The landscape has changed dramatically for this year's high school football season, not just for the Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears but all around the state.
The Crimson Bears are hoping to repeat their state playoff run last year, which saw Juneau lose to eventual champion Service in the semifinals in the first playoff berth in team history. But the Crimson Bears are going to have to replace 16 of 22 starting positions to do it. Juneau's Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park football field has also been changed, from a sand and clay field formerly known as the "Juneau Litterbox" to a new surface of AstroPlay brand artificial turf.
Meanwhile, the state's landscape has been altered by the retirements of three of Alaska's most successful coaches, three new teams (including Sitka and Ketchikan) and the hiatus of another, the realignment of some conferences, and a new playoff format. That means things will be a bit more up in the air this year as the squads figure out the changes.
While the rest of Alaska's teams were opening their seasons last weekend, the Crimson Bears were going over film from their Red-White scrimmage. Juneau finally opens its schedule at noon Saturday against the East Anchorage Thunderbirds at Anchorage Football Stadium (broadcast live on KINY 800-AM), but many of the Crimson Bears are still working out who's doing what on each play.
"We're a little bit concerned," Juneau coach Reilly Richey said during Thursday night's run-through, which followed a dedication ceremony for the new field surface. "East played last week (beating playoff team Lathrop 33-2) and had some first-game mistakes, like 190 yards of penalties. I expect they'll have ironed that out by Saturday. I hope we don't have too many first-game mistakes. We still don't know how a lot of these guys will perform. We've got new starters at every position."
While there were some major losses to graduation last year, the Crimson Bears do return some all-state caliber players. Nose tackle Jason "Train" Kaeser is a four-year starter, and will add offensive line duties this year. Wide receiver-defensive back-quarterback Chris Connally was first-team all-state last year as a return specialist. Junior Brett Fairchild is the only returning starting quarterback in the Cook Inlet Football Conference this year, while newcomers Sione Tupou and Jason Cameron will handle ball-carrying duties.
"We've lost some guys here and there, but we've still played together through junior football," Kaeser said. "We've lost some talent and some size, but we've still got some good players. All the teams in the conference are going through major changes, so I don't think we're too bad off."
"We've got a lot of losses, but we'll surprise people," said Connally, who said he'll miss the old field. "I'll miss that. The dirt was different, and teams didn't like it. They didn't like to be hit on the dirt. We were special. We were Juneau and we had the dirt field."
Connally may miss the old field, but several of the players said they welcomed the new surface, which is much softer than the sand and gravel and actually looks like grass.
"It's a lot nicer on your joints and stuff," senior lineman Randy Wolfenberger said.
While Juneau's landscape has changed, so has the Cook Inlet Conference's. Byron Wilson, who led Service to three of the last four state titles, left Alaska to take a coaching job in Washington. Bruce Shearer, the state's all-time winningest coach, left Chugiak and also took over a team in Washington. Another of the state's top coaches, Eielson's Buck Nystrom, retired this year.
Perennial-contender Chugiak is now coached by Travis Cantrell and Service is coached by Jason Caldarera. East has a new coach in Roger Spackman.
East will be led by the quarterback-wide receiver combo of Tom Marriage and Jevon Miller, who connected for two touchdowns last week. Antoine McCloud rushed for 105 yards, to give East a balanced attack. East went 2-6 last year, but looks much improved. Dimond beat Bartlett last week, a minor upset, so some of Juneau's players feel there may be more balance in the league this year.
"I personally don't think Service and Chugiak will be as strong, and I think the teams are more equal," Fairchild said.
While the Cook Inlet Football Conference remains the same, the state's other conferences have realigned this year. The Northern Lights Conference split, with the three Mat-Su Valley teams moving north to join with the four Fairbanks teams in what is now called the Northern Lights North/Railbelt Conference. Four teams from each of the two larger-school leagues the CIFC and the new NLNRC will meet in the playoffs this year, adding a state berth for the CIFC.
The four Kenai Peninsula teams from the old NLC added Ketchikan in a new conference called the Northern Lights South Conference. Sitka and Anchorage Christian Schools both added football this year and they'll join the Great Land Conference, which lost Glennallen for at least a year. The top team from each of the two smaller-school conferences the NLSC and the GLC will play for a small schools state title.
Ketchikan and Sitka both opened their seasons last week, with Sitka beating Seward 39-7 and Ketchikan losing to Homer 34-6. Ketchikan plays at Kenai tonight, while Sitka plays at Nikiski on Saturday.