Halftime must be starting to feel like group therapy for the West High Eagles.
They gather, confess their shortcomings, vow to correct their errors, preach poise and patience, encourage one another and, after they have it all hugged out, return to the football field and go about extending their undefeated record.
So it was again Saturday afternoon, when Juneau-Douglas positively punked West in the first half before the Eagles leaned on their big-strike capabilities and escaped Anchorage Football Stadium with a 21-18 victory that advanced them to the state large-schools championship game.
Sophomore quarterback Conor Feckley threw second-half touchdown passes to Dahmir Bell and J'Vonte Buster, and West's defense denied the Crimson Bears any second-half points even as Juneau worked inside the Eagles' 30-yard line four times in the last six-plus minutes.
The Eagles (10-0) will face fellow Cook Inlet Conference member Service (9-1) in a rematch of a season opener that was crazier than your strangest relative. West, which trailed 13-7 at halftime and 22-7 in the third quarter, beat Service 38-35, in a marathon that lasted 3 hours, 17 minutes, and introduced Feckley (358 passing yards, hello, world).
After Saturday's game, the Eagles have now book-ended their season with, um, challenging first halves. Juneau (7-3) limited West's high-octane offense to a mere 30 yards in the first two quarters, when the only first down West achieved came courtesy of a Juneau penalty for pass interference. Juneau led 12-7 at intermission.
Only J'Vonte Buster's 85-yard interception return to open the scoring kept the Eagles' first half from being a disaster worthy of federal emergency aid. After all, Juneau-Douglas sophomore quarterback Phillip Fenumiai picked apart the West secondary, throwing for 193 of his eventual single-game school record 301 yards in the first 24 minutes and connecting with Colin Gozelski (10 catches, 175 yards) for a 44-yard touchdown pass. Fenumiai also scored on a 5-yard run.
The Eagles at halftime retreated to a trailer that serves as a makeshift locker room and conducted their usual encounter group. You know, the same one they staged when trailing Service, when trailing South 15-2 at the break, and even when ahead just 13-12 over West Valley in the quarterfinals last week.
"I'm kind of a hot-head myself,'' Buster said. "So everyone in the locker room told everyone else to be calm, start making some plays. Our mentality was, 'Next play.' ''
"The usual halftime - everyone calmed me down,'' Feckley said with a wry grin. "And I was a lot more calm in the second half.''
Said West defensive back Mike Reynold: "We talked amongst ourselves and told each other what we were doing wrong and what we needed to do. We said, 'This is our quarter.' All last year, they had tough third quarters.
"At the end of the day, we put it together.''
Still, Juneau-Douglas gobbled up West's onside kick to open the second half and marched 44 yards on 10 plays before Fenumiai hit Chris Holloway with an 11-yard touchdown pass that furnished the Bears an 18-7 lead.
"We knew it was going to be hard running the ball, so we worked on our routes, running them clean and getting them perfect,'' Fenumiai said.
West went three-and-out on its first possession of the second half. But the next time it got the ball, Feckley hit Bell, who lined up on the right, on a slant route Bell turned into a 64-yard touchdown to trim the deficit to 18-14.
"That meant a lot to us, to get us back in the game,'' Feckley said.
He was just happy to actually gain some significant yardage. Before his pass to Bell, Feckley was just 3 of 17 for 27 yards and one interception as Juneau's pass rush harangued him and the bump-and-run coverage of the Bears' defensive backs threw Eagles receivers off their rhythm.
"Huge props to the Juneau defensive backs and their defense,'' Feckley said. "Their DB's made it hell for us to throw on them. I'm just happy we overcame.''
Juneau coach Rich Sjoroos said his defensive coordinator, Al Fenumiai, crafted an aggressive scheme intended to harass Feckley and company.
"All week long, we said we were going to attack,'' Sjoroos said. "The question was, 'Is it gonna work?' It worked, beautifully.''
So much that Feckley completed just 8 of his 28 throws for 122 yards - he entered averaging nearly a 50-percent completion rate and more than 200 yards passing per game.
Yet, after Bell picked off a Phillip Fenumiai pass, Feckley found Buster, his top receiver, late in the third quarter. On first-and-10 from the Juneau 16, Feckley accepted the snap in the shotgun and immediately lobbed an arching ball to Buster, who ran a fade route and caught the ball in the far left corner of the end zone. Combined with Tom Troxel's extra point, West earned a 21-18 lead.
"It was up there a long time,'' Buster said of Feckley's pass. "I just kept running, thinking, 'I know my team needs this.'"
Juneau's Peter Jorgensen missed three field-goal attempts in the final six-plus minutes. His bid from 26 yards fell well short, as did his 40-yarder, and his 36-yarder enjoyed plenty of leg, but flared wide left. West's Reynold picked off Fenumiai with 40 seconds left to seal the Eagles' victory.
"A couple of big plays did the job,'' Feckley said.
And that left the Bears lamenting what might have been.
"I thought if we could get a couple (second-half) scores, we'd have them on their heels, and when we got the first one right out of the gate, I thought, 'Here we go,' '' Sjoroos said. "We couldn't quite get the next one.''
For West, the next one is the big one - a state-championship rematch with Service, which has won nine straight games since that season-opening loss to West.
"We've got to be 10 times better than today,'' Feckley said. "Anything like this and Service will crush us.''
Juneau 6 6 6 0 - 18
West 7 0 14 0 - 21
How They Scored
WHS - Buster 85 interception return (Troxel kick), 8:52.
JDHS - Gozelski 44 pass from Fenumiai (kick blocked), 3:44.
JDHS - Fenumiai 5 run (pass failed), 3:40.
JDHS - Holloway 11 pass from Fenumiai (run failed), 6:35.
WHS - Bell 64 pass from Feckely (Troxel kick), 3:29.
WHS - Buster 16 pass from Feckley (Troxel kick), :40.
First Downs 21 4
Rushes-Yards 35-110 10-2
Passing Yards 301 122
Return Yards 61 190
Passes 21-44-4 8-29-2
Punts-Av. 3-30.0 6-35.2
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 1-1
Penalties-Yards 7-55 10-79
Rushing - Juneau: Brooks 13-51, Fenumiai 14-42, Ibias 6-17, Fifita 2-0. West: Grisham 2-3, Feckley 6-3, Holtman 2-(-4).
Passing - Juneau: Fenumiai 21-44-4-301. West: Feckley 8-28-1-122, Grisham 0-1-1-0.
Receiving - Juneau - Gozelski 10-175, Collum 6-69, Holloway 2-37, Campos 1-7, Pfaff 1-7, Ibias 1-6. West - Buster 2-25, Sharp 2-21, Bell 1-64, Dion 1-9, Li. Tulimasaelii 1-9, Holtman 1-(-6).