Juneau-Douglas got back on the winning track Friday, toppling visiting Wasilla 31-14 behind a ballhawking defense and special teams unit that forced four turnovers, and a re-committed running attack spearheaded by a senior and a relative newcomer.
The Crimson Bears lost their first game of the season last week at Colony, putting the onus on Juneau-Douglas to start the second half of the season on a good note to keep its conference championship hopes alive. There are two remaining Railbelt Conference games to play against Lathrop and Colony, both within the friendly confines of Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park.
"This was huge. There was a lot of pressure on us to not only bounce back - know the pecking order of our conference, and I knew what was facing us if we didn't win this game tonight," JDHS coach Rich Sjoroos said. "That was not a pretty picture to be looking at down the road, so now we're still in control of our own destiny, and, heck, we're still in line to win the conference title."
Senior running back Justin Brooks carried 24 times for 189 yards and a touchdown to lead the JDHS ground attack, while junior Leke Maka had a coming out party, rushing 13 times for 58 yards and a touchdown.
Sjoroos said the Bears needed to make running the ball a priority again to take pressure off the passing game and to help control the clock.
"It was important for us to establish the running game and it was more from a mindset to know that we can run the football," he said. "We've kind of struggled this year. Granted, the defenses we've played against have something to do with that, but we've averaged a pretty sub-par yards per carry as a team and that's something that we talked about in the locker room today before the game.
"We wanted to set the tone with the running game and I thought we did a nice job of that tonight."
The Bears took the opening possession straight down the field in five plays, highlighted by a 31-yard completion to junior receiver Sean Collum at midfield. Brooks carried twice for 11 and 25 yards, and Maka busted up the middle from 13 yards out for an early 7-0 lead after a Peter Jorgensen extra point just 1:38 into the first quarter.
Wasilla tried a fake punt on its ensuing possession, but junior linebacker Jerick Ibias blew the play up.
The Bears threatened again on their third possession, but Jorgensen's 14-yard field goal attempt was blocked before the end of the first quarter.
After taking over on the Wasilla 39-yard line, senior receiver Colin Gozelski caught a 24-yard reception over the middle to set JDHS up with first-and-goal at the Warrior 3. Brooks ran it in from a yard out to push the Bears ahead 14-0 after the PAT.
Ibias then recovered a fumble on the ensuing Wasilla possession but the Bears couldn't capitalize, turning the ball over on downs. JDHS senior cornerback Vinh Le stepped in front of a Luke Wild pass at midfield, setting up an eventual 22-yard field goal for Jorgensen and a 17-0 lead for JDHS heading into the break.
Senior Devan Neal recovered the ball after the Warriors misplayed the opening kickoff of the second half, but Maka coughed the ball up after a botched handoff to set up the Warriors' first scoring drive.
A flag for a late hit made it first-and-10 at the JDHS 13-yard line, and Devon Teeling plowed his way into the end zone to pull Wasilla within 10, 17-7, with 7:44 to play in the third quarter.
The Warriors got the ball back but another fumble set JDHS up at the Wasilla 30-yard line.
Fenumiai connected with Maka for a 21-yard gain down to the Warrior 8 after a stiff arm. Maka scored on the next play but the Bears were whistled for holding. On fourth-and-goal from the 10, Fenumiai faked a handoff and whipped a pass high to the back of the end zone that Gozelski, a 6-foot-3 import from the basketball team, had to go up and get with a defender all over him.
"Usually, Phillip doesn't throw it high so that was a total surprise," Gozelski said of the highlight-reel catch. "I didn't think I was going to get it. I thought it was over my head but all of a sudden it was in my hands. I think somebody got a pretty good hit on me so I'm surprised I held on to it."
Wasilla answered with a 37-yard touchdown pass from Wild to Green, making it 24-14 with nearly a full quarter to play. JDHS punted on its next possession and the Warriors took over at their own 39-yard line. But a flag made it first-and-24 and on third-and-28, junior linebacker La Fifita came up with a big sack for a 10-yard loss to stall the drive.
The Bears took over at their own 37, with Maka busting up the middle for a 21-yard gain, and Fenumiai then lofted a picture-perfect pass to a wide-open Gozelski for a 33-yard scoring strike to put the game out of reach.
Fenumiai didn't have his best night throwing the ball, finishing just 7-for-21, but he did have two touchdown passes without an interception. Fenumiai has done a phenomenal job taking care of the football in just his second year under center, Sjoroos said.
"Phillip set such a high standard for himself coming out here the first week and finishing with I think a perfect QB rating after going 11 of 13 with four touchdowns," he said. "Everybody expects that every time out but what they don't realize is that big number 99 (Green) is coming at him from the front side there, so you probably want to get rid of the ball a little quicker than normal.
"So some of his throws were a little errant early on but he stood in the there in the second half and made some nice throws, and Colin's catch, oh my gosh. Like I said, just give him a chance. Put that ball up in the air and give him a chance, and he's going to make plays."
Gozelski finished with 77 yards on four catches with two touchdowns, while Fenumiai threw for 135 yards and two scores.
Tyler Polis finished with 18 carries for 116 yards, and Teeling carried seven times for 60 yards and a touchdown for the Warriors.
Wasilla coach Glenn Nelson lamented his team's propensity to turn the ball over. In addition to the four turnovers, Wasilla also recovered three of its own fumbles, two on consecutive plays in the first half.
"We spotted them 14 points and that was the spread at the end of the game," Nelson said. "We just can't do that."
Sjoroos said JDHS has been able to feed off other teams' miscues all season.
"It's huge for us. That's something as a team that we need," he said. "We need those turnovers and that's what helped keep us in the game last week against Colony, and that's what helped us beat Palmer and West Valley, South. We've gotten so many turnovers and the crowd feeds off that. As long as we can pounce on those loose balls, good things can happen."
Juneau-Douglas (4-1, 3-1) can secure a playoff spot with another win Friday against Lathrop at home.
How They Scored
JDHS -aka 13 run (Jorgensen kick), 10:22
JDHS - Brooks 1 run (Jorgensen kick), 5:18
JDHS -G Jorgensen 22, :18
WHS -eeling 13 run (Sliwa kick), 7:44
JDHS -ozelski 10 pass from Fenumiai (Jorgensen kick), 1:33
WHS -reen 37 pass from Wild (Sliwa kick), 11:48
JDHS -ozelski 33 pass from Fenumiai (Jorgensen kick), 1:19