The Juneau-Douglas High School football team remembered all too well the feeling of not being in last year's state playoffs, despite a record that matched two of the Cook Inlet Football Conference teams that qualified.
So it was only fitting that the No. 2 Crimson Bears became the first CIFC team to clinch a playoff spot with a 10-7 victory over the No. 4 East Anchorage Thunderbirds on Friday night at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park.
Not only did Juneau clinch a state playoff spot, but Juneau stayed undefeated with a 5-0 overall and a 4-0 CIFC record. The Crimson Bears also avenged last year's 30-29 season-opening loss to East, a loss many players felt kept Juneau out of the playoffs.
"These kids set a goal of not going 3-3 (CIFC) again, after seeing what happened in the tie-breaker last year," Juneau coach Reilly Richey said. "They didn't like seeing Service in the playoffs after we beat them 27-8 last year."
In order to stay undefeated, and to extend their home winning streak to 12 games, the Juneau players had to reach a little deeper than usual to pull out the victory.
Juneau's top running back this season, Jason Cameron, severely sprained his left ankle on Juneau's first defensive series, so 5-foot-8 junior Austen Clair had to take Cameron's tailback position. Cameron, who went to the emergency room and then returned on crutches to watch the end of the game, said he's not sure how bad his ankle is and has another visit with the doctor scheduled this week.
"To have him come in like that, when he hasn't really been practicing tailback stuff, was great," Juneau tight end-defensive end Jake Miller said of Clair, who ran for 42 yards on 17 carries. "He kept the chains moving."
"I'd had a couple of carries near the ends of games, but overall this was my big chance," Clair said. "It's been awhile since I've done a lot of running. I hope I can step it up."
Juneau also had some key players shaking off injuries to play in the game. Lineman Jonathan Moore was in the emergency room Thursday because he tore a muscle in his shin. Fullback Sione Tupou was playing with a bad back and lineman Kyle Miller had a banged-up leg. All three made significant contributions, despite their injuries.
"They told me I shouldn't play this week, but it's the biggest game of the season and I wasn't going to miss it," Moore said.
"We had a bunch of guys step up tonight," said Juneau quarterback Brett Fairchild, who completed 15 of 29 passes for 227 yards and one 15-yard touchdown to Jake Miller. "Sione Tupou, Austen Clair, Eric Tollefson and Jake Miller all had excellent games, and our line played great."
Juneau moved the ball well during the first half, but ended up trailing 7-3 at the break as many of the Crimson Bear drives came up empty.
On Juneau's first drive, the Crimson Bears set up for a 45-yard field-goal attempt by Lee Sullivan only to have it blocked by East's Eddie Pili. On Juneau's second drive, the Crimson Bears set up of a 27-yard field-goal attempt only to have Sullivan pull it wide left.
On Juneau's third drive, Sullivan finally connected on a 27-yard field goal with 10:30 left in the second quarter to give the Crimson Bears. Sullivan then made up for his two misses on the ensuing kickoff, as he stopped East's Charleston Macon after Macon returned the kick 49 yards and appeared ready to break it for a touchdown.
"It was kind of discouraging at first, but I was glad to finally finish one off," Sullivan said. "On the one that was blocked, I think I waited too long after the snap. On the second one I missed, I lost my focus and I sliced it."
Even though Sullivan stopped Macon's kick return, East did capitalize later in that drive with the Thunderbirds' only touchdown. Derek Laws completed a 45-yard pass to Casey Flair, through the hands of two defenders, to put the ball on the 7-yard line. Three plays later, Tui Muai scored on a 4-yard run and Dustin Mitchell made the kick to give East a 7-3 lead with 7:42 left in the half.
Juneau's next drive stalled when Jacob Dutton dropped a fourth-down pass from Fairchild in the end zone. On Juneau's final drive of the first half, Fairchild was hit as he dropped back to pass and East's Patrick Kelly recovered the resulting fumble. In all, Juneau marched within East's 25-yard line on all five of its first-half drives and only had three points to show for it.
"I'm not worried, I know we can finish," Fairchild said. "I expected it to finally happen."
"We weren't worried, but we weren't happy, either, to only get three points," Richey said. "Any time we're down by four, we're still in the game. East played with so much courage on defense."
The defenses for both teams stiffened in the second half and both teams had drives stall without much movement.
But East fumbled the ball away midway into the third quarter and Juneau's Nick West recovered. Four plays later, Fairchild hit Jake Miller for a 15-yard touchdown pass and Sullivan made the kick to give Juneau a 10-7 lead with 4:55 left in the third quarter. East's next drive stalled when Juneau's Willy Dodd recovered another fumble.
"I just got a good bounce and my first thought was to cover it up," West said.
"It was a wet-ball miscue, and you can't really do anything about it," Flair said. "It was definitely a game where the defenses won the game."
Juneau marched down to East's 12-yard line on its next drive, but East's Eri "Junior" Faaaliga broke up Fairchild's fourth-down pass to Dutton in the end zone. East's went four-and-out on its next drive, and Juneau marched down to East's 14-yard line before Fairchild's fourth-down carry came up short.
East finally seemed to find an offense in its final drive, as East moved the ball beyond midfield. But Dodd broke up a second-down pass, and Laws overthrew his receiver on third down to set up a fourth-down-and-two attempt from the 48 with 1:11 left in the game. Laws got a poor snap and running back David Melvin had to recover the fumble for a five-yard loss, giving Juneau the ball back on downs. Fairchild was able to take a knee on the final three plays to clinch the victory.
"It was second down and our coach told us they were going to pass," Dodd said of his pass break-up. "That got us the ball and pumped up our defense."
"It was a great defensive play," Miller said of Dodd's play. "It stalled their drive and it got them a knockdown where they couldn't stop the clock."
The Crimson Bears take a break from their CIFC schedule this coming weekend, as they head to Palmer to play Colony in a non-conference game at 1 p.m. on Saturday. Juneau then returns to CIFC action on Friday, Sept. 21, when the Crimson Bears host defending state champion Dimond at 7 p.m. at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park.
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.