The Dimond Lynx may be the top-ranked high school football team in Alaska this week, but to hear Dimond coach Duncan Shackelford talk you'd think the Lynx are decided underdogs when they host the Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears on Saturday.
"They've beat us four of the five years I've coached here," Shackelford said of Juneau, which beat Dimond 20-19 last year. "We've never really liked going down there. The kids probably feel a little payback is in order. That one point probably kept us out of the playoffs last year."
Dimond hosts Juneau at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Anchorage Football Stadium (game broadcast live on KINY radio, 800 AM) in a game several of the Juneau players feel might be their toughest of the season. Dimond is 3-0 in the Cook Inlet Football Conference and 4-0 overall after beating Notre Dame High School of Riverside, Calif., 27-6 in a non-conference game last weekend. Juneau is 1-1 in the CIFC and 2-1 overall after beating Lathrop 49-14 in a non-conference game last week.
"It's going to be one of the best games of the year," said Juneau nose tackle Jason 'Train' Kaeser, who blocked two extra-point attempts in last year's victory over Dimond. "I think we have an excellent chance to beat them. Dimond is going to be gunning for us. They're going to want revenge. They're playing for the playoffs, and we were the team that kept them out of the playoffs. Last year's game was the most important game of the season for us, and this year's game is looking just as important."
Saturday's game is part of Dimond's homecoming celebrations, but it has even more importance for the Lynx. Dimond can clinch one of the four CIFC berths in the state playoffs with a victory Saturday. A victory by Juneau puts the Crimson Bears in the thick of the playoff hunt.
"I'm thinking it's going to be a pretty close game," said Juneau running back Sione Tupou, who is hobbled by a sore ankle.
"Dimond's undefeated, but all of their games were close," said Juneau wide receiver-defensive back-return specialist Chris Connally, who is also hobbled by a sore ankle. "That just shows you that all of the teams in the conference are pretty equal. It's whatever team has the best game that wins. Our goal is to win every game we play."
Dimond brings one of the state's most potent running attacks into the game, one that has been averaging more than 300 yards a game on the ground. The Lynx use two backs interchangeably, and rarely throw with only one game with more than 40 yards in passing.
Kenard Walker rushed for more than 235 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-13 victory over Chugiak, then Brett Denton rushed for 170 the next week in a 28-21 victory over East Anchorage. Walker is the fifth-ranked rusher in the state with 420 yards on 77 carries for a 5.4 yard-per-carry average and three touchdowns. Denton is the ninth-ranked rusher, with 320 yards on 45 carries, for a 7.1 average and five touchdowns.
Jason Simmons is Dimond's quarterback, with Joe Chirhart the top receiver even though he only has four catches. Other players to watch from Dimond are fullback-linebacker Chris McMullen, return specialist-strong safety-running back Brandon Joseph, and all-state lineman Chris Kuper.
"They've got a real team, they've got some weapons," Juneau coach Reilly Richey said of Dimond. "They're undefeated and the No. 1 team in the state, but we took a vote and we decided we'd play 'em anyway."
"We don't really rely on one person, we just go with what works," Shackelford said. "If they load up one side of the line, we don't switch sides to counter it. We just go with who's on that side."
Juneau's offense is a little more balanced than Dimond's with the Crimson Bears averaging 154 yards a game passing and just 114 yards rushing. Quarterback Brett Fairchild is the state's top-ranked passer (for yardage), going 27-of-66 for 623 yards with six touchdowns and just two interceptions. None of the Juneau receivers are ranked, as Fairchild spreads the ball well between receivers Connally, Jacob Dutton and tight end Justin Rose. Even though teams don't like to kick to him, Connally has been good for about 100 yards in returns each game. Tupou has been sharing most of the rushing load with Jason Cameron, but Booker Drennan returns from a separated shoulder and will see some spot action this week.
"As far as I'm concerned, we've got the best quarterback in the state," said Rose, who is battling a bad hand and a bad shoulder. "Sometimes his stats don't show it, but he gets us the ball. It's just that we sometimes drop it."
"Brett's a great quarterback," Shackelford said. "I coached him at a camp in Washington State a couple of years ago. He's tough. But the real key to the game is their offensive line against our defensive line. We need to put heat on Brett Fairchild, and our defensive backs also need to be back in coverage."
Rose said the Crimson Bears have good memories from last year's game, which launched Juneau toward its first berth in the state playoffs in team history. But this year's game could be just as important as last year's match-up with Dimond.
"This year is huge," Rose said. "They'll want revenge, and they'll want it even more if we beat 'em again in this game. It's always nice to jump out with a lead, but when we've done it this year we've let the other team come back and score. If we get up, we have to stay up and not let them score. Those running backs execute well, and our line is the key. This team (Dimond) isn't unbeatable."