Over the past two seasons, Juneau-Douglas quarterback Phillip Fenumiai has grown up right before our eyes.
Once a game manager slowed by inexperience and a few extra pounds of baby fat, Fenumiai has transformed into the unequivocal leader and captain of a high-octane offense that averages better than 32 points a game, an offense that has helped propel the Crimson Bears into Alaska's 4A state semifinals for a remarkable seventh time in eight years.
After graduating a wealth of experience and big bodies on the offensive and defensive lines, Juneau-Douglas flew into the 2010 season under the radar.
Now, the Crimson Bears are on everybody's radar.
By finishing 6-2 and earning the Railbelt Conference No. 2 seed before beating Chugiak 24-7 in last week's state quarterfinal matchup, coaches and players across the state know Juneau-Douglas is for real, and the development of big No. 8 is one of the biggest reasons why.
Fenumiai, a Railbelt All-Conference selection this season, has played football since he was 7 years old, but he's only spent 18 games under center. Before that, he was a big-bodied offensive lineman and then a fullback. When the Crimson Bears kicked off the 2009 season, their starting freshman quarterback had thrown but a single pass in a game during his pre-prep career in the Juneau Youth Football League.
"In Seniors in JYFL, I threw one pass and I was a fullback. I always threw the ball just messing around and I had a decent arm. My dad thought I could do it, so I just tried out," Fenumiai explained as how he ended up the Crimson Bears' quarterback. "I just got better as I started working at it with the coaches. Before, I was just throwing for fun. But learning the mechanics has really helped a lot."
Fenumiai checked in before last season at 6-foot-2 and about 250 pounds. He showed up to summer practice an inch taller this season, and weighed in at a slimmed-down 215 pounds.
And a leader was born.
"I just needed to get my weight down to look the part, and to actually be able to run more than last year," Fenumiai said of his body transformation. "I wasn't really that fast and I feel a lot more mobile this year. It just feels great to get that weight off."
Fenumiai credits a better diet and a lot of running. Juneau-Douglas head coach Rich Sjoroos said the way he dedicated himself to getting into the best possible shape was the first sign that the young signal caller was ready to take the reigns, and he named Fenumiai a captain.
"He's just naturally a big guy and he went from 260 pounds at the end of the season all the way down to 215 this year, and that's just through straight hard work," Sjoroos said. "He got on the treadmill and hit the weights, and he's just been a machine. I've never seen a kid work that hard for that long.
"And he still works out now," he continued. "That comes from his upbringing and his family life, and the influence that his folks have on him. That carries him off the field, too. He's just a great guy and that's why we named him a captain, because of the way he conducts himself."
The Crimson Bears have faced an abundance of personnel losses this season due to injuries and off-field issues, but the team has weathered the storm, in large part because of Fenumiai's play.
He finished the regular season with 1,450 yards passing but, most importantly, he had 15 touchdowns to just five interceptions. Ball security has been one of his biggest assets and one of Bears' biggest strengths this season. And he's done it all in a brand-new spread offense installed this year to take advantage of the multitude of talented skill position players Juneau-Douglas began the season with.
"I spend a lot of time with Coach Phil (Isaak) and Coach Rich (Sjoroos) to get the offense down and know where guys will be," Fenumiai explained. "I'm still learning about the offense as we go, but it's starting to make more and more sense. When people ask questions about where they're supposed to be, I can answer without having to ask Coach. But it's still a learning process."
It may be a learning process, but Fenumiai has been a great student. In last week's win over Chugiak he had a career-defining game, throwing for 250 yards and two touchdowns, including a 51-yard bomb to Chris Holloway that was about as picture perfect a pass as you will see.
He also ran a career-high 18 times for 62 yards and another score. Fenumiai has helped shoulder the rushing load the past few weeks, and he's been able to do it because of all the work he put in over the offseason to get in shape.
"I couldn't run last year because I wasn't that fast and couldn't scramble," he said. "This year, I've been able to do that more and more. Running the ball opens up the field. I just know I need to run with intensity and never give up; head for the end zone every time. If I run scared, I'm going to get hurt. Run tough, run hard and get back up after every play - show no weakness."
It's that kind of mentality, along with the countless hours of conditioning and study, that makes Fenumiai a leader.
A prime example of his leadership occured during the season finale against North Pole. The Crimson Bears had just extended their lead to 34-8 when left tackle Ryan Baldwin was goaded into a fight with a Patriots player, and was subsequently ejected.
Baldwin was visibly upset with himself after the realization that he would be out for last week's playoff opener against Chugiak according to ASAA rules.
And there was Fenumiai to pick him up and calm him down.
"I just told him not to let it happen next time because it hurt us," Fenumiai said of the exchange. "We were hurting for linemen. But I told him, 'We're going to have your back, we're going to win the next game and you know we want you to be there for the West game, so we're going to win (against Chugiak) for you and we'll have you back."
Fenumiai's family has long been a part of football in Juneau, and Juneau-Douglas sports in general. Five of his family members have donned the crimson and black on the gridiron over the years, and his father, Al Fenumiai, is the defensive coordinator and new Railbelt Conference Assistant Coach of the Year.
Phillip said he always knew he, too, would take the field at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park.
"All of my family have been here and when the new high school came up I thought, 'I'm not going there. I've got to stick with the family and where they were at; stay with the family tradition and play Crimson Bears football.' I wanted to be a Crimson Bear when I was growing up," he said. "I grew up watching those guys play. I knew I wanted to be just like that: a Fenumiai and a Levale, just play the game the way we know how to play."
Al Fenumiai said it doesn't get much better than coaching and watching your son grow and mature into a great player and college prospect who's still level-headed, and a good person.
"I'm proud of him of course, just like any other parent. It's great coaching him from peewee all the way up. I keep him grounded and tell him to be humble, just like with my two daughters, Nicole and Brittany. You have to be humble, keep trying and keep striving."
Just like the 2010 Juneau-Douglas football team, Phillip Fenumiai is on everybody's radar. And don't forget, he's got two more years to go.
Though still young, he's already all grown up.
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