Key for Bears lies in the trenches

Posted: Sunday, August 01, 2010

Size matters, but speed kills.

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Purists readily admit that football is a game won and lost in the trenches where the big boys roam. Juneau-Douglas lacks the size it had on the offensive and defensive lines from a year ago, but the Crimson Bears have speed in spades.

JDHS head football coach Rich Sjoroos, fresh off the official removal of the "interim" tag he carried last season, is ready to see what the 2010 Bears can do.

"This time of the year, you wait almost 10 months from the end of last season to get out on the field and light up the scoreboard again," Sjoroos said. "And then all of a sudden, once it starts, it comes so quick that you can barely catch your breath."

Juneau-Douglas needs to catch its breath quickly and, for the first time in recent memory, the Crimson Bears are flying a bit under the radar after graduating most of their depth and size up front from last year's Railbelt Conference championship squad.

"We're not going to impress anybody when we get off the bus this year," Sjoroos said bluntly. "But we've got some kids that can play football and I think that if we come out of the gates and play the way we're capable of, we can get some momentum that can carry us through.

"There's a determination in this group that I haven't seen in a while," he continued. "I haven't found their limit, and that's a good thing. That means that we have 51 eager kids that want to learn and want to make their mark this year."

JDHS topped the All-State lists for 2009, with six Crimson Bears selected to either the first or second teams. Yet only one of that six returns, rising senior running back/defensive back Matthew Maka (5-foot-10, 168 pounds).

Gone are All-State linemen Lawrence Fenumiai, Buzzy Hotch and Eric Sele, as well as Paul Tupou, all of who stand between 6-foot and 6-foot-4, and averaged better than 254 pounds.

Returning rising seniors include Eric Ashenfelter (5-foot-10, 285 pounds), Thomas Tajon (6-foot-1, 240), Marshall Sargeant (5-foot-8, 204), Manny Bell (5-foot-11, 230) and Matt Smith (6-foot, 250).

"It's not just the size, but it's also the chemistry," Sjoroos said. "There are a lot of new kids there. We've got kids that are experienced football players so that will help, but that's one position that is often overlooked. A line position is one of the harder ones to come into as a first-year player.

"Running backs and receivers get more glory, but a line position takes a little while to learn," he continued. "The fact that these kids have all played football, that will help."


Where the Bears lack ideal size at key positions, the crimson cup runneth over when it comes to speed.

The offensive line is an early question mark, but there is a playbook's worth of possibilities at the skill positions, and the Crimson Bears would like to open things up a bit this year.

"We have a very fast team, and everybody is saying it's probably the fastest that we've ever been," Sjoroos said. "I think top to bottom, I would agree with that. Anytime you have the potential to have the fastest guys on the field, you're a threat to break long runs, and you're a threat to stop long runs from happening.

"We had good speed last year, but it's not the kind of speed we have this year."

Offensively, everything begins at the quarterback position, and Juneau-Douglas has its man.

Second-year starter Phillip Fenumiai, one of four team captains as a rising sophomore, is back under center, though he will find himself lined up more often this year in the shotgun formation. Fenumiai, 6-foot-3 and a svelte 215 pounds after dropping about 35 pounds from his freshman frame, will be counted on to step up and lead the offense.

"He's the first sophomore I recall ever being a captain, and that says something right there," Sjoroos said. "It's the way he carries himself, his work ethic and his dedication. He's really gotten himself in shape and he's staying humble."

Fenumiai said his conditioning is light years ahead of where it was a year ago.

"I lost a lot of weight and I'm able to run around in the pocket a lot more. Last year when I tried to run, I wasn't fast enough," he said. "I feel more agile and I'm throwing a lot of balls during practice. My arm will be prepared and I'll be able to last through all four quarters."

Fenumiai was surrounded by a veteran line and experienced players a year, ago and was asked to manage the offense. This year, Sjoroos said, he wants Fenumiai to do more than just manage, he wants him to take charge and win games.

"We'll turn him loose a little more," Sjoroos said. "Last year, it was his job to get the ball in the hands of the older kids and let them do their thing. This year, he'll be relied on more to make plays with his legs and to make throws. We want him to have an impact, and we're confident - and he's confident - that he's going to take those chances and it's going to turn out well for us."

And he'll have plenty of weapons at his disposal.

Rising senior running backs Justin Brooks (5-foot-9, 184) and Maka (5-foot-10, 168) provided one of the top 1-2 punches in the state last year after combining for more than 2,000 yards. Maka, the Bears Offensive Player of the Year for 2009, was one of 400 rising seniors nationwide nominated for the 2011 Army All-American Bowl.

"With those guys back, this year's line won't necessarily have to blow guys off the line, they just need to make sure they create space for these guys to navigate. We have a smaller line, but they're good on their feet and they'll get in the positions they need to be to seal off the defenders and create some running lanes."

Sjoroos said he also expects Maka and Brooks to be able to pound the ball between the tackles.

"Brooks is up to 185 (pounds) and he can carry that rock inside the tackles, and Matthew has always been a tough runner," he said. "I expect either one of them to be able to carry it inside or out. We're going to spread things out more this year so I don't know how much we'll even line up a big fullback in the backfield.

"We're definitely going to be more of a finesse team this year."

Maka expects big things for he and Brooks, and he hopes to catch a few more balls, salivating at the thought of going head-to-head against a linebacker in the open field.

"We're a good combination. Whenever one of us is tired, it's good to know that we're both good enough to where the other can take a break and get a rest," he said. "We're going to be running a lot of screens, swing routes and shoot routes to the running backs and we're ready for that."

Gone is safety valve Lawrence Fenumiai, who provided a big target for cousin Phillip to dump short passes off to. The Bears won't have anyone who can match Lawrence Fenumiai's 6-foot-3, 275-pound frame at tight end, but they do have great height at wideout with the addition of rising senior basketball import Colin Gozelski, who checks in at 6-foot-3 and 192 pounds.

It's Gozelski's first year playing organized football, but he won the award for best receiver at Boise State University's prep football camp over the summer, and he expects to be a go-to target for Fenumiai on the perimeter.

Returning after missing all of last season with a broken ankle is rising senior Eric Fagerstrom (5-foot-11, 170), who also has big-play ability and will share kick return duties.

"He's going to be one of our big playmakers on the perimeter," Sjoroos said. "He can also run the ball if we need him to. He's a tough kid along with that whole Fagerstrom tradition - he's a great athlete that can make big plays."


Considering the lack of size up front, defensive coordinator Al Fenumiai is switching things up to a 3-4 scheme to allow the Bears to take advantage of their speed.

Anchoring the line at nose tackle will be Ashenfelter and Tajon, with Brooks, Phillip Fenumiai and rising senior and first-year player Devin Drones (5-foot-10, 175) on the ends.

"The biggest obstacle is we don't have the size this year, so we're going to try and mix things up to compensate," Al Fenumiai said. "We want to get a lot of pressure. That's the goal; pressure everywhere. We're going to use the speed that we have and hopefully, we'll get things done."

Al Fenumiai said Fagerstrom is one to watch out for at strong safety.

"He didn't play last year and I anticipate he's going to be a main factor in our defense," he said. "And Maka is going to be our free safety."

Rising senior and defensive captain Vinh Le (5-foot-8, 176) will be at corner along with rising junior Sean Collum (5-foot-9, 170).

"We're going to send pressure all day and I'm OK with that idea," Le said. "Last year, we had the big linemen, and we were able to sit back and let the four guys up front do the work. This year, we're going to bring pressure from all sides and hit the quarterback with everything we've got.

"Hopefully, we can cause a lot of turnovers, which is what I'm looking forward to. I want some interceptions."

Special Teams

Special teams will play a key role in the Bears' success this season. The battle for field position is crucial, and the Bears have two players, Maka and Fagerstrom, who are capable of breaking big runs on every return.

"We've always been known for (returning kicks)," special teams coach Mark Ibias said. "We've got the lead for most kickoffs run back in the state, so we're going to stick with what we've done in the past."

Soccer import and rising senior Peter Jorgensen will handle place-kicking and punting duties, and Fifita could see some long snaps as a second punter.

"Any time that we can capitalize and score some points, that's great. We are a fast, fast team, and we're going to utilize our quickness as much as we can," special teams coach Mark Ibias said. "On the kickoffs, we've got guys that can get downfield and we've got some hard hitters.

"And Peter is a soccer player, it's his first year playing football and kicking for us, and he's got one heck of a leg. It's going to be amazing watching these guys."

The Schedule

The Crimson Bears will be tested early this season, with the season opener coming Saturday at 8 p.m. at home against South Anchorage. JDHS then hits the road for three straight conference games.

The Bears then have Railbelt rivals West Valley, an up-and-coming team, on Aug. 14, and titans Palmer and Colony on Aug. 20 and 27, respectively.

"There's not a single other team in the state with a schedule like that. It's tough," Sjoroos said of the Bears' front-loaded first half of the season. "West Valley has struggled in recent years but they have a new coach, and Colony and Palmer, everybody knows about those two teams, and that's weeks three and four.

"We've got to be ready to play our best football in week one."

Sjoroos tabbed Colony as a favorite to be in the state title mix.

"They have the most returnees on their offensive and defensive lines, and probably the strongest group," he said. "I would have to say that they are right up there at the top. I think Service, out of the (Cook Inlet Conference), is going to be formidable. They came on strong at the end of last year and just barely missed the playoffs, and they have a lot of kids back.

Wasilla is Sjoroos' darkhorse pick. The Warriors played some of their younger guys the second half of last season, Sjoroos said, and began to play good football toward the end of the year.

Sjoroos said the quality of football teams has evened out in the last decade, and there are now several teams capable of making a deep run each year.

"The nice thing about Alaska football is that it has gotten away from just one or two teams running away with it," he said. "It's really balanced out and we haven't had a repeat champion in 10 years.

"When everybody is 0-0, it really could be any team that wins it at the end."

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