It's only the home opener for the Juneau-Douglas High School football team, but the Crimson Bears are expecting a playoff-charged atmosphere when they host the Chugiak Mustangs at 7 p.m. Friday at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park.
Even though both teams are coming off bitter losses last weekend -- Juneau lost 30-29 to East Anchorage and Chugiak fell 33-13 to Dimond -- the two teams made the state semifinals last season. It will be Juneau's first game on its new artificial turf, and the Crimson Bears have never beaten Chugiak since the two teams began playing each other in 1991 (Chugiak won 31-0 at Chugiak last year).
"The kids love to play Chugiak," Juneau coach Reilly Richey said. "They've never beat them, but we do have a five-game winning streak at home. We have our new field, and it's our home opener, so there will be a playoff atmosphere."
"We're looking forward to playing Chugiak. We hate Chugiak," said Juneau wide receiver-defensive back Chris Connally, who had seven catches for 160 yards and two touchdowns last Saturday, plus he threw a 39-yard touchdown pass on an option play. "We've never beaten them, but we're going for it. We want that first win."
The Crimson Bears were the only team in the state playing their season opener last weekend, with every other team in Alaska having a game under their belts. Juneau's first-game jitters were evident early in the game, especially on the line where there are some younger players who weren't used to the speed of varsity play. But Juneau settled down and nearly made up a 30-14 deficit in the fourth quarter against East. Brett Fairchild threw two long touchdown passes to Connally, and Juneau also picked up a safety in the fourth quarter to pull within one point.
"I wish it was longer," Fairchild said of the East game. "I felt we were in better shape from all the running we've done, and our passing game was working."
Juneau's passing game had to be working last week because Juneau lost two of its top running backs to injury in the game. Booker Drennan is out three to five weeks with a shoulder separation, but Sione Tupou's ankle injury wasn't as bad as the team originally feared and he was practicing Wednesday night. Also, Connally has been battling an ankle injury for a couple of weeks now and he's been trying to stay off it as much as possible this week in practice.
"The kids played with a lot of guts and a lot of courage," Richey said. "Connally played one of the gutsiest games I've seen. He had a badly swollen ankle, but he kept going back out there when most kids would be sitting the rest of the game out. Justin Rose (a tight end-linebacker) was the same way. He played every down on both offense and defense and he was our defensive player of the game. And Train (defensive tackle-offensive guard Jason Kaeser) also played just about every down."
Chugiak will bring some beef to the table when it comes to Juneau. The Mustangs, who are playing under first-year coach Travis Cantrell, had the state's biggest quarterback last year in 6-foot-7, 250-pound Riley Fitt-Chappell. But this year Fitt-Chappell is playing tight end-defensive end, and Chugiak starts a shorter but heftier QB in 6-2, 260-pound Jared Williamson. Chugiak also features 6-3, 260-pound guard-linebacker Zach Jenkins, who scored on a 23-yard touchdown run in Chugiak's 68-16 victory over North Pole two weeks ago, and 6-2, 250-pound tackle-defensive end Nick Bradley. Fitt-Chappell, Bradley and Jenkins combined for five sacks and two fumble recoveries in the North Pole game. Fitt-Chappell also caught two touchdown passes from Williamson in that game.
But last week, Dimond used its quickness to counter Chugiak's size and 5-9 running back Kennard Walker rushed for 235 yards and two touchdowns against the Mustangs. The Lynx took a 27-7 lead into the fourth quarter and, forced to throw, Williamson only completed 10 of his 27 passes with two interceptions. Jenkins scored another touchdown for Chugiak in the game, while running back Michael John rushed for 110 yards and fullback Bryan Lance scored his second touchdown of the season.
"I think it will be a close game," Fairchild said. "It'll be nice to see what we can do."
"We need to take their power away," Connally said. "We need to show them we're quicker, faster and we've been taught better than they have. Dimond took their power away last week, and Wasilla took their power away last year (in the state semifinals), and when that happened Chugiak couldn't do anything."
Richey was installing a few new running plays this week, figuring his team desperately needs to be able to run against Chugiak if it's going to win.
"Chugiak is primarily a running team, and we're a passing team," Richey said. "Whoever can do the other (Chugiak passing or Juneau running) has the best chance to win."