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One year after posting the best record in school history, the Juneau-Douglas High School football team enters the 2002 season with a lot of questions to be answered.
The Crimson Bears open their schedule against the Kenai Kardinals on Saturday night at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park, with the varsity game at 8 p.m. and the junior varsity at 5 p.m. Even though Saturday's varsity game is non-conference, Juneau will be able to use it to answer some of the questions.
Last year, Juneau won its first Cook Inlet Football Conference regular-season title and earned the right to host a state playoff game for the first time, a 31-0 loss to the eventual large-school state champion Dimond Lynx. The Crimson Bears were 7-1 during the regular season, 7-2 after the playoff loss.
But most of Juneau's starters graduated last May, meaning the Crimson Bears have an entirely new look this season. Juneau head coach Reilly Richey, who's won two Alaska Coach of the Year awards over the past three seasons, said he's replacing 18 of 22 starters from last year's team.
"There aren't any football players out there," Richey joked during a practice break earlier this week. "All our players are still learning. We're stealing basketball players and bringing in guys off the baseball team. Seriously, though, we're pretty excited."
While the Crimson Bears will have an almost entirely new starting roster, many of the names will still be familiar to Juneau football fans. And, with the program's recent addition of a JV team, the Juneau coaches are hoping the new players will be able to step right into the big shoes they'll be filling. Juneau is the only CIFC team to have a winning season in each of the past three years and the Crimson Bears want to continue the winning tradition.
But with this many changes, the Crimson Bears want to see how they perform in actual game situations before deciding if they're rebuilding or reloading.
"When you replace that many players, you just don't know until you get in the game," defensive coordinator Ray Bradley said, adding that the JV program, which had its first full season last year, could ease the transition. "It's good when you get someone up from the JV program because you don't have to spend so much time teaching them your basic offense and base defense."
"The JV program is good because when you've had actual snaps under your belt, there still might be butterflies but your confidence level it up," offensive coordinator Mike Hutcherson said. "They know what it takes to win football games. They can play when they're tired, or when they're in a little pain."
While the Crimson Bears are starting over with a new roster, it doesn't mean there aren't some experienced players on the team.
Senior kicker Lee Sullivan, who will not play this weekend because of an injured quadriceps muscle, was a first-team all-state selection last year. Senior wide receiver-safety Willy Dodd was a first-team all-CIFC pick at defensive back. Other returning players with starting experience from last year are senior linebacker-fullback Nick West, senior defensive end-tight end Colin Conerton and senior running back-linebacker Jason Cameron.
"It's really hard to tell right now," Dodd said. "We're really young, but we're really talented. We could do real well if things fall together for us. Our JV players are not getting thrown into something that's brand new."
"We'll see, we're still bringing up a lot of guys," West said. "Our JV program has been a huge addition. This is our first game, so we'll see where we are. We have some seniors who aren't going to let the team have low expectations."
One of the biggest pairs of shoes to fill is at quarterback, now that three-year starter and Alaska Offensive Player of the Year Brett Fairchild has moved on to college.
Chad Dubois, a senior who threw for five touchdown passes and ran for another in one JV game last year, will take over the starting quarterback duties to open the season. But Sterling Henderson, a senior who plays guard on the basketball team, is also expected to see some snaps under center.
"Brett was a starter for 3 1/2 years and, not to put Chad down, Brett had a better arm and more experience," Hutcherson said. "We'll have to build into our passing game and see what kind of personality develops. Chad does have more experience, but Sterling is a great athlete."
"I was a little nervous at first, but I'm finally getting comfortable with it," Dubois said. "There are a lot of big shoes to fill, but we'll do fine. The line's coming together and everyone's stepping up. We're looking a lot better."
One of Juneau's strengths could be its running game, which will be led by junior Brian Felix - who coaches said was one of the team's most-improved players at offseason camps. Cameron is coming off two injury-plagued seasons, but still led the Crimson Bears in rushing two seasons ago. West will start at fullback, while other runners include senior tailback Austen Clair, sophomore tailback-slot receiver Mike Winters and TNT- the brother pair of senior Tevita Talamai and junior Tony Talamai, who recently moved to Juneau from Tonga where they played rugby.
Conerton will play tight end and wide receiver, while senior Mark Shilling and sophomore Mychal Hutcherson will also line up at tight end. At wide receiver will be senior Leo Winn, senior Ernest Monts, Dodd, junior C.J. Keys and senior T.J. Mason.
Juneau is known for mixing up its plays and formations more than any other team in the state, and coach Hutcherson said to expect that trend to continue. He's not simplifying the offense, even with the heavy player turnover.
"We'll do it more than ever," Hutcherson said. "We'll use everything and the kitchen sink."
Last year Juneau's defense allowed the fewest points in the state (74 for the regular season, 105 including the playoffs), but Bradley said he's still trying to figure out some of his combinations.
Bradley said his defensive backfield is the most set, with Dodd at safety and Mason and Winn both at cornerback. He said Nick West will anchor the linebacker corps from the weakside, with junior Ryan West, Cameron and others filling the gaps. The defensive line will be anchored by Conerton at strongside defensive end, with the Talamai brothers and sophomore Jake Ritter taking the other line spots.
Offensive line coach Pat Tyner has another big pair of shoes to fill, as the Crimson Bears try to replace Alaska Lineman of the Year Zac Campbell.
"We'll have a line by committee, with eight or nine guys rotating through," Tyner said. "The only player who's really set is (sophomore) Alika Bradley, and that's because he plays center. We'll see what combinations work and what the players can do with some game experience."
Juneau's line will be young and small, with junior Jimmy Brown, Ritter, Mark Shilling, sophomore Jonathan Shilling, senior John Allen, Ryan West, Ryan Hayes, Eric Unruh and Keith Koruna joining Bradley. Richey said Dimond had the smallest line in the CIFC last year, but still won its second straight state title.
Dimond, Bartlett and East Anchorage are considered the top teams in the CIFC this season, but last year's league was so balanced that Juneau's only loss was to sixth-ranked Service. The only team that's really out of the mix is West Anchorage, which hasn't won a game in more than three seasons.
The Crimson Bears will get a chance to work some kinks out against Kenai, but they don't expect the Kardinals to be a pushover just because Kenai plays with the small schools in the state. Kenai posted a 7-1 regular-season record last season, losing the Northern Lights-South Conference title to Soldotna even though both teams had 3-1 conference records. Kenai lost 14-0 to eventual champion Nikiski in the first round of last year's small schools state playoffs.
Kenai's offense is led by the state's top regular-season rusher last year, Cory Janson, who finished - after the playoffs - with 1,296 yards on 216 carries and 17 touchdowns. Kenai coach Jim Beeson plans to mix up his offense a bit more this year, but Janson will still be the leader. Michael Tunseth is the quarterback, while Dakota Craig is the fullback. Kenai only lists two 6-footers and three 200-pounders on its roster, but Beeson is known for underestimating his players heights and weights by three inches and 20-30 pounds.
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.