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The Juneau Youth Football League has come a long way since it was run out of the back of a pick-up truck.
At 7 p.m. on Saturday night, the JYFL-sponsored Juneau-Douglas High School football team will host its first state playoff game against the defending state champion Dimond Lynx. The game will be played on the artificial turf at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park and between 2,500 and 4,000 fans are expected to attend the game, which will be broadcast live on KINY, 800-AM radio.
"I think this reflects on the program," said Juneau line coach Pat Tyner, who played in the JYFL program when he was growing up. "The Bears have always been competitive."
This has been an historic season for Juneau, which is making its second trip to the state playoffs. The No. 2 Crimson Bears won their first Cook Inlet Football Conference championship and even held the state's top-ranking for three weeks. Juneau (7-1 overall, 5-1 CIFC) was undefeated until a 7-0 loss to the Service Cougars last Saturday.
The winner of Saturday's game will head to Anchorage to play a semifinal game on Oct. 13, with the state championship game set for Oct. 20.
"I think it's good for the league," Dimond head coach Duncan Shackelford said of Juneau's hosting a playoff game. "It's a great opportunity for them to enjoy the fruits of their labor after they had a great season. It tells you a lot about the league and how competitive it's become. You can roll the dice and any eight ways could happen. It's good for the state there are no real front-runners."
For several of the long-time JYFL and JDHS football supporters, hosting a state playoff game is vindication for a lot of the early struggles with the program.
The JYFL was incorporated in 1978 by Judith Hall, Peggy LaMonica, Tom Sofo, Bill Allen, Terry Quinn and Guy Van Dorn, and equipment for the four-team age 10-13 league was passed out to players from the back of a pick-up truck. The JYFL added a senior league in 1980 and an open league in 1982. Current JDHS defensive backs and receivers coach Jeep Rice coached the JYFL's open club team back in 1988-89, the year before the high school finally agreed to help with the team.
"We pushed very hard to get it out of the club level and into the high schools," Rice said. "We only played five high schools in two years, because you had to get waivers and it was a bunch of hassle. We fought the school district to get it in, and practically had to hand it to them without any costs. We were playing Canadian teams because those were the only games we could get."
Once Juneau had its high school team in 1990, it was still a struggle getting games because the Crimson Bears were not in a conference. Juneau finally was accepted into the CIFC in 1995. In order to become a member Juneau not only had to agree to pay for the Crimson Bears' expenses to play games in Anchorage, but the JYFL also had to pay for the Anchorage teams to come to Juneau.
JYFL president Steven White said the league's annual budget this year is about $225,000, but that also includes expenses for the youth teams and cheerleaders. Travel is the leading expense. Players have to pay $205 for equipment, plus they have to sell $600 in advertising for the team's game programs and another $400 in raffle tickets. The players also have to perform at least 10 hours of Chorebusters, a fund-raising program where community members pay the league to have players rake leaves or dig ditches.
"There's a lot of history in the JYFL," Rice said. "Between playing in the rain and on the old dirt field, you wind up with the kids who really want to play."
"It really weeds out the kids who don't want to do it," Tyner said. "Once they've done all the fund-raising, you get the kids who are passionate about playing."
The Crimson Bears will take that passion into Saturday's game, especially since last weekend's loss to Service served as a wake-up call for the Juneau players. Juneau hosted Dimond (4-4 overall, 3-3 CIFC) two weeks ago, and barely escaped with a 10-7 victory on Sept. 21. The Lynx had been struggling with injuries, and Shackelford said he's hoping to have some of those players back in action.
"Our focus in practice had really been coming down, but this week has been the most intense week of the season," said Juneau offensive/defensive lineman Zac Campbell, who was named the CIFC's lineman of the year on Wednesday. "It (the loss to Service) definitely helps us realize what's at stake. Anything less than a state championship would be a letdown."
"Our confidence got knocked down a bit after that defeat," said Juneau quarterback Brett Fairchild, who was named the CIFC's offensive player of the year on Wednesday. "It's a playoff game. If we lose, we're out. Everyone's 0-0. We just want to win."
Juneau's offense has sputtered in recent weeks, scoring just 34 points in its last four games. Juneau offensive coordinator Mike Hutcherson said he thinks the Crimson Bears had "gone bland" on offense because they were trying to minimize mistakes, but he's looking to open things up a little bit this weekend. Juneau's defense has been the stingiest large schools defense in the state, allowing just 72 points in eight games.
"We realize this game's everything for the whole season, and Dimond's real good," Juneau defensive back Willy Dodd said. "I think they're the best team in the state. They give it all they've got, and they keep coming at you. Service kind of woke us up. We've got to score points to win, and we need some big plays."
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.