When the Juneau-Douglas High School football team travels to Anchorage to play Bartlett on Saturday, the game will be high-risk, high-reward.
If Juneau beats Bartlett -- at 3 p.m. at Anchorage Football Stadium (broadcast in Juneau on KINY radio, 800-AM) -- the Crimson Bears will likely host their first playoff home game the weekend of Oct. 6-7. But if Bartlett wins Saturday, Juneau could be out of the playoffs. Bartlett and Juneau are currently tied for fourth in the state coaches' poll.
Four teams from the Cook Inlet Football Conference qualify for the state playoffs, with the top two hosting first-round games. But right now five teams are battling for the second through fourth CIFC berths at state. Only undefeated and top-ranked Dimond has clinched a berth at state, and only winless West Anchorage (which Juneau hosts Sept. 29) has been eliminated from the playoffs.
"Bartlett's playing as well as anyone in the state right now," Juneau coach Reilly Richey said. "If we lose to Bartlett, we lose the tiebreakers to East and Bartlett. For all intents and purposes, we have to beat Bartlett this weekend to get into the playoffs."
"This is a playoff game," Juneau linebacker-fullback Brian Fairchild said. "If we don't pull this off, our playoffs are shot."
Juneau and Bartlett are both tied for third place in the current CIFC standings with 2-2 records (Juneau is 3-2 overall and Bartlett is 4-2), trailing both Dimond (5-0 CIFC, 6-0 overall) and third-ranked Service (3-1 CIFC, 4-2 overall). Juneau upset Service 27-8 last Friday, while Bartlett beat East Anchorage (2-3 CIFC, 3-3 overall) 27-21 Saturday on a 16-yard Rickey Rollins touchdown run with 13 seconds left in the game.
"Bartlett's an excellent team, peaking at the right time," Richey said. "They beat a very strong East team last week, and a couple of weeks ago they went down to San Francisco to beat one of California's biggest high schools (Lowell)."
"We're taking this game very seriously. This is a must-win game for us," Juneau strong safety Cal Craig said. "This is a huge game. We're really hoping to win because it would be great to host a playoff game at home."
Bartlett features defensive end-punter-tight end Tui Alailefaleula, who is probably the top individual player in the state this year. Alailefaleula, a 6-foot-4, 273-pound senior, is rated the 14th defensive end in the country by Rivals100.com's high school football Web site. Bartlett coach John Jessen said Alailefaleula's attracted scholarship offers from Michigan, Nebraska, Colorado, Miami, Texas A&M and about every Pac-10 school except Stanford.
Juneau's line has been giving Juneau quarterback Brett Fairchild lots of time to throw, but there will be times when Alailefaleula crashes through Juneau's line. Brian Fairchild will be in the backfield trying to keep Alailefaleula off his brother's back, and his brother's back off the Anchorage Football Stadium turf.
"I'm going to be back there, that'll be my job," said Fairchild, who did well picking up Service's blitz last Friday. "I'll do my darnedest, but I'm not too concerned. Brett's had a lot of time to throw."
"We'll be aware of Tui, but I wouldn't say our offense is designed around him," Craig said. "I feel we have a good chance."
Juneau beat Bartlett 22-6 last year in Juneau, but the Crimson Bears have yet to win on the road this season. Juneau has an eight-game home winning streak over the past two seasons, but has lost three straight on the road with its last road victory coming against Lathrop in Fairbanks during the first round of last year's state playoffs. Bartlett has won its last three games.
"We need to show we can do everything we do at home on the road," Fairchild said. "It's huge, but we can do it."
"I hope they go Jekyll and Hyde on us, like they've been doing on the road," Jessen said. "We're getting better, and I chalk it up to experience. We had a lot of guys who hadn't played varsity or were new to their positions this year, and in both games (a 20-12 loss to Dimond and a 25-7 loss to Service) we were close. I think we're better since we've got more experience and we're platooning now."
The Golden Bears aren't just a one-player team, as Jessen considers Alailefaleula's younger brother, sophomore outside linebacker Apelu Alailefaleula, to be slightly ahead of where Tui was at the same age. Bartlett's defense also features cornerbacks Jon Mason and Zack Bowman.
On offense, Bartlett runs a Wing-T formation like Service, but the Golden Bears throw out of it more than the Cougars do. Bartlett fullback Tyler Blewett leads the Golden Bears in rushing, ranked seventh in the state with 506 yards and three touchdowns on 105 carries. Other running backs include Rollins, Boaz Gionson and Jermaine Montgomery, who has caught 10 passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns. Quarterback Marcus Watts has thrown for 405 yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions, good for 11th in the state rankings.
"We're concerned about the play-action pass, and if they get running early the play-action pass will be a factor," Richey said. "We need, at the same time, the same defensive effort we had against the Wing-T as we had last week."
Juneau doesn't have any ranked running backs, but when healthy Jason Cameron has been getting most of Juneau's carries. Cameron scored two touchdowns against Service, one rushing and one receiving. Brett Fairchild is the third-ranked quarterback in the state, having thrown for 726 yards with nine touchdowns and four interceptions. Fairchild ran for one score and threw for two more against Service, plus he had two 70-yard-plus touchdown passes called back by holding penalties. Chris Connally ranks 10th in the state in receiving, with 16 receptions for 285 yards and two touchdowns, while Jacob Dutton ranks 15th with 10 receptions for 256 yards and five touchdowns.
Even though Saturday's game will have a major bearing on the state playoff race, Juneau will be taking a skeleton squad to Anchorage to play Bartlett. Juneau will send 18 of its younger players to Ketchikan as Juneau's JV takes on Ketchikan's varsity in a non-conference game at 7 p.m. Saturday in Ketchikan. Juneau's travel roster to Anchorage only lists 24 players, while Bartlett's roster lists 43 players.