ANCHORAGE - When the Juneau-Douglas High School football team opened the season, the team's slogan was "Play in October."
The Crimson Bears pasted stickers with the slogan on their helmets after every victory, as Juneau went on to win a share of the Cook Inlet Football Conference title and a spot in the state playoffs.
After Juneau beat Lathrop 33-18 in last Friday's semifinal playoff game, the Crimson Bears modified the slogan. With a yell of "Win in October!" followed by a chorus of the song "You've Lost That Loving Feeling," the Crimson Bears celebrated their first trip to the state championship game.
Juneau can win its first state football championship when the Crimson Bears take on the East Anchorage Thunderbirds at 1 p.m. Saturday at Anchorage Football Stadium.
The game will be broadcast live on KINY radio, 800 AM, and the Juneau Youth Football League has purchased a live satellite feed so the game can be televised live in Juneau on cable channel 6.
"This is the first time Juneau's going to the show," Juneau senior linebacker-fullback Nick West said Friday night. "We're getting signs that each team is on its game at times - offense, defense and special teams - but we still haven't put it all together. It'll be all business from here on out."
"Our defense played great, but we haven't shown all we've got," Juneau senior linebacker-fullback Ryan West (no relation) added. "I think it will be tough, but if we just get in the zone we'll be OK."
East has the state's longest winning streak at six games, but the Thunderbirds needed overtime to beat Colony 42-35 in last Saturday's semifinal. East won the game when running back Ryan Stickler scored his third touchdown of the game, to go with two touchdown passes from quarterback Derek Laws to Casey Flair and a touchdown run from Laws.
"They're on the biggest roll right now," Juneau offensive coordinator Rich Sjoroos said after watching East beat Colony on Saturday. "They've got the longest winning streak and their whole defensive line is all seniors. It'll be two physical teams butting heads. It'll be two totally different teams."
Earlier this season, the T-Birds were surprised by Juneau 42-18 in the second game of the season. East lost its next game to Chugiak by one point, and the T-Birds haven't lost since.
The top-ranked Crimson Bears (8-2 overall) said they don't think the No. 2 Thunderbirds (7-2) will be taking Juneau as lightly this time.
"I kind of knew we'd be on a collision course after we had the handshake after that first game," Juneau head coach Reilly Richey said. "I figured we'd see each other again. I figure they'll be much tougher. They were a little flat this week."
"They'll be motivated, that's for sure," Juneau defensive coordinator Ray Bradley said.
After Friday night's victory, Bradley said he and the other coaches pulled aside the Juneau seniors and reminded them that although the Crimson Bears have made some significant accomplishments this year, the season isn't over until Saturday.
When the two teams meet on Saturday, East brings the Cook Inlet Football Conference's offensive and defensive players of the year - Flair on offense and linebacker Joe Lyman on defense. Both players said they're ready for the rematch with Juneau.
"It's time for revenge," Flair said. "They're much improved, and they spanked us pretty good when we went down there (Juneau) the last time."
"I didn't get to go to Juneau," Lyman said, "I think the best thing is we match up pretty well."
Both teams feature a highly-ranked running back, a top quarterback and a top wide receiver. East's line is bigger than Juneau's, but Juneau's is quicker.
Flair is the state's top receiver this year with 51 catches for 1,135 yards and 17 touchdowns. Laws is the state's second-ranked quarterback with 92 completions in 153 attempts, 1,609 yards, 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
But one of the keys for East has been the emergence of Stickler at running back, who ranked sixth in the state with 151 carries for 1,089 yards and 16 touchdowns. The T-Birds have averaged more than 260 yards rushing over their past four games.
East's offensive coordinator, Numi Ilalio, is Juneau's former defensive coordinator.
Juneau counters with senior wide receiver C.J. Keys, who ranks seventh in receptions with 29 catches for 642 yards and seven touchdowns (he also has three rushing touchdowns and one via a punt return). Senior quarterback Mark Shilling ranks sixth in the state in passing yards with 50 completions on 110 attempts, 960 yards, 13 touchdowns and four interceptions.
The key for the Crimson Bears will be the health of junior Brian Felix, the state's top running back with 261 carries for 1,838 yards and 19 touchdowns (he also has a fumble return for a touchdown). Felix hurt his knee late in Juneau's victory over Lathrop and his condition has been listed as day-to-day since he was carted off the field.
On Wednesday, Richey said three other injured players planned to play this weekend - senior defensive lineman Charlie Moline (appendix/knee), sophomore lineman Jesse Vaughn (knee) and Nick West (abdominal pull) - although their effectiveness might be limited. But he didn't say much about Felix.
"We're keeping everything quiet about Brian," Richey said. "We're waiting to hear what they have to say about Tonga (East defensive lineman Tonga Tea, who hurt his ankle during the overtime period on Saturday)."
Felix's mother, Juneau Youth Football League president Karen Lawfer, said her son has been trying to practice, but is still a bit sore. She said doctors told them nothing is seriously wrong with the knee, and there isn't any major damage. If it's any indication, Felix's grandparents are flying to Anchorage from Illinois to watch the game.
The Thunderbirds said they expect to see Felix on the playing field.
"Felix is an athlete; he'll be out there," Flair said.
"Felix is tough," Lyman added. "Felix is probably the best running back I've seen in awhile, and Keys is a nice change. It makes a difference when you've got two weapons like that. It's going to be a dogfight and I think we match up well in every aspect of the game."
The Crimson Bears could make history on Saturday by winning their first state championship. They'd also become the first self-funded team to win a state title and the first former independent.
"This is our chance to prove ourselves," senior defensive lineman Keith Koruna said. "We're pretty confident we can do it."
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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