It might only be Year 2 for the young Thunder Mountain football program, but expectations around the Falcons' practice field can be summed up with one word: state.
Gone are last year's offensive, defensive and special teams players of the year, Cody Grussendorf, Chance Gallates and Chas Riley, respectively, but Thunder Mountain head coach Bill Byouer said this year's team has more experience as a whole. And with the Southeast Conference getting a bid in the 3A state tournament this season, Byouer likes the Falcons' chances.
"People outside the program can say, 'Yeah, well they don't have a big, tough schedule because they only have Ketchikan and Sitka,'" Byouer said. "Well, Ketchikan and Sitka have been in this league for a while and now they have a chance to make it to state, too. You have to go out there and play football; I don't care who it is (you're playing against).
"We're playing with a little chip on our shoulders because we're still the new program in town."
Though making the state tournament may sound like delusions of grandeur for such a young team, it must be noted that Thunder Mountain won the Southeast Conference last season, going 2-1 against Sitka and Ketchikan, and the newest program in town is quickly coming together as a team in its second year.
Stepping in as leaders will be rising senior and 2009 lineman of the year Tyrel Kramp, most improved underclassman, rising junior Connor Hoyt, and most improved varsity player Ray Jones, a rising senior.
Byouer also said while Grussendorf was a major cog in the Falcons' offensive attack last year, newcomers Donald Stokes, a rising senior transfer out of San Diego, Calif., and Sean Niumataevalu, a rising junior from Compton, Calif., are both potential breakout players that will fill the void left by last year's leading receiver.
When you play football on the Last Frontier you've got to be able to run the rock, and most of the experience on this young Falcons football team lies in the trenches.
Thunder Mountain offensive coordinator Jeep Rice said he plans to utilize the hogmollies up front during the upcoming season.
"We're going to run the ball a lot - you have to if you live in Alaska," Rice said. "But we're also going to break it up and pass a fair amount."
Byouer added while the Falcons will run the ball, they do not lack for speed and athleticism on the edges with Stokes, Niumataevalu and Jones, a rising senior.
"We're a run-based team but our receivers are key aspects for us, too," Byouer said. "They're going to be getting the ball when it's open, and they're going to be open. These kids have great separation skills."
Rice said rising junior Camden Thomas will again lead the offense at quarterback, but rising senior flex back Cameron Fronimos will be used as a change-of-pace running quarterback in some sets. He said there will be a steady rotation between the two players in order to keep the defense off balance.
"Cameron is my most flexible back," Rice said. "We'll be able to play him at quarterback, tailback, fullback or slot back."
Thomas said he believes the system will work this season, especially with the talent they have at the running back position. But as every quarterback knows, you've got to have skills on the perimeter.
"Our offense is going to be really strong this year. We have a great 1-2 punch at running back this year with Ben Hotch and Jesse Conrad, and our receivers are going to be really good with Sean and Donald," he said. "We're going to strike and strike quickly - just hitting teams unexpectedly."
"We're going to be good. Nobody is getting through our line," Stokes added. "We like to run it a lot but when we pass, it's usually to me or Sean. We're going to catch the ball, too."
But in order for the offense to be successful, the offensive line will have to pave the way for the backs and keep Thomas upright. Rice said he's got confidence in his group up front.
"We've got a pretty good line, especially with seniors Seth Santana and Tyrel Kramp in there," Rice said. "We expect for our line to get it done."
Playing tight end for the Falcons this season will be Gary Speck, someone who will be relied upon to contribute significantly when he returns from an early hamstring injury. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound rising sophomore will be a key target for Thomas in the passing game, especially with his size and athleticism.
With many players going both ways on the line of srimmage, the expectations for the offensive line are shared on the defensive side of the ball.
Defensive coordinator Ray Bradley said he will implement a 5-2 scheme to take advantage of the size and strength up front.
"I think our defense will be pretty good. We'll have two over the top, but I usually like to go cover 3. We've got a big line and some good linebackers, so I think we'll be fine," he said. "You have to adjust your defense somewhat to the personnel you have, and right now I think we're good in that respect."
Bradley reiterated how the defensive side of the ball will need to win the battle at the line of scrimmage, and he feels they will be able to do just that.
"We've got a lot of lineman up over 200 (pounds), so we should be able to stuff anything up the middle. But we'll see. They've got to do their job first," he said. "You've got to stop the run first; that's our philosophy."
He may be heavily used on the offensive end, but Bradley said Fronimos also is looked at as the leader of the defense.
"He's definitely our leader at safety, but we've got a lot of good, strong guys in there," Bradley said. "We're also strong at the corner position and I've got several people at linebacker. This is the time of the year we get to see who wants to play.
"We're way ahead of where we were last year at this time."
Byouer isn't the only one in the Thunder Mountain program with visions of a state championship.
Thomas said from the start of practice this offseason the team's ultimate goal is to win the 3A state title in Anchorage later this fall. In order to get there, this squad as banded together as a close-knit group in hopes of building team chemistry.
"Expectations are really high. We set the bar really high this year and we're pretty excited about the season," he said. "We're already looking better than last year. Since the start of the season it feels like we're together as a family. We're all brothers."
But Stokes, one of Thomas' primary options at wide receiver, was much more blunt about what he expects.
"We're going to state, and we're going to win state. I already know," he said. "I didn't think we were going to be this good because it's only our second year, but we're looking really good."
For Byouer, it's been a much smoother start to July practices than it was during last year's inaugural season.
"Kids know what's happening in the program now. We have a lot of new kids coming in," he said. "Last year it was chaotic trying to get everything in place from garbage cans to travel, you know. This year we have everything established."
With everything situated, Byouer has been able to start a JV program on top of bringing in new talent that will help the team develop. And while he hopes to avoid injury, Byouer said he knows he may need to rely on some younger players this season with questionable depth at the varsity level.
"Our strength is going to be our line and our running backs, but our depth - as far as the line - is down," he said. "We're pretty much going with what we have, but there are some freshmen that are possibly going to come up to give us a spell."
While confidence is high, Byouer also knows this is still a team on the rise with a long way to go.
"We're still a young program finding our way," he said. "We've established a lot of areas, but there's still so much more that needs to be established. It's a class program and we're going to continue to be a classy program, but by no means are we going to be a push-around."
So is a state championship really a possibility?
"Yeah, I think we can get there. We have the horses to get it done and the kids are all buying into the whole family atmosphere," Byouer said. "It's good to see that everybody is looking out for each other, and that's what I'm trying to instill here."
What Byouer has instilled is a belief within the Thunder Mountain program that it can be successful. And not just in the future; but right now. And with an early season in-conference matchup in Sitka looming at 2 p.m. on Saturday, the Falcons are poised and ready.
"We're ready to go to Anchorage and win that championship," Camden Thomas said.
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