ANCHORAGE - Ryan "Bubba" Larson approached Juneau-Douglas High School's head football coach this summer to say he wanted to play quarterback for the Crimson Bears.
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He had no experience playing the game's glamorous, perhaps most important, position at any level. But he knew the position was open. The team's star quarterback - Chris Hinkley - had just graduated.
Head coach Bill Chalmers believed the 17-year-old, who had only played basketball in high school, could play. But not in his wildest dreams did he think Juneau could finish undefeated for the first time in school history with a first-year quarterback at the helm.
"We knew at the beginning of the season we'd have a good team," Chalmers said. "But we didn't know how good.
"They exceeded our expectations in every way."
Juneau punctuated a perfect 11-0 season Saturday in the First National Bowl with a 23-13 victory over Palmer before 2,100 fans at Anchorage Football Stadium.
"It's people like Bubba who walk onto a football field in August and lead us to a championship in October," Chalmers said. "That's pretty unusual."
Larson finished 2 of 7 for only 18 passing yards. But the senior hit Alex Fagerstrom on a 7-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter to give Juneau a commanding 21-0 lead.
Larson high-fived fans after the game to show his appreciation of Juneau's small but vocal fans, who traveled 568 miles by air to watch the Crimson Bears win their second large-schools state title in three years. Juneau defeated Palmer 49-29 in 2005 for its first state title.
That year Juneau dedicated the trophy to Reilly Richey - the program's most successful varsity coach - who died in March 2005 after a long illness.
Chalmers, who's more of an organizer than football coach, now has two state titles and a 27-5 career record.
For more pictures from Saturday's contest, check out spotted.juneauempire.com.
"Rich Sjoroos runs the offense, Eddie Brakes runs the defense and I'm just the old man who collects the paper work and makes sure kids get to practice on time," he said. "If I divide that (27-5 record) equally among the people responsible for it, I'm about 2-1."
Chalmers is a quiet coach who normally keeps his hands in his pockets. But in a rare demonstrative moment, Chalmers pumped his fist when Zach Heppner sacked Palmer quarterback Conrad Smith in his own end zone.
After surrendering a 3-yard touchdown run by Smith in the third quarter, the fourth-quarter safety gave Juneau a 23-7 lead and, more importantly, restored their momentum.
"There's a time in every game when you think you're climbing a mountain, which I've never really done," Chalmers said. "But one of the last steps you take, you know you're at the peak, and it's all downhill from there.
"That safety put us two scores ahead. I know enough about football, watching and coaching 65 years, that I knew it was two huge points."
The safety was just the latest contribution from a Juneau defense that was the force behind the team's 11-0 record.
Juneau held Palmer, which averaged 268 rushing yards per game, to 113 on 50 carries. And that was accomplished without the help of Faifo Levale, one of the Crimson Bears' most explosive linemen, who served a one-game suspension for his ejection last weekend.
Heppner, a 200-pound senior, filled in for the all-Railbelt Conference center. He learned the position in four days, said Juneau offensive coordinator Rich Sjoroos.
"There was a lot of pressure on that kid," Sjoroos said. "He had a good nose guard over him (Lucas Secoy). My concern was - will we get the snap?"
Heppner did a great job all day, Sjoroos said. He blocked a punt, which led to Fagerstrom's touchdown reception, then sacked Smith on Palmer's two-point conversion attempt in the final quarter.
"Our defense is a group of individuals, surviving adversity," Chalmers said. "For a moment there, it looked like Faifo was on the field."
Sophomore Lawrence Fenumiai, a frizzy-haired lineman, wore Levale's No. 52 jersey in his cousin's honor. Tears rolled down his black-painted cheeks after the game.
"He's my cousin, so I wanted to show him family love was still here," Fenumiai said.
"He stepped in and played every bit as well (as Levale)," Chalmers said. "And maybe a little quicker. That's the togetherness we have."
Without a doubt, Juneau played like family.
"We're like butt cheeks - close together," Fenumiai said. "That's how we roll, man."
With a first-year quarterback and a defense that held opponents to just 7.7 points a game this season, Juneau made the $14,000 it cost to travel to Anchorage for the title game worth the money.
"We've built the best program in Alaska without school district funding," said Juneau Youth Football League president James Lockwood. "Just hard work and community support."
He worried that a second trip to Anchorage in as many weeks - Juneau dispatched defending state champion South Anchorage at AFS a week ago - would bust the youth league's seasonal travel budget of $180,000.
It might, but for a few hours on a sunny October afternoon, that didn't matter.
As the team counted to zero in the game's closing seconds, Larson dashed toward the bleachers where Juneau fans gathered to show his love. He gave Brent Fagerstrom, the father of Alex, a hug and proceeded with high fives as he sprinted along the fence.
"Mr. Fagerstrom's a great guy," Larson said. "He and his sons helped me out this season. And I just wanted to show the fans we care for their support."
Afterwards, as the Crimson Bears knelt to hear a victory speech from their league president, their efforts were rewarded by a costly promise.
"It's going to cost another $10,000," Lockwood screamed, "but we're getting rings!"
Find Kevin Klott online at adn.com/contact/kklott or call 257-4335.
Juneau-Douglas 23, Palmer 13
ASAA/First National Bank
Saturday's Large-Schools State Championship
At Anchorage Football Statium
Palmer 0 0 7 6 - 13
Juneau-Douglas 14 7 0 2 - 23
Juneau - Maake 1 run (D. Smith kick), 4:48.
Juneau - Maake 6 run (D. SMith kick), 1:01.
Juneau - A. Fagerstrom 7 pass from Larson (D. Smith), 9:42.
Palmer - C. Smith 3 run (Ott kick), 6:12.
Juneau - Safety, C. Smith sacked in end zone, 7:55.
Palmer - Sawyer 2 run (pass failed), 2:28.
First downs 15 10
Rushes-yards 50-113 40-152
Passing yards 110 18
Return yards 75 103
Passes 7-17-0 2-8-1
Punts 3-32.0 3-36.0
Fumbles-lost 2-2 3-2
Penalties-yards 6-50 9-60
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