing footballs, not caution, to the wind

There may be some truth to the old axiom that the unbelievable will come true when pigs fly.


Or when pigskins fly, at least, as the Juneau-Douglas High School and Thunder Mountain High School football teams will be revamping their offenses.

“We are calling it our Air Raid offense,” JDHS Crimson Bears offensive coordinator Phil Isaak said. “I have always been a pass-first kind of guy. It will be a team effort on the offense. I have never been around so many guys that know so much about football.”

The plan also involves the playing of an air raid siren after each passing touchdown, in addition to the traditional show of cannon fodder along the goal line.

“Our offensive and defensive lines will be our strengths,” JDHS head coach and defensive coordinator Kevin Hamrick said. “That is our strength.”

The TMHS Falcons are also going to a more spread-out offense that will allow both an air game and strong middle ground action.

“We had to make the change because of the personnel we have,” Falcons head coach Jeep Rice said. “We are much more power this year and last year we couldn’t even dream of that because of our size. All we could do last season was fantasize about it.”

Both local high schools will test their new formats this weekend. The Crimson Bears host the Kenai Kardinals at 7 p.m. Saturday at Adair Kennedy Field and the Falcons travel to the Nikiski Bulldogs today for a Saturday game.

JDHS vs. Kenai

JDHS and Kenai will be a rematch of the 2013 state medium school semifinal game that the Crimson Bears won 42-15.

The Northern Lights Conference Kardinals graduated 12 seniors and now run a pistol offense, similar to Soldotna.

Kenai, 7-2 overall last season, has six state titles in its history. Last year it defeated 4A power Wasilla 17-14. Its lone regular season loss was to state champ Soldotna 58-10. The Soldotna Stars topped JDHS in the state medium school championship game 56-49, one of the highest point totals in Alaska high school championship game history.

JDHS graduated 17 seniors, and Hamrick will have a solid staff that includes Isaak, Mike Hutcherson on offense and defense, C.J. Keys and Alex Fagerstrom teaching the receivers, Al Fenumiai with the linebackers, line coach Emil West and assistant Matt Lehrbach among others.

“We are going to try and throw the ball,” Hamrick said. “But we will be balanced; we will have to run the ball too, especially in our weather.”

The beauty of the Crimson Bears will be their big line. Size and muscle have been apparent across the lines with Brady Mallinger, Romney Tupou, Hunter Hickok, Lorenzo Malacas, Nick Tragis, Michael Anderson, Kaelin Deitrick and Dominic Watt, among others.

“We just have some big strong kids,” Hamrick said.

If they play together and get more physical with a smart mindset, the 5-2 or 4-3 defenses will be hard to get past.

JDHS graduated the fastest player in the state but four of five players will share the ball in the backfield, including senior 100-meter regional champ Kiko Iona and senior fullback Tupou.

Senior quarterback Dorian Isaak will be the focus of the offense and will have plenty to choose from in classmates Adam Empson, Manase Maake and Daniel Stevens.

Empson could be the best receiver in the state and Isaak, who has traveled to 18 quarterback camps in his high school career (including five this summer), should have his tight spiral falling into Empson’s hands even in Adair Kennedy’s glacier-borne wind and rain.

JDHS’ talented freshman class, including Liam Van Sickle, Michael Cesar and Donavin McCurley, should get varsity reps in the first game.

Added Phil Isaak: “If you watch kids in the park, they love to throw the ball and catch the ball. It is backyard football, but it is organized.”


TMHS graduated just seven seniors, returns 34 players and boasts a roster of 40-plus players for the first time in school history.

“I like our numbers,” Rice said. “We are well into the 40s, which we never were last year. We are seeing a lot of effort and took 32 kids to our camp in Astoria. We have more commitment than we have had in the past. Our spirits are high and our future is bright.”

On the practice field to date, senior running back and linebacker William Martin and junior running back and defensive back Q’on Bear-Clark have impressed coaches with their athleticism and maturity.

“William is a very pleasant surprise,” TMHS coach Jeep Rice said. “As is Q’on. Last season, they showed flashes of what they could do; right now I am wondering who these kids are and where they came from. They are making a difference. Last year, they were a bit timid. There is no timidity to them this year.”

The best of the linebacker corps should be senior Rick Johnson. Following a wrestling and track season, Johnson has put on muscle and quickness that has been evident across the field.

“He is an all-around pretty good guy,” Rice said. “As a matter of fact, he has to leave practice in 20 minutes for an Eagle Scout project.”

Key to the Falcons will be senior quarterback Dylan Taylor, who can also play wide receiver or safety, and backup sophomore Fletcher Sebens. Taylor, a four-year player as well as a wrestler, will start this weekend.

The Falcons will run up the middle a lot between the tackle and to do that the quarterbacks have to be able to hold the ball, hand it off smoothly and read when to find a receiver.

“We have a couple guys with significant speed, so we will be able to pitch inside or go out,” Rice said. “We will throw a few passes. We are not going to be a light-it-up team, but our passes will be high percentage and effective because our run will be.”

Rice’s staff includes offensive coordinator Thomas Ramage, defensive coordinator Randy Quinto, junior varsity head coach Jeffery Jenkins and assistant coach Michael Payne.

The Falcons leave today for Nikiski.

TMHS vs. Nikiski

The Greatland Conference’s Nikiski Bulldogs are the defending small school state champions (36-28 over the Monroe Rams) and graduated just six seniors.

The Bulldogs have won four state titles. They finished 7-3 last season, losing to Lathrop 54-0, Kenai 51-16 and conference foe Monroe 37-27. Their wins all came in conference. The program is steeped in tradition as a power running team with a game high of 513 rushing yards last season, compared to a high of 129 passing yards. Against 4A power Lathrop, they managed only 109 yards on the ground and 25 through the air.

“They have pretty much everybody back,” Rice said. “They are very well coached and have a lot of commitment from their players. They are running the same offenses they have for years and that is an advantage to all the kids.”

Rest of Southeast

In the Southeast Conference, the Ketchikan Kings (5-3 last season) feel they have their best team to date and will make a challenge for the region crown despite losing eight seniors from last year’s squad.

That enthusiasm rests with Saltillo, Mississippi senior transfer Hayden Elliott. Senior quarterback Theo McBurnette and wide receiver Connor Hicks are also a potent combination that gave problems to conference opponents.

Ketchikan coach Les Silva told the Ketchikan Daily News his team is “going to be good. I feel like we have a little more talent this year.”

In regards to QB Elliott, Silva said, “He can play defensive end, linebacker, fullback and can kick the ball.”

Where their strength could lie, however, is on junior blocking back and linebacker Nate Fousel, who ran through opponents as a sophomore last season. It was widely thought that Fousel could play on any program in the state and start on most.

The Kings open the season on the road with games against GLC small school Monroe today, a 36-28 loser to Nikiski in the title game, and SEC foe North Pole on Wednesday.

The Patriots dominated the Kings 55-6 in last year’s state quarterfinal game.

North Pole graduated 26 seniors from that team but returns 29 and will still run a spread offense, able to throw as well as find the holes inside.

“I think Juneau-Douglas and Palmer are great examples of programs that have done well with graduating and repeating success,” North Pole coach Richard Henert said. “We are hoping this senior class embraces that hard work and philosophy to get that turnover going where we can graduate 26 and come back the next year and compete. I think these seniors are really ready for that challenge.”

Palmer hasn’t missed the playoffs in over 20 years, and JDHS was the Southeast fixture for football. North Pole, however, graduated its entire starting defensive unit.

The Patriots do return senior running back Deaundre Campbell, junior quarterback Garrett Sommer, and senior tight end Shane Hursh as well as senior center Shaun Pruitt, sophomore tackle Lafi Skipps and senior tackle Andrew Risner.

“We have guys competing on defense, just no starters from last season,” Henert said.

North Pole plays 4A West Valley tonight.

“Ketchikan didn’t have that many seniors last season and they have some good kids,” Henert said. “They have some talent and will definitely be a different team. I think Juneau-Douglas and Thunder Mountain have leveled out a little bit so hopefully that means both will be competitive at our level. Our senior class has done a good job of embracing the idea, each year, of owning their own team. I think it is really impressive that we graduated such a large number and return a larger one. I really give a lot of credit to our seniors for leading the way with hard work through the off-season and definitely making it something to build on for our team.”

According to the first Alaska Sports Broadcasting Network season poll, voted on by broadcasters and sports writers, Soldotna is atop the medium/small schools with JDHS second, North Pole third, Eielson fourth and Nikiski fifth.

The ASBN large school poll has West on top, South second, Dimond third, Palmer fourth and Service fifth.

• Contact Sports editor Klas Stolpe at 523-2228 or at klas.stolpe@juneauempire.com.


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