The Juneau-Douglas High School football team swelled with elation after capturing its second large-schools football championship Saturday with a 23-13 win over Palmer in Anchorage.
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Relief, especially for the coaches, also bubbled to the emotional surface.
After all, it would've been a pretty big downer to win 10 straight contests only to fall in the biggest one of the year.
For offensive coordinator Rich Sjoroos, the pressure started early.
"The pressure, I think, from a coaching standpoint, started hitting in the playoffs," he said. "You are the top seed, you should be able to take care of business because you know if you stumble once, you're done. Mostly, I felt more pressure in the Colony (playoff) game. It was the first time our backs were against the wall a bit and you don't know how the kids would respond in a playoff situation."
As it turned out, Sjoroos didn't have to worry too much. Juneau-Douglas exploded to a 33-0 quarterfinal win.
In three playoff games, JDHS outscored its opponents 87-27.
"When we took the field in pre-game for Colony, I was like, 'This team will be just fine,'" Sjoroos said. "In the room and on the field, everyone had a different air about them. From the moment we were in the playoffs and through three weeks of practice, the intensity was there, the determination was there."
"The state championship felt a little different than the last one (in 2005) and I felt just a lot more relief after winning this one," JDHS defensive coordinator Eddie Brakes said. "We had everything to lose and didn't realize it until after the game. The kids went out there and did it."
In 2005, JDHS obliterated its first seven opponents but lost to Pasco, Wash., 48-7 in the regular-season finale. The Crimson Bears went on to win their first state title.
"The truth is getting our butts kicked by Pasco may have relieved some of that pressure of not having that perfect record," Brakes said. "Playing a team that out-manned and out-executed you and you had to play above yourself kept us hungry. This year was different where we had that spotless record."
Now the only pressure anyone with the Crimson Bears football team must deal with is making sure their championship ring fits.
While Juneau-Douglas senior center/defensive tackle Faifo Levale couldn't physically participate in Saturday's title game, he played a significant role in the win.
Forced to serve a one-game suspension after being ejected during the semifinal win over South Anchorage, Levale kept his team loose and focused in preparation for Palmer. He practiced with the Crimson Bears and gave a pre-game speech prior to Saturday's final.
Despite the circumstances, Levale provided senior leadership to the program he's given four years of hard work.
"Faifo was not in the ballgame, but mentally he was there with us on the ball field," Brakes said. "He was on the sidelines providing leadership, keeping everyone together. He had a great speech where he said, 'We made it here as a team, not because of me. Let's go out there and win the title and I'm with you.'"
Levale deserves a tremendous amount of credit for handling a difficult situation in a positive manner.
He also received plenty of support. Many posters on popular Alaska football Web site alaskapreps.rivals.com commended Levale's sportsmanship throughout the season.
His cousin, sophomore lineman Lawrence Fenumiai, wore Levale's No. 52 on Saturday and played with passion.
"I thought Lawrence wearing Faifo's number was a good tribute," Sjoroos said. "He got more pumped up."
ACCOLADES ROLL IN FOR BEARS
Another perk of having an undefeated season and a state title is spots on the Alaska State Football Coaches Association All-State team.
The coaches voted JDHS wide receiver Alex Fagerstrom as the state's offensive player of the year and middle linebacker Donovan Wilson as the defensive player of the year.
Brakes was voted the state's assistant coach of the year.
Fagerstrom posted 24 receptions, 587 receiving yards and nine touchdowns this season. He also played fullback, slotback and running back in the offense. Also, Fagerstrom ran Juneau's successful single-wing offensive package.
Most importantly, however, was his ability to draw the attention of opposing defense. Whenever Fagerstrom received two or three defenders, that meant it was easier for running back Silver Maake to run and for wide receiver Jesse West to get open.
"He's also the most valuable decoy in the history of the state," Sjoroos said of Fagerstrom.
Wilson proved the linchpin of Juneau-Douglas' explosive defense. His ferocity fighting through blocks, instinct for the ball and ability to track down runners sideline to sideline made him invaluable.
"He was everywhere," Brakes said of Wilson's performance against Palmer. "He was laying some licks."
Maake, Fagerstrom and Wilson were named to the first-team offense while defensive end Zach Heppner, defensive tackle Phil Moser, defensive back Lincoln Maka and Wilson made first-team All-State defense.
Levale, Fenumiai and Jake "Texas" Nelson all made the All-State second team as offensive lineman while linebacker Chance Galletes and Fagerstrom were voted second-team defense.
Dominic Smith made second-team kicker while Galletes was second-team long snapper.
SOLDOTNA VS. JUNEAU-DOUGLAS
If most Alaska prep football fans had their wish, they'd probably like to extend the season just one more week so Juneau-Douglas could play undefeated small-school state champions Soldotna.
The two-time defending small-school champion Stars (10-0) vaporized the competition in 2007. Soldotna averaged 54.1 points per game with its Wing-T rushing attack and limited opponents to 13.2 points per game.
Against like competition, Soldotna ripped Kodiak 47-27 in the state final and 70-14 on Week 6 while JDHS defeated Kodiak 41-0 on Week 1.
Both teams played North Pole with Soldotna winning 62-42 on Week 1 and JDHS winning 30-13 on Week 3.
Against Palmer, JDHS won 28-7 in Week 5 and 23-13 in the title game while the Stars topped the Moose 47-14 during Week 2.
Maybe these two teams could give the 2008 season a highly-anticipated kickoff?
Contact sports editor Tim Nichols at 523-2228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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