The Crimson Bears might be a third-place pack of late-bloomers and the Cougars might be runners-up with the emotional range of Sylvester Stallone, but nobody can question where these gritty playoff underdogs deserve to be at noon on Saturday.
The Juneau-Douglas High School football team will return to the Large School State Football Championship on Saturday for the fourth time since 2003. The Bears will be defending the 2007 title earned by last season's undefeated brutes, who won every playoff game by at least 10 points. The two squads, however, share little else in common.
This year's Crimson Bears team dropped four consecutive games mid-season and watched North Pole rumble to the top of the Railbelt unscathed. The players and coaches rallied, though, and showed the resiliency that came from such a trying season by winning three straight road games to get into, and then through the state playoffs. That run was capped by last weekend's improbable 28-27 comeback victory over the Cook Inlet Conference's undefeated bullies, South Anchorage.
"These kids are special in that they've learned that a play against them doesn't mean they've had a bad game," defensive coordinator Eddie Brakes said. "Early in the season I think they stopped playing a couple of times, but now they know a game is 48 minutes and you've gotta keep on moving on. You can't come back like we did in the fourth quarter if you don't believe that."
The Service players that currently stand in their way did not play through as many losses, but carry a different and equally heavy sort of chip on their shoulders.
Service finally silenced some doubters when they slayed mighty North Pole last Friday. The had quietly racked up a 5-2 conference record this season, but were considered by many to be the second-rate princes to South's Cook Inlet throne.
Now that they have sharpened their fangs against each other's regular-season roadblock, all that is left for the Bears and Cougars is a 48-minute head-on collision.
Juneau-Douglas' mighty ground game screeched to a messy halt in the first half of their semifinal win, but head coach Bill Chalmers doesn't expect his team to think twice about restarting the engine.
"Yeah, we're going to run the ball. People who don't run the ball don't ordinarily get a chance to win a game like we did last week," Chalmers said. "We want to be about half-and-half on running and passing. Hopefully, that's not before and after half-time this week."
After throwing for a school-record 292 yards against South, JDHS senior quarterback Dakotah Smith has given his offense a makeover that now closely resembles ... well, Service.
The Cougars have their own senior dual-threat quarterback in Kevin Reilly, and give him room to make plays with plenty of spread sets that feature three or four wideouts.
"(Reilly) will run it or throw it whenever. You can't just read their formations to see what they're going to do," Brakes said. "They like to spread people out, and it's tough to match up with the athletes they can put outside, but we've been working on it a lot this week and I think we have the horses to get that done."
Brakes' defensive secondary is led by a trio of experienced defensive backs in Alex Fagerstrom, Lincoln Maka and Corey Mahar. Those three seniors are joined in the rotation by sophomore Eric Fagerstrom and junior Chris Hoffman.
Few teams have a solid five-man rotation in their secondary, and Brakes said that the competition has made each of the players that much better throughout the season.
"In other years we've pretty much had the rotation back there set on day one," Brakes said. "With these kids giving it their all every day, we've been able to move them around and try to find the perfect lineup for different situations."
Stopping Service's wideouts isn't the only problem for Juneau-Douglas on Saturday, as running back Leo Aukusitino has put up some of the best numbers in the state this season. The Bears have an elite running back in Alex Fagerstrom, but Aukusitino has rushed for more yards, more yards per carry and even more touchdowns for the Cougars in 2008.
"He's just shifty. He's a little smaller than Alex, but he's just as fast," Brakes said. "He doesn't weigh much, but with his low center of gravity you better hit him low or you're going to be the one hitting the ground."
The JDHS defense and offense expect to get another big boost from their traveling group of fans this weekend. Their small section more than held their own on the sidelines of AFS last weekend against the hometown South contingent. Homemade noisemakers, fashioned primarily from laundry detergent bottles, helped the group raise more than a few eyebrows.
"Oh my, that was a wonderful crowd," Chalmers said. "I'd say it's the loudest per-capita in the state. Multiply those numbers and put them in a dome in Seattle and they'd put any pro team to shame."