ANCHORAGE - In a pinch, the pass-happy East Anchorage High School offense passed on passing the football in its first two series of the second half on Saturday afternoon.
That was perfect thinking, really, because now the Thunderbirds can plan on playing in the postseason.
After being plagued by penalties and interceptions in the first half, East found its equilibrium by running the ball. The Thunderbirds recovered from a first-half deficit to claim a 34-17 Cook Inlet Football Conference victory over the visiting Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears at Anchorage Football Stadium.
The win clinched state playoff berths for East (5-2 overall, 3-2 CIFC) and Service (5-2, 3-2) and eliminated two-time defending state champion Dimond (2-5, 2-3) from the postseason. The three teams could all finish with 3-3 CIFC records, but Dimond lost to both East and Service this season.
"The big thing for us was winning the game," East coach Roger Spackman said. "We took care of what we had to take care of."
But Spackman was quick to tell his team it still had plenty of work to do.
East junior quarterback Derek Laws, who entered the game leading the state in both touchdown passes and interceptions, threw four picks in the first half to Juneau's Willy Dodd, T.J. Mason, Leo Winn and Mike Winters. And the Thunderbirds committed seven of their 13 penalties for 70 of their 110 penalty yards in the first quarter.
Juneau, having lost five consecutive games coming into this weekend and with little but pride left to play for, made East pay for its mistakes. After giving up an early touchdown, the Crimson Bears (1-6, 0-6) scored 17 straight points on Tony Talamai's sack for a safety, C.J. Keys' 45-yard touchdown run and a 28-yard touchdown pass from Chad Dubois to Ernest Monts to take a 17-7 lead late in the second quarter.
East's quarterback-receiver combo of Laws and Casey Flair connected for the second of its four touchdown passes with seven seconds left in the second quarter to close Juneau's halftime lead to 17-14.
"They are a good passing team," Juneau coach Reilly Richey said. "The four interceptions kept us in the game for the first half. But they didn't give up on the pass. That hurt us in the second half."
That's when East decided to change its image.
The Thunderbirds, averaging 72 more passing yards than rushing yards in their first six games, opened the second half with 10 straight runs. East punted on its first series before Laws and senior running back David Melvin used their feet to kick off the comeback.
Laws and Melvin ran for all 71 yards on East's seven-play second drive to reclaim the lead. Laws' 32-yard run set up the Thunderbirds at Juneau's 11-yard line. After Melvin, who led East with 68 rushing yards, gained eight years, Laws rolled to his right and scored on a 3-yard run, putting East ahead 20-17 with 4 minutes, 21 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
On East's next possession, what do you know? Laws started passing again.
"I made a couple of bad passes in the first half, but I knew it would come down to me sooner or later," Laws said. "The coaches told me to relax and take what was given to me. We kind of got off track, but then the running game started working real well."
And the running seemed to spark Laws' passing. He completed four of six attempts for 72 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions, in the second half.
"We knew the whole time Derek could throw," East center Tamo Falealili said. "All the mental mistakes and penalties killed us in the second half."
Laws finished with 226 passing yards and four touchdowns, all to Flair, his receiver extraordinaire. Laws connected with Flair, also a junior, on touchdown passes of 15, 26, 3 and 26 yards, one in each quarter.
Flair, poised to complete the greatest receiving season in state history, caught seven balls for 133 yards.
He jumped between and high above Juneau defensive backs Dodd and Winn to haul down his final touchdown catch, his second 26-yard scoring grab, with 9:14 left in the fourth quarter. The three players went for the ball at the same time near the goalline, but somehow Flair peeled it off the shoulder pads of the two Juneau defenders and cuddled it nicely into his belly as he fell flat on his back.
"Casey keeps getting better and better," Spackman said. "He has set a real high standard for himself and is living up to it."
Through seven games, Flair has 47 receptions for 1,005 yards and 18 touchdowns. The unofficial Alaska single-season records belong to Soldotna's Troy Karsten, who caught 51 passes in 1996, and Nikiski's David Holloway, who totaled 1,129 receiving yards last season.
East plays at Chugiak this Saturday in a game that will help determine state playoff positions, while Juneau hosts Colony in a nonconference game at 8 p.m. Friday night at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park.
In other Southeast action on Saturday, the Juneau junior varsity team beat the Ketchikan varsity 13-6 in Ketchikan. Sitka was idle this weekend. No highlights were available for Juneau's JV team, which improved to 5-2 on the season.
Ketchikan's score came when Raymond Secrest intercepted a pass that deflected off three players after Juneau's quarterback was hit while throwing a pass from his end zone. Ketchikan coach Richard Tombaugh said Jonathan Hamilton was the top tackler for the Kings, while Sven Westergard recovered three Juneau fumbles and Kevin Mackey recovered one fumble.