It's only been a month, but it seems like a lifetime since the Juneau-Douglas High School football team last played the East Anchorage Thunderbirds.
As the teams prepare for their opening-round game of the state football playoffs at noon Saturday at Anchorage Football Stadium (game broadcast in Juneau on KINY radio, 800-AM), both have gone through significant changes.
The Crimson Bears (5-3 overall, 4-2 Cook Inlet Football Conference) solidified their tag-team quarterbacking situation, starting sophomore Chris Hinkley the last couple of weeks, and they just avoided losing their ailing head coach for the playoffs. Juneau head coach Reilly Richey, who spent four nights in a Seattle hospital having medical tests earlier this week, was back with the team for practice Thursday night and will travel to Anchorage for the game.
"I'm doing OK," Richey said. "I don't want to miss these games. It's Naash's senior year (his son is a wide receiver-defensive back) and it's the playoffs. It's what I love to do."
Over the same month, East (7-1 overall, 5-1 CIFC) lost starting quarterback Chad Nading for the season to a broken wrist from the end of the Juneau game, a 35-28 T-Bird victory. Nading has been replaced by Sonny Lavea. East also lost its top running back, Ryan Stickler, for three weeks, to a viral infection. Stickler ran for 211 yards and two touchdowns against Juneau, but has only gained about 35 yards over the past three weeks while Allen Franklin has been the main rusher.
"Stickler's been sick, but we plan for him to be there," said Juneau special teams coach Jeep Rice, who served as interim head coach during Richey's trip to the hospital.
"It's kind of hard, because since the last time we saw them they changed personnel," Juneau defensive coordinator Ray Bradley said. "The quarterback who started against us is not playing, and his backup is. The new quarterback is faster and hard to catch."
While Nading was more of a traditional drop-back passer who stayed in the pocket, Lavea is a scrambler.
"Sonny is a smart, fast quarterback," East head coach Roger Spackman wrote in an e-mail. "He has the ability to run and scramble. Although not as strong-armed as Chad, he has very good timing and is smart about where and when to throw the ball."
When Juneau played East earlier this season, the Crimson Bears fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter. Even though Juneau tied the score by halftime, the Crimson Bears were fighting from behind most of the game. Juneau had a chance to tie the score in the game's last minute, but a pass from Hinkley to senior wide receiver C.J. Keys went off Keys' fingertips in the end zone.
"I think we're prepared this time, and we kind of know what to expect," junior kicker-defensive back Dylan Ashe said. "Our mentality is different. We're ready for the game."
The loss to East was the second in a three-game losing streak for Juneau, and the Crimson Bears fell behind early in all three games. Since then, the Crimson Bears have modified their warm-ups and they now play a mini-scrimmage before the games to get used to the contact and to shake loose their pregame butterflies.
"We're doing all right, getting ready for 'em," senior running back-defensive back Brian Felix said. "We're going to try and come out a little stronger and not be dropping points early. It seems like every time we score early we win, and every time we give up points early we lose."
The game also will be a rematch of last year's state championship game, won by East 33-15. Earlier last season, Juneau beat East 42-18. The Crimson Bears are hoping to reverse the season split this year.
"We beat them the first time last year, and they beat us in the playoffs. They beat us this time, and I think we can do it to them," junior quarterback-linebacker Pat Kohan said. "Those first couple of games we were allowing the first points. (The pregame mini-scrimmages help because) everybody gets focused that way."
"We have watched Juneau play the last couple of weeks and we know they are playing excellent football," Spackman wrote. "They seem to be peaking at the right time. They are a very balanced team, with a lot of weapons to worry about."
East and Juneau probably run the two most evenly balanced offenses in the state.
The Crimson Bears feature Felix as the main running back, and he has 1,017 yards and 12 touchdowns this season to rank fourth in the state. It's his second straight 1,000-yard season.
The Thunderbirds are led by Stickler, who was on pace for his second straight 1,000-yard season and still ranks eighth in the state with 668 yards and eight touchdowns. Franklin ranks 12th in the state with 575 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Hinkley ranks fourth in the state in passing yardage with 890 yards on 48-for-76 passing with 12 touchdowns and one interception. Kohan, who started earlier in the season and split time with Hinkley, ranks 14th in the state with 515 yards on 33-for-69 passing with four touchdowns and three interceptions.
Lavea ranks seventh in the state with 770 yards on 38-for-86 passing and 13 touchdowns and five interceptions. Nading, even though he's missed four games, ranks 15th in the state with 435 yards on 20-for-45 passing with five touchdowns and five interceptions.
East's Tate Knutson is tied for top spot on the state's top-15 list for most receptions with 25 catches for 729 yards and 10 touchdowns. He is the only East receiver in the rankings.
The only Juneau receiver in the rankings is Keys, who is tied for 13th in receptions with 17 catches for 382 yards and five touchdowns. Junior Angelo Katasse, who was favoring a sprained ankle last week and didn't have a reception, would be in a tie for 16th place in the rankings with 16 catches for 333 yards and two touchdowns.
"We don't expect anything but a close game," Richey said. "They like to mix it up and they've got a lot of weapons. It's two pretty good teams playing each other."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.