It was nearly a year ago that then-interim coach Rich Sjoroos watched his No. 1-seeded Crimson Bears fall to Chugiak on a last-second safety during the first round of the 4A state playoffs at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park.
But this team is a different group - seeded No. 2 - than the one that suffered that painful loss in the back of the end zone after a deep snap flew over the punter's head, sealing Juneau-Douglas' fate. And Sjoroos wants his kids to realize that much before this weekend's rematch against the Mustangs at the same Adair-Kennedy Field.
"I tell the kids on this team that the past is the past and you're not part of the past, so just make your own history and we'll see what we can do with these guys Saturday night," he said. "I think we were a little up-tight last year because we were the favorites to win as the top seed, but this year it's been different with the adversity we've faced. These kids are confident, but we know nothing is going to be given to us."
Chugiak has been a thorn in the side of the Crimson Bears over the years, going back to the early days of the Juneau-Douglas program when the Mustangs seemed to always prevent the Bears from clinching a playoff berth. While things are different today, one thing remains the same. Chugiak will be difficult to handle all night.
"They don't give up. They like to make the games last a really long time," said senior guard Lee Nelson. "They like those games that are decided by a field goal or last possession, and they like to run the clock."
Sjoroos said the Mustangs will utilize a full-house backfield and hand the ball to Greg Ghramm - arguably the best back in the state - all game. Ghramm leads all Alaska 4A running backs in attempts (219), yards (1,448), and he is tied for first overall with 16 touchdowns on the ground. For a team like the Crimson Bears that wins with finesse, Chugiak's physical style of play will offer a major challenge as the playoffs begin this weekend.
"Well, we're eating a lot this week," Sjoroos joked when asked how his team would handle the Mustangs' physicality. "Besides that, we have to play with a lot of heart and passion. You've got to play like it's your last game, because it will be for one of these two teams.
"They've got a big line, they've got the state's best power back - he's probably the best power back I've seen in the last seven years in the state of Alaska - and he's one of those kids that goes hard all four quarters," he continued. "He doesn't seem to get tired and he'll be a handful for us. I think we have some kids up to the challenge, and they really need to be."
For the Bears, senior cornerback Vinh Le said the approach to this year's game will be much different than last year's.
"We haven't really talked about (last year) much because we don't really want to think about that in the game. We're just focusing on beating them this year by watching a lot of film because we didn't do that last year - we didn't take them seriously last year and we lost," Le said. "It was a crushing loss and I really want to redeem ourselves.
"I don't want to end my senior year to end the same way my junior year ended, because it was crushing for me to see my senior teammates cry like that, knowing their senior year was over."
Le said this team isn't going to be intimidated by a running back like Ghramm. Instead, they plan on not even letting him get the ball.
"We're going to send the house, blitz every time and hopefully we'll hit the quarterback in the backfield before he can even hand it off," he said. "The pressure will be on the cover corners too, because if the blitz can't get there quickly enough, the quarterback might find something downfield.
"But I have faith in our guys on defense and I know we're going to get there."
The Bears will be without one of their top offensive lineman, Ryan Baldwin, this week after he was ejected from last week's game. ASAA rules state a player ejected from a game is automatically suspended the next week.
"It's unfortunate and it's hard to replace a guy with that kind of size and presence, but we've got some kids eager to jump in there and get some playoff experience," Sjoroos said. "But I've been preaching all week to not get caught up in the emotions. Enthusiasm is something that can last for a long time, but emotions can go up and down. You just don't want to have that happen. We're off to a good start this week and I expect the momentum to build."
And with the building momentum, anticipation continues to rise for the 7 p.m. matchup Saturday at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park. But while Sjoroos said he and his players know they must focus on this game and not dwell on last year, it's difficult not to erase those memories, as Nelson briefly admitted.
"It's in all our minds," he said.
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