ANCHORAGE - East Anchorage High School's Ryan Stickler ran with a vengeance Saturday.
He was trying desperately to forget last season's large-school state championship game against the Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears, when he sprained his ankle in the first quarter and had watch from the sidelines as his team took the title.
Given another shot at the Crimson Bears, Stickler refused to bow out early. If anything, he got better as the game wore on.
Stickler rushed for 174 of his 211 yards in the second half and scored the game-winning touchdown to give the second-ranked Thunderbirds a 35-28 Cook Inlet Football Conference victory over Juneau on a sunny day at Anchorage Football Stadium.
Juneau's loss to East came one week after it fell to No. 1 West Anchorage that started a rough stretch of back-to-back games against the top two teams in the state rankings. The Crimson Bears face another tough battle this weekend when they host the Rainier Beach Vikings of Seattle at 8 p.m. on Saturday night. Rainier Beach was ranked third in the Seattle Times' preseason Class 3A rankings for Washington.
Though Juneau never led against East, the Crimson Bears (2-2 overall, 1-2 CIFC) twice tied the game in the fourth quarter and put the onus on the Thunderbirds to take the lead or take its chances in overtime.
The T-Birds (4-0, 2-0) were happy to accept the challenge. They rushed for 261 yards on a day when quarterback Chad Nading was stifled by Juneau's secondary, which intercepted three passes and returned two for fourth-quarter touchdowns.
With East's air attack grounded, Stickler took over. He averaged 9.6 yards on his 22 carries and scored two touchdowns.
And while he snaked and juked and powered his way for many of those yards, the big boys in front of him opened up holes so big Stickler probably could've walked through them.
"Our offensive line blocked great today," he said. "I give all the credit to them. The offensive line is the heart of the team."
East center Tamo Falealili, the only senior on East's inexperienced but quickly maturing offensive line, was all smiles after the game, proud of the grit he and his linemates displayed when they needed it the most.
"I might be the anchor of the line, but the young guys showed me a lot," Falealili said. "I told 'em to keep on pumping your feet and do not stop until the whistle blows."
The surge of East's offense late in the game was the difference. When Juneau scored on a 17-yard interception return at the start of the fourth quarter to tie the game 21-21, the T-Birds responded with a two-play, 70-yard touchdown drive begun by Stickler's 61-yard rumble down the left side.
Allen Franklin, who rushed for 34 yards on five carries, then punched in a 9-yard score to give East a 28-21 lead.
That lead was temporary, however, because on East's next possession, Juneau's Brian Felix intercepted another Nading pass and returned it 45 yards for a game-tying touchdown.
But the T-Birds again responded. After fielding the ensuing squib kickoff on the 50-yard line, East scored the game-winner on Stickler's 6-yard run, the sixth play of the drive.
"Bad things are going to happen," said East coach Roger Spackman. "You just have to respond and control the things you can control."
In the opening half, it didn't seem like East would be able to control or contain Felix, who totaled 95 yards on 25 carries in the first and second quarters.
"Our game plan was to run smack at 'em and punch 'em in the mouth," said Felix, who finished with 115 yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries.
The Crimson Bears landed quite a few blows on the reigning champs, including a pass in the end zone that went off receiver C.J. Keys' fingertips. But the T-Birds withstood them and came back with plenty of their own.
The knockout punch came on the game's final play when Juneau quarterback Chris Hinkley heaved a last-second desperation pass toward the end zone in hopes of Hail Mary miracle.
But East free safety Nick Nading intercepted the pass at his own 1-yard line and returned it 96 yards before getting tackled at Juneau's 3 - just nine feet away from notching his first score of the season.
"I ran out of steam at the end," Nading said. "But we won with that pick, so it was a good ending for us whether I made the touchdown or not."
CRIMSON BEARS 28
Saturday's boxscore from Anchorage Football Stadium
JUNEAU-DOUGLAS 0 14 0 14 - 28
EAST ANCHORAGE 14 0 7 14 - 35
East - C. Nading 1 run (Pennington kick), 7:31.
East - Robinson 72 pass from C. Nading (Pennington kick), 3:07.
Juneau - Felix 4 run (Ashe kick), 10:38.
Juneau - Felix 3 run (Ashe kick), 4:01.
East - Stickler 13 run (Pennington kick), 7:24
Juneau - Lehauli 17 interception return (Ashe kick), 11:54.
East - A. Franklin 9 run (Pennington kick), 11:08.
Juneau - Felix 45 interception return (Ashe kick), 4:58.
East - Stickler 6 run (Pennington kick), 2:23.
First downs 18 14
Rushes-yards 48-160 33-261
Passing yards 63 95
Return yards 197 146
Comp-att-int 5-19-2 5-12-3
Punts-ave 2-52.0 1-44.0
Fumbles-lost 2-0 1-0
Penalties-yards 3-30 6-46
RUSHING - Juneau: Felix 33-115, Keys 1-20, Ju. Behrends 3-17, Saldivar 3-11, P. Kohan 1-7, Katasse 1-3, Lehauli 2-1, Hinkley 4-(-14). East: Stickler 22-211, A. Franklin 5-34, Lavea 2-23, C. Nading 4-(-7).
PASSING - Juneau: Hinkley 3-13-1-35, Lehauli 1-1-0-21, P. Kohan 1-4-1-7, Fagerstrom 0-1-0-0. East: C. Nading 5-12-3-95, Lavea 0-0-0-0.
RECEIVING - Juneau: Katasse 2-26, Felix 1-21, Keys 1-11, Fagerstrom 1-5. East: Wilson 2-8, K. Robinson 1-72, Macon 1-13, A. Franklin 1-2.
MISSED FIELD GOALS - None.