The Palmer High School football team Juneau-Douglas will face in Saturday's Alaska School Activities Association/First National Bowl large-school state championship game will be very different than the one it faced in August.
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The team the Crimson Bears (10-0) will face at 1 p.m. Saturday at Anchorage Football Stadium is hitting its stride.
"They looked more synchronized in that game (against Service)," JDHS offensive coordinator Rich Sjoroos said. "Palmer, they just looked more polished. They looked faster, in better shape and just got after it."
The Moose (6-4) utilized a quick start en route to a 28-14 victory over Service in the semifinal round. Palmer gobbled up 307 rushing yards against the Cougars.
It wasn't the victory that caused JDHS to take notice, however. It was how Palmer earned the victory.
JDHS vs. Palmer All-time history:
2007: Juneau-Douglas 28, Palmer 7
2006: Juneau-Douglas 19, Palmer 14 *
2006: Palmer 26, Juneau-Douglas 6
2005: Juneau-Douglas 49, Palmer 29 **
2005: Juneau-Douglas 50, Palmer 7
2004: Juneau-Douglas 37, Palmer 0
2003: Juneau-Douglas 17, Palmer 0
1999: Juneau-Douglas 28, Palmer 0
1998: Juneau-Douglas 34, Palmer 0
1993: Juneau-Douglas 16, Palmer 6
1992: Juneau-Douglas 20, Palmer 7
1991: Juneau-Douglas 13, Palmer 0
* = State semifinal game
** = State championship game
"They're executing their plays a lot better and going a lot harder," Juneau's Alex Fagerstrom said. "They looked more determined. They looked like a better team all-around."
"Their blocking got a lot better and they got a lot faster," JDHS linebacker Chance Galletes said.
In fact, Palmer's been clicking for five straight weeks now.
The Moose won four of their last five games, rushing for an average of 308 yards per game and scoring 34.4 points per game during that stretch.
"They're a much better football team and I expected that," JDHS coach Bill Chalmers said. "Rod Christiansen is a great coach with a great staff."
When Juneau-Douglas defeated Palmer 28-7 at home on Aug. 31, it was a matchup of two teams still searching for their identities.
The Crimson Bears ran just 10 plays in the first half as they struggled to find a consistent offense. Meanwhile, Palmer managed just 99 yards of total offense in defeat.
The Moose did show potential, however. Led by fullback Shannon Sawyer's running, Palmer put together 12-play, 75-yard scoring drive. The drive resulted in a 2-yard touchdown run by Sawyer, the only rushing touchdown Juneau-Douglas yielded all season.
Stopping Sawyer (95 carries, 513 yards, 6 TDs) will be crucial for JDHS. If Sawyer can't find room up the middle, then Juneau's defensive ends and linebackers will be stay back and contain Palmer's dangerous halfback Devin Konkler (167 carries, 1,334 yards, 13 TDs).
"Our [defensive line] has to step up," Fagerstrom said. "They've been putting pressure on the quarterback all year and getting through there and getting a lot of sacks and negative yards. That's what they need to do this week. They need to get in there low and take Sawyer's legs out, and if we get rid of that, we should be good."
Throughout the season, Juneau-Douglas' defensive line utilized its quickness to disrupt opposing defenses. Stalwarts Phil Moser and Zach Heppner have been solid all season while Jack Perkins will be expected to step up for JDHS.
The game plan for both teams doesn't seem to be extremely complicated. Palmer, averaging 264 rushing yards per game, will try to run while JDHS, allowing just 40.6 rushing yards per game, will attempt to stop it.
"I think if I had my (choice) of having a good run-stopping defense or a good run-producing offense, I'd take the run-stopping defense," Chalmers said. "Especially when ... on the other side of the ball we have more of a two-faceted attack than earlier in the season."
Offensively, Juneau-Douglas must contend against a physical Moose front. Railbelt Conference lineman of the year Everest Moore anchors a strong defensive line, and Sawyer serves as a hard-hitting linebacker.
However, the Crimson Bears' offense has evolved significantly since the two teams' week four contest.
Senior quarterback Ryan "Bubba" Larson's confidence has swelled every week while Sjoroos developed more ways to get Fagerstrom the ball.
The emergence of the single-wing offense package has helped get Fagerstrom to the edges while Silver Maake's hard-running can ease the pressure on Juneau's receivers.
"I think teams that run the ball best tend to win the big games," Sjoroos said. "I still believe that. But at the same time, we have to find a way to get the ball in Alex's hands. [Palmer] will do its best to make sure we don't get the ball in his hands. That'll be the big chess match."
Juneau-Douglas' offensive line will have a different look as Heppner will fill in at center while Lawrence Fenumiai, Matt Lehrbach, Moser and Perkins must stop Palmer's rapidly improving defensive line.
Junior varsity linemen Cole Bossio, Eric Ashenfelter and Jorge Pacheco might see some playing time despite never playing a varsity game.
The Crimson Bears own an 11-1 advantage all-time against Palmer. That history, however, will mean very little come Saturday.
"We are confident, that's for sure," JDHS kicker/punter Dominic Smith said. "But we can't be too confident or else it turns into cockiness. We're trying to stay focused for this last week of football and hopefully we can pull off the win."
Contact sports editorTim Nichols at 523-2228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.