The Juneau-Douglas High School football team has had 10 months to dwell on last year's near miss on qualifying for the state playoffs.
When the Crimson Bears take the Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park football field at 7 p.m. Friday for a non-conference game against the Sitka Wolves, the Juneau players will be trying to exorcise those missed-playoff demons as they bid for their second trip to the state tournament in three years. Juneau, which reached the state semifinals two years ago, is the only Cook Inlet Football Conference team to finish with an above-.500 record in each of the past two seasons.
"I think they still feel a little ripped off," Juneau head coach Reilly Richey said of last year's near miss.
Juneau posted a 4-3 overall record and went 3-3 in the CIFC, but lost a three-way tie-breaker for the final two CIFC berths at the state playoffs in a year of parity in the league. Entering the final week of the season, five of the seven CIFC teams could have finished in a tie for second place, with only undefeated Dimond and winless West Anchorage out of the mix. Bartlett wound up taking the second of the four CIFC spots at state, leaving Service, East Anchorage and Juneau facing a points-allowed tie-breaker for the last two berths.
Service won the three-way tie-breaker, even though Juneau beat the Cougars earlier in the season. Then the Crimson Bears lost a head-to-head tie-breaker with East, which held off a fourth-quarter rally to edge Juneau 30-29 in Juneau's first game of the season.
The Crimson Bears were the only CIFC team not to play a non-conference opener last year, and many of the players feel not having that extra game is what cost them a spot in the state playoffs last year. That's why Friday's game with Sitka is so important to the Juneau players.
"We didn't have a chance to work out our jitters," said senior quarterback Brett Fairchild, who will be back for his third year as Juneau's starter. "We scored a lot of points in the second half, once we got going, but they scored a lot of points in the first half. It (the Sitka game) will show us what we need to do to win."
"We're happy to be playing," Richey said. "It's going to be real tough, but we don't look at this as a rebuilding year. I think we've got a good shot. We've got a seasoned quarterback, we return our starting backfield and one of our top receivers."
Fairchild is the top returning quarterback in the conference after completing 53 of 134 passes for 877 yards, with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Returning running backs Jason Cameron and Sione Tupou both struggled with injuries last year, but both backs gained over 100 yards in Juneau's season finale against West Anchorage to give the Crimson Bears a potent inside-outside combination. At wide receiver, Jacob Dutton returns for his senior year after catching 13 passes for 313 yards and six touchdowns last season (a 24.1-yard per catch average).
"We're pretty balanced on offense and defense, and in running and passing," Tupou said. "We've got some of the same plays, and we've got some new plays we run out of our usual formations."
While Juneau returns several key players at the skill positions on offense, the Crimson Bears say how they do this year will depend on their line.
"Cameron and I can't do anything if we can't get past our line," Tupou said. "It takes a whole team to win, and that means we need our linemen blocking, our defensive players making good tackles, and our offense moving the ball. Bret Russell and Zac Campbell will be leading our line."
"We have a really good line," Fairchild said. "They're young and they're not huge, there's nobody 6-4, but our guys can pull and do stunts. Everybody's looking good and we've got some good guys to go to."
Other key returners for Juneau this year include Jake Miller, Kyle Miller and Jonathan Moore on the line, with Eric Tollefson, Willy Dodd and T.J. Mason adding depth at receiver. On defense, Juneau will be led by Tupou, Bret West, Nick West, Moore at linebacker; Tollefson, Dutton, Mason, Dodd and Austen Clair in the defensive backfield; and Jake Miller, Kyle Miller and Ryan West on defensive line. Lee Sullivan will take over kicking duties this year and in last week's Red-White scrimmage kicked a 38-yard field goal (the team record is 37 yards).
"We're going to mix it up, and you'll see a little of everything on offense," offensive coordinator Mike Hutcherson said. "We'll go from the power-I, the spread, the single wing and even some no-back sets. The whole purpose is to keep the defense guessing."
Juneau brings a nine-game home winning streak to Friday's game, but that doesn't mean the Crimson Bears are looking past Sitka, which plays in the Greatland Conference for the state's smallest football schools.
"They've got a brand new coach and they'll be very unpredictible in what they'll run," Fairchild said of Sitka. "It's not like they're a team we can overlook. It would make their year if they were to beat us."
After this Friday's game, Juneau heads into the meat of the CIFC season. The Crimson Bears host Bartlett on Friday, Aug. 17, and Bartlett is one of the top contenders this year.
"Bartlett has the most returners," Richey said. "Dimond, of course, is tough, but otherwise I think things are really up for grabs."
The Wolves return for their second year of varsity football with a new coach in Scott McAdams, but many of the same players who helped Sitka post a 4-2 overall record and 2-2 in the Greatland Conference.
"We have pretty much the same team," assistant coach Dennis Houston Sr. said. "We lost three or four key players to graduation, but we're pretty much the same group of guys."
Sitka faces a small quarterback controversy to start the season as senior William Warden, who missed last season with knee surgery, tries to reclaim the starting spot from junior, Travis Bradshaw, who saw most of the action last year.
Other key players include senior Elgin Hollins at slot receiver-cornerback, junior Dennis Houston Jr. at running back-outside linebacker, senior Josh Stevens at running back-linebacker, junior Mike Loucks at offensive and defensive line, senior Charles Backus at center, senior Dan Stockel at fullback-middle linebacker, junior Karel Uddipa at wide receiver, junior Dalton Bergman at wide receiver-cornerback, and senior Damien Lamar at offensive and defensive line.
Loucks was first-team all-conference last year on the defensive line. Three of Sitka's returners earned second-team all-conference honors last season -- Backus at center, Stevens at running back and Bradshaw at quarterback -- while Stockel was an honorable mention pick at inside linebacker. Bradshaw completed 58 of 109 passes last year for 908 yards, with 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions, while Stevens gained 336 yards on 59 carries last season with three rushing touchdowns.
"We expect some good things out of our linemen this year," coach Houston said. "Backus just won an award at a lineman's camp up north. We have a good-sized line."
Sitka is expected to contend with defending state small schools champion Nikiski for the Greatland Conference title this season. Houston said Friday's game with Juneau, followed by a game with Ketchikan the next week, will be a good way to see where the team stands entering conference play.
"The kids are looking at this weekend as a way to make a statement," Houston said. "Juneau is such a bigger school. When we were in the open (youth football) league, Sitka dominated Juneau. we're hoping from this game to be able to determine how we're going to do the rest of the season."
Like Sitka, Ketchikan also has a new coach this year in Todd Stanley. The second-year Kings are hoping to improve on last year's baptism of fire, which resulted in an 0-6 overall record and an 0-4 mark in the Northern Lights Conference. Ketchikan is off this week and opens its season on Saturday, Aug. 18, at Sitka in a non-conference game.
"We've got about twice as many kids out this year," Stanley said. "We've got about 30 out now, and we had less than 20 last year. Most of our returning starters are back, so we'll be a more competitive team."
Sophomore quarterback Brandon Larson is a returning starter, and Stanley said he's showing a lot of improvement. Other key players include sophomore Jake Ostrom at running back-cornerback, freshman Michael Bahan at slot receiver-running back, junior Sven Westergard at offensive and defensive line, senior Raymond Secrest at offensive and defensive line, junior Tim Eide at line and fullback, senior Tell Tombaugh at linebacker, and senior Nathan Webb at linebacker-safety.
Seacrest was an honorable mention selection at kicker and defensive end last year, while Eide was honorable mention at fullback.
"We can only afford to travel with 18 kids, so we have a lot of guys playing both ways," Stanley said. "We'd love to travel with 25 kids, but we don't have the money."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.