After losing to the state's second-ranked Service Cougars last weekend, the Juneau-Douglas High School football team will have to step things up a notch when the Crimson Bears travel to Anchorage to play the Alaska's top-ranked team.
The Crimson Bears will play the Bartlett Golden Bears at 6 p.m. Saturday at Anchorage Football Stadium, with the two schools' junior varsity teams tangling at 3 p.m. The varsity game will be broadcast live in Juneau on KINY, 800-AM.
"We're going to have a lot of competition, but it's going to be a lot of fun," Juneau sophomore center-defensive tackle Alika Bradley said.
The rebuilding Crimson Bears (1-2 overall, 0-2 Cook Inlet Football Conference) have shown improvement each week, but they've not had the easiest of schedules. With a young and inexperienced team, Juneau's tough schedule meant the Crimson Bears had no grace period to make rookie mistakes.
Juneau opened the season with a last-minute 8-6 non-conference victory over Kenai Central (2-1 overall), which this week became the state's top small schools team in the inaugural Anchorage Daily News/Alaska Football Coaches Poll. The next week, Juneau dropped a 13-9 decision on the road to two-time defending large schools champion Dimond (2-1 overall, 2-0 CIFC). Last Friday the Crimson Bears lost 23-13 to Service (3-0 overall, 2-0 CIFC), which is ranked No. 2 this week among large schools.
Now Juneau has to play the state's top-ranked large schools team in Bartlett (2-0 overall, 1-0 CIFC), which is last year's state runner-up.
"I think the ranking gives a perception of credibility in our program," said Bartlett coach John Jessen, whose team was winless just six years ago. "It builds the players' confidence and creates excitement about our program. I feel it is a benefit. However, we still have to execute, play hard and get better."
"I think if we keep improving we can compete with them," Juneau senior defensive end-tight end-punter Colin Conerton said. "So far we've fallen a little bit short. We have to win the close games and not make stupid mistakes."
In Juneau's loss to Dimond, the winning touchdown was set up by an unnecessary roughness penalty, with the Lynx scoring on the next play after the Crimson Bears missed a coverage on defense. Even though Juneau was outrushed and outmuscled by Service last week, the game turned on two Juneau mistakes - an intercepted pass on the goal line that killed a Juneau drive and a fumbled punt that gave Service the ball on the 3-yard line.
Juneau can't afford to make many more mistakes if the Crimson Bears plan to reach the state playoffs for the third time in four years. A loss on Saturday will mean the best Juneau can finish in the CIFC is 3-3. The last time Juneau went 3-3 in the CIFC - in 2000 - the Crimson Bears lost out in a three-way tiebreaker for the CIFC's final two state playoff berths.
"It's time to play, no more messing around," Juneau senior running back-linebacker Jason Cameron said. "I feel pretty good, like we're a team that's about to break out. It seems like we're picking things up every week. Bartlett is definitely beatable, and our defense shut them down last year."
The Golden Bears don't have any players ranked in this week's state football stat leaders, but that's partly because Bartlett has played one game fewer than the other teams in Alaska and because Bartlett mixes up its offense as well as anybody.
Bartlett has what most coaches agree is the top player in the state with Zack Bowman, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound senior free safety who Bartlett coach John Jessen said is being recruited by the University of Washington, Oregon, Nebraska, Washington State, Arizona and Michigan.
Bowman leads Bartlett's defense with 20 career interceptions and a reputation for hard hits, plus he'll line up at wide receiver and Juneau coach Reilly Richey said Bowman is a dangerous kick/punt returner. Bowman returned two kicks for touchdowns last week in Bartlett's 50-26 victory over East Anchorage.
Bartlett's offense is in a state of flux, as the Golden Bears have been dealing with injuries in their backfield. Fullback Henry Hellrung and tailback T.J. Jackson both ran for just short of 100 yards each against East last week, with Jordan Williams also getting a lot of carries. But starting runners Boaz Gionson and Drew Williams are almost at full strength and should play this week. Quarterback Pierce Blewett runs Bartlett's Delaware Wing-T offense, which Richey said spreads the carries evenly between the three running backs.
Another top player for Bartlett is 6-2, 235-pound senior offensive guard Sloan Green, who is being recruited by Air Force. Green anchors a line that also features tackle Greg Marlow, guard Matt Mazany and center Pat McDonald. Besides Bowman, other top players in Bartlett's 4-4 defense are linebackers Javier Brown, Jessee Spillman and Sean Kelly, plus lineman Jake Hinkle.
"We know that Juneau hits very hard and is aggressive, especially on defense," Jessen said. "They can be very tricky offensively, so you have to be ready for anything. Defensively, they stuffed us last year."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.