JUNEAU -Thunder Mountain High School left Juneau on Wednesday, bound for Sitka to kick off the inaugural season of Falcons football. And now, after all the time, effort, fundraising and practice that's been put in by the coaching staff, players and parents, it's finally time to get down to the business of playing football.
TMHS has 31 kids out for its first season on the gridiron, 10 of whom are newcomers to organized football. The roster includes five seniors, four juniors, 12 sophomores and 10 freshmen. Eight players hold a major edge in experience after having played for head coach Bill Byouer last season on the junior varsity team at Juneau-Douglas High School.
They are young, they are inexperienced and they don't have a ton of depth. There are a thousand unknowns but one thing is certain, it's going to be fun, Byouer said.
He isn't expecting his green team to be a world-beater, but he certainly expects to win games.
"I think with what we have, we can do well," Byouer said. "They can surprise me, and as long as we continue to grow each day, we'll be fine. I'm not expecting 7-0, but I want 7-0. As long as they continue to work and work, we'll be there."
The Falcons employ the Power Wing offense, which is primarily a run-oriented attack that mixes in the short passing game.
"The philosophy of the Wing T is that there is a lot of faking, no lead blocking - somebody's going to get the ball and you never know who," offensive coordinator Jeep Rice said. "The Power Wingbasical
basically has some of that, but it also has a lot of lead blocking and power blocking so that we expect to be able to drive people and make yards that way. It's more of a power running style. We'll still have counters and reverses, (bootlegs) and whatnot that come off of that, including passes. My goal is to have a very balanced attack."
Quarterbacks often get all the glory or the blame, but offenses are built up front on the line. Rice said a few of the experienced players are anchoring the line, thus the offense.
"We'll have a few pretty good blockers," Rice said. "We have some new kids that we've never seen before, incoming freshmen for example, and a couple of them look pretty good. We'll be takingadvantage of them, too."
Jordan Hakala will start at center, while Jorge Vasquez and Tyrel Kramp will fill out the interior. Seth Santana and Aaron Corcoran will start at the tackle positions.
Rice said Camden Thomas is the most likely candidate to get the starting nod undercenter.
"It's early yet to say that's concrete," Rice said, "but it's looking like he'll be the guy."
The Falcons also have Stefan Jones, and both will see time. Byouer said his two signal callers have both shown good leadership on the field, and they can both takecommand of the huddle.
"Both of them are showing growth, and both have good technique," Byouer said. "Camden doesn't have a really strong arm, but he can work the short game and occasionally go deep. Stefan is a quarterback that weighs in at about 180 (pounds), and he can run the ball really well. We'll definitely use both of them atcertain times."
Running back Jessee Conrad has impressed coaches thus far, and will get the bulk of carries out of the backfield.
"Jesse Conrad started running the ball for us over at JDHS, and he's really come together this year," Byouer said. "He's going to be a threat. If we can get an offensive line to protect him and open holes for him to run, he'll definitely get some yardage, find the holes and move quickly through them."
Providing depth in the backfield will be Jones and Chase Riley.
Gary Speck "can block and catch very well," and will see time at tight end, and Jack Clark gets the nod as the lone receiver out wide.
Byouer said his team may lack experience, but it shows up ready to work every day, and he's been very impressed with the way guys have stepped into leadership roles.
"Some of the leadership is coming from the older guys on the offensive line, and with Jessee Conrad working with the running backs, they're setting the example," he said. "Their work ethic is starting to really show with the younger guys, and they see that they have to go ahead and step up and do that, too."
Defensive coordinator Kirk Burke is employing a traditional 3-4 defense, and he said he's seen the defensive unit grow tremendously, though the learning curve is steep, and the defense will likely be a major strength of the team.
"We're running the 3-4 defense, but the philosophy is going to change based on the talent we have," he said. "We have a lot of young players. This year, the key - especially defensively -is to have sound fundamentals, like learning how to take on blocks, shared blocks and tackling. When you have a young team like this, those are the things that are important."
Anchoring the line at nose tackle is Santana, with Kramp, Hakala and Corcoran seeing the bulk of minutes at the end positions. The job of the defensive line in the 3-4 is to wrap up blockers and fill the gaps to stop the run, allowing the four linebackers to swarm to the ball, whether that be wrapping up ball carriers, or dropping back in passprotection.
Vasquez, the sophomore captain of the defense, will start at one of the inside linebacker positions with Conrad at the other, while Speck will start outside opposite Jones.
"The 3-4 defense is linebacker based, and it's built for your linebackers to fly to the ball," Burke said. "But at the same time, it's one unit and everyone has to hold their responsibilities down in order to make it work. They're starting to get the concept."
The secondary will consist of Chase Riley and Brad Shaw at the safety positions, and Junior Nauer and Eric Reyna at corner. Ray Jones also is a name to look out for in the defensive backfield, Byouer said.
Vasquez said everyone is focused on Sitka, which runs deceptive Wing T offensive sets, and mainly working on getting down assignments.
"We're trying to get everybody ready, mentally and physically, and we want people to know what they're supposed to do," he said. "We're playing the Wing T, and that's a deceptive offense."
Though it could be outmatched in size during times, Vasquez said to expect to see a physical defense that also has good speed.
"We definitely want to be physical. Our defense is a little bit smaller, but we're definitely speedy," he said. "We want to make some plays and help out the offense by getting them the ball."
Ray Bradley has a simple philosophy when it comes to coaching special teams: do your job.
"If you do your job, and your partner next to you does his job, everything will fall in place and we'll be fine," he said. "We're looking pretty good. We're trying to show on the kick off that we cover all of our lanes, that the gunners get down and do their jobs and everybody else run their lanes and press the ball. If you do that, we'll be OK.
Vasquez will be the long snapper, with Hakala handling most the kicking duties. Several players will get a look at the return positions.
Thunder Mountain is a first-year program, which is a big enough hurdle to overcome for any school. Add that to the fact that rival schools like Sitka and Ketchikan - the Falcons' Week 3 home opener opponent - will be champing at the bit to knock off a Juneau school, and the Falcons will have their work cut out for them this season.
"It's really a young program, and we're going to be playing varsity level football," Byouer said. "We've got to get these guys ready. We're going to be playing teams that have had four years of experience playing together, and we've got one year right now. We have 10 kids right now that have never played football before. You have to coach. You're trying to find that diamond in the rough, that kid that's going to excel."
Byouer said his roster has been shrunk due to academic difficulties, and if kids want to play they have to get the job done in the classroom.
"I'm really running into a problem. I had about 50 kids, but we've run into the area of GPAs, so we've lost some kids," he said. "Right now, I have 31, and if I can stress anything, it's that your education comes first, and that's what we're preaching here. But our numbers are up. We had zero last year."
Avoiding injuries could be the most important thing for this year's team, especially in the first unit.
"If we lose our first team, we drop off a little bit," Byouer said. "But those are the kids that are our future, so they'll have to step up if there's an injury. I can't predict what's going to happen, but these kids are growing each day. Depth-wise, we need to work on it, but we'll be there.
He said the goal is to "survive and to take one foot in front of the other. We don't have anything to compare with yet, but we're building together andgetting closer."