It almost seems fitting that this year's state football championship will run through either East Anchorage or Juneau-Douglas, the two teams that play in the state semifinals at noon Saturday at Anchorage Football Stadium.
For the last two seasons, the Crimson Bears (8-1) and Thunderbirds (7-2) used each other as vaults to deep playoff runs.
In 2004, Juneau-Douglas staged a thrilling comeback to ruin East's championship dreams and earn a 27-26 victory in the state quarterfinals. The Crimson Bears traveled to Anchorage and scored the game-winning touchdown with 1:20 left to end East's season.
That win could be considered pay-back for a heartbreaking state championship loss in 2003 - when the Crimson Bears raced to an early 15-0 lead, only to watch the T-Birds rally for an emphatic 33-15 victory.
This Saturday, the two teams battle again with their respective seasons at stake. Juneau-Douglas and East boast the top-two passing offenses in Alaska. Expect both teams to come out firing and a possible shoot-out.
alaska state semifinals
who: east anchorage vs. jdhs
when: saturday, noon
where: anchorage football stadium
what's at stake: saturday's winner faces either south or palmer next weekend for the state championship in anchorage.
JDHS is led by junior quarterback Chris Hinkley, who ranks first state-wide with 1,966 passing yards and 33 touchdown passes. He has completed 129-of-206 pass attempts for a .638 completion percentage.
A key to the Crimson Bears' offensive success this season has been Hinkley's trust in his receivers and offensive line.
When Juneau's offense is humming, Hinkley throws quickly and allows his talented receivers to make a big play.
The quick passing game has opened up the running game and helped Tres Saldivar gain more than 1,000 rushing yards this season.
The offense has also received terrific and intelligent line play. Joe Monagle, Donny Peterson, Alex Robinson, Will Tonsgard and Lane Miller excel at picking up blitzes and giving Hinkley ample time to throw.
For Juneau-Douglas' offense to be successful, however, it must account for playmaking linebacker Cory Macon. The senior returned two interceptions for scores in the T-Birds' 28-7 state quarterfinal victory over Bartlett.
Offensively for East, the Thunderbirds boast a prolific passing attack and a resurgent running game. After sitting out the first five games, running back Allen Franklin has given the Thunderbirds a powerful ground presence. In his last two contests, he has rushed for 325 yards and two TDs on just 35 carries.
Franklin and running back Debralion Esaw have balanced East's offense, but the T-Birds are especially dangerous in the air. Quarterback Chad Nading ranks second in passing yards with 1,771 and has 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions to his credit.
Nading also has two standout receivers in Macon and Tate Knutson. Macon, an all-conference selection at tight end, hauled in 37 passes for 622 yards and five touchdowns. He also caught a touchdown pass from Nading in last Saturday's win over Bartlett.
Knutson serves as East's big-play threat, averaging 23.9 yards per catch. On the season he's caught 36 passes for 861 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Juneau-Douglas defensive back Ryan Fagerstrom will likely cover Knutson, and it should be a terrific battle between two talented athletes.
With so much firepower on both sidelines, this game could easily turn into a high-scoring contest, determined by turnovers. The team that fails to protect the ball Saturday will likely be done for the season.
The winner of Saturday's contest faces either Palmer or tournament Cinderella team South Anchorage for the championship.
Tim Nichols, sports editor, can be reached at email@example.com
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