After three straight losses, the Juneau-Douglas High School football team is in desperate need of a win to turn its season around in the final stretch of its regular season.
But the Crimson Bears' unrelenting schedule will not make it easy as the undefeated North Pole Patriots make their way to Adair-Kennedy Memorial Field tonight at 7. The game will be broadcast by KINY-AM630.
"It's the most important non-playoff game that we've ever played in this stadium," Juneau head coach Bill Chalmers said.
After two blowout wins to start the season, losses to out-of-state powerhouses Blackfoot, Idaho, and Lake Oswego, Ore., and a tough road loss to Railbelt Conference rival Palmer, have left Juneau (2-3 overall, 2-1 conference) with an uncharacteristic losing record.
"This has been the most competitive schedule ever," Juneau defensive coordinator Eddie Brakes said. "But I believe we've learned a lot from that. Playing the two out-of-state teams will pay dividends come playoff time."
The Patriots are coming off a 28-7 home win over West Anchorage last week and moved into the No. 2 spot in the Alaska's Sports Broadcasting Network football poll. The Bears, who held the top spot earlier this season, have fallen out of the rankings altogether.
North Pole has one of the most potent offenses in Alaska large school play this year, averaging nearly 33 points per contest. They will be led by quarterback Lee Jones who will manage a strong Patriot running game behind backs Dane Ebanez and Eric Antesberger who combined for 184 yards and two touchdowns against West.
Defensively, the Patriots are strong, allowing a meager 67 cumulative points this season. Jones and Kevin Ward anchor the Patriot's linebacker squad behind a very strong defensive line led by Taylor Lewis and Jackson Collins. Steve Wright and Ebanez add speed from the defensive back positions.
"They are big and they are strong and they are well coached. And I expect they will take a page out of the Palmer book and run right up the middle on us," Chalmers said. "Palmer was able to beat us without completing a single forward pass. (North Pole) has pretty much the same personnel - good rugged linemen and good, fast backs. We have our work cut out for us."
Juneau should see a boost this week as two key players will be back from injury. Sophomore Eric Fagerstrom, who played in the Lake Oswego game, will add speed to the defensive back and wide out positions. Experienced offensive lineman Nathaniel Buck, who missed a game with a leg injury, has also been cleared to play.
The situation may not be as dismal for the Bears as their record shows. And despite their recent performances, the Juneau coaching staff believes the Bears are in good shape at this point of the season with three conference matchups ahead of them. Juneau winds out its regular season with a home game against Lathrop next week, followed by the season finale in Colony on Sept. 27.
To make it simple, if Juneau wins any of its final three games, it earns a spot in the playoffs. Looking beyond that, things get murky as North Pole, Palmer, Colony and Juneau all have shots to win the conference.
"I'm not concerned about the record right now because I know what kind of football team we have," Chalmers said. "And the reason we have what I consider to be a championship-caliber team is because we have played some strong opposition. I think they've made us a stronger football team. I think we're in good shape physically and mentally."
Although making the playoffs seems inevitable, Crimson Bears are setting their sights much higher. Colony's 27-7 win over Palmer last week opened the door for the possibility of the Bears - if they win their remaining games - to finish no worse than second in the conference which would earn them a crucial first-round home playoff game.
"Our future is in our own hands. If we win out, we're in good shape. If we don't win, then we have to plan to travel somewhere to play a playoff game at best. Then we still have to worry about beating a good Colony team, and Lathrop is in the way. It's really important to win this game."
Jeff Kasper is a freelance writer and former Juneau Empire sportswriter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.