Juneau, Alaska (KINY) - For the first time in Juneau football history an Alaska School Activities Association (ASAA) First National Bowl Football State Championship semifinal game will be played in the capital city when the Juneau Huskies host Anchorage’s Bartlett Golden Bears at 3 p.m., Saturday, on Adair Kennedy Field.
“I always preach to the kids,” Juneau Huskies coach Rich Sjoroos began, then paused. “Be the one to hand the ball to the referee at the end of the play.”
Bartlett will bring a large physical presence to the turf and the Huskies will need to secure the football according to Sjoroos.
The two teams faced off in week six of the Cook Inlet Conference season with Juneau winning 27-14.
“A very physical football game,” Juneau coach Rich Sjoroos said. “We knew that was going to be the case going in. The kids played really well, especially getting a few goal line stands keeping them out of the end zone. But Bartlett has just been a team that, traditionally, gets better as the weeks go along.”
Bartlett traveled to Colony last weekend to open the state playoffs and defeated the Knights 32-19. Bartlett had lost at Colony in week 2 by the score of 40-13.
“The more reps you get at something, fundamental wisdom tells you that you are going to get better at it,” Sjoroos said. “To be able to go back and win shows you that they made some big improvements from where they were at early in the year. Any team that is going to beat Bartlett is going to have to play really disciplined football, know your assignments, read your keys, and tackle well.”
Bartlett runs a precision timing Wing-T offense and the Golden Bears feature a big front line and seemingly bigger running backs.
“It’s not a very slow developing offense,” Sjoroos said. “The plays happen pretty fast and the ball can be on you before you know it.”
Sjoroos said Juneau defensive coordinator Mitch Haldane has the Huskies in the right frame of mind.
“Just recognizing things that are happening in front of you as fast as possible,” Sjoroos said. “Maintaining our gaps and tackling well is going to be a big part of being successful on Saturday.”
The Huskies have been the undersized team all season and that will not change this weekend. In their last meeting Juneau could not run as they normally do and turned to senior Noah Chambers and the passing game to get the ball down the field. Chambers was 12-18 for 344 yards and three touchdowns and senior Gaby Soto still rushed 11 times for 94 yards and a score.
“Bartlett’s going to be a little more prepared,” Sjoroos said. “We really caught them off guard with our spread sets and some of that stuff. So we have to be prepared to do that stuff again but also know that they probably are not going to leave guys uncovered. We’ll have to play well on that side of the ball as well, block well and hold on to the football. If we can do all those things it will give us a good chance to be in position to be successful at the end. Any time you get to the state semifinals games are going to be close. There is a reason teams have gotten this far, they are good at what they do. We are just super grateful to have this game in Juneau, the first time ever. The kids are excited that they are the first team ever to host a state football semifinal in Juneau and that is something that they’ll be able to look back on years from now.”
Juneau defeated Dimond 31-3 last weekend at AKF. That win took a lot of the mental stress of a first game that could potentially end a players season.
Sjoroos said he told the team, “Now you have already experienced what it feels like to wake up on a day and know that your career can end. You’ve come through it and you survived it. Now going through it again it won’t be as overwhelming because you’ve all experienced it once.”
Juneau opened the season beating Colony 53-12 at AKF, then topped Dimond 35-6 at AKF, lost to West 49-23 on the road, defeated East 39-28 at AKF, toppled Service 49-12 on the road, beat Bartlett 27-14 on the road, and finished the regular season beating South 42-7 at AKF.
In comparison Bartlett lost to West 33-9, lost to Colony 40-13 on the road, defeated Palmer 22-15, topped Dimond 14-8, beat South 30-22 on the road, lost to Juneau 27-14, lost to East 32-20 on the road and finished the regular season beating Service 26-22 on the road.
Coach Sjoroos commented on each of the Huskies season games.
In the week one win over Colony the Huskies were able to sustain their energy level through the whole game due to the fact that they had not had a football game in nearly 700 days.
“The energy level was nuts,” Sjoroos said. “Even mine. The fact that we were able to keep that going for four quarters I don’t know if I have seen many games like that. We looked fast, we looked fresh, we looked hungry and it all translated into a big win.”
The first go-a-round win over Dimond in week two actually saw the Lynx take Juneau out of their element a little bit penalty wise, as the Huskies were believing each week would be like the season opener.
“Teams make a big change after week one,” Sjoroos said. “Once teams get a game under their belt they get game film, they get kids back from other sports, they are not the team you saw on film. We were sloppy on parts, a few turnovers. Dimond will give you four quarters hard, no matter what. In week one we played a high level of football and in week two we came down to earth a little bit and realized we can’t make mistakes.
Week three saw the Huskies take their game on the road for the first time with just 23 players suited and they took a hit, despite having a one-point lead at the half.
“To be up on the road for your first time we felt pretty good,” Sjoroos said. “Then West came out the second half and ratcheted up their defense, got their running game going and kind of pulled away. We knew we were coming home the following week and we just needed to regroup and get our full team back and see what we could do after that.”
What Juneau did was have a week four win over the, then, number one team East Anchorage at Adair. The win included incredible defensive stops by the Huskies in the later stages of the game.
“That is just going to rank as a real special game,” Sjoroos said. “Just knowing how good they are and how well you have to play to beat them and to do that the way we did… that would be a game I would look back and say we had a lot of guys make a lot of big plays.”
The week five road trip win at Service was as-if the Huskies had a dozen extra defensive players on the field each play. Juneau’s offense was hindered by the play of Service’s defensive player of the year Sebastian O’Farrell but the Huskies defense was noted for having three interceptions, two run back for touchdowns, and four quarterback sacks. The Huskies offense actually punted three times that game, in a season where their total has been just six punts to date.
“The defense put our offense in great field position the whole game,” Sjoroos said. “It was our least productive offensive game of the year. The game looked lop-sided score wise but it was a defensive game that day.”
Week six was a win at Bartlett that put the Huskies in position to win the conference title. Bartlett was the hottest team in the state going into that contest.
“The kids played a physical style that day,” Sjoroos said. “Bartlett came after us hard. We were able to hit a couple key passing plays, and keep them out of the end zone on a couple key drives at the end.”
Week seven saw the Huskies wrap up the CIC title with a drubbing of South at AKF and earn the home playoffs. The game featured a star performance by the post-game Homecoming King, Wallace Adams in front of the largest crowd of the season.
“That game was neat in the sense that it was the first time I had ever seen homecoming festivities and things like that at a football game in Juneau,” Sjoroos said. “That tradition is only going to build from there, the kids really liked it. Typically when I am coaching I can hear the roar of the crowd but it is just loud energy noise. That game there was two distinct times that I heard sounds that got my attention and I turned around. That crowd was dialed in that day and hopefully we can have that kind of energy and noise for this weekend.”
Last weekend the nerves were removed from the Huskies players with their opening round win over Dimond at AKF. Trailing 3-0 early and then up just 7-3 at the half was unsettling for the Huskies.
“The first time all year you wake up and you don’t have next week to look forward to if things don’t go well,” Sjoroos said. “At halftime the kids talked about it. With all their hard work they thought they would have a bigger cushion going into the half. Credit to Dimond, they didn’t want their season to end and they sure played like it. They brought a physicality we hadn’t seen by some of their guys on film. They got after it and kept us out of the end zone until right before the half. They got first downs to keep the ball in their possession. They kicked a field goal to start the game to get the lead on the road… If I was their coach I couldn’t ask for a much better scenario other than having the lead, but to be 7-3 in a playoff game on the road, well okay you’re right there.”
At halftime of that game the team said someone needed to make a big play and the third quarter belonged to the Huskies entire defensive roster and an offense that exploded for 24 points. Chambers was 8-15 for 226 yards and two touchdowns, senior Gaby Soto rushed for 115 yards and two touchdowns, expanding his season total to 17 rushing scores. Adams increased his perfect extra point total to 34-34 on the season and six different Huskies carried the ball and six Huskies caught passes.
Sjoroos said fans can expect to see high energy from their Bartlett opponents on Saturday.
“They have tremendous size,” he said. “They are probably the biggest team in the state size wise. We always talk about East is big and West is big, well Bartlett is even bigger. They have big kids and they try to push you around.”
What limited Bartlett early in the season was the time needed to dial in their offense which requires more precision than most. But three of their four highest point totals have come in their last three games.
“They are starting to find their stride offensively which puts pressure on us to really play defense on an even higher level. I think everybody is looking forward to that, but knowing that if you take your eyes off your responsibilities for one play that could be the play that Bartlett is running down the field into the end zone. You just have to keep locked in the whole game.”
On the defensive side Bartlett has been able to rush three or four players most of the season and get pressure on every team while still providing secondary coverage and they have big physical linebackers that come up fast against the run.”
“You just really have to kind of pick your spots,” Sjoroos said. “Find some openings and execute, whether it be pass blocking on offense or catching the ball when it is thrown your way, or having good vision when you are running the ball…. things that these kids have been learning since they were little guys clear back in the cubs and peewees and all that kind of stuff, and hopefully it translates into success on Saturday.”
Last weekend West defeated South 47-40 and East defeated Service 48-14. East and West play in the other semifinal.
The state championship game will be at Service High School on Friday, Oct. 22 at 7 p.m.
“I just think that it is pretty neat that this town has been so supportive all these years, for not just football, for all sports,” Sjoroos said. “I’m just kind of proud that football has gotten to this level in Juneau that we are hosting a game like this for the first time. I just know there are a lot of excited people and we have a great opponent coming in and the place is going to be loud. We’ll feed off that energy and hopefully make a lot of good plays. The goal is just to come out on top by a point and hopefully move on and get to stay together for another week.”
Sjoroos also noted that this team has the highest grade point average of any team he has coached.
“I have more kids that have all A’s then I have ever had in 28 years,” he said. “Just some real positive things that are going on that are not necessarily being reflected on the field on the weekends that these kids need to get credit for as well.”
This Huskies team has done something many have not.
Said Sjoroos, “I told them, ‘for you seniors you’ve come as far as you can go for playing games in Juneau. This is it. You’re going to be playing the final game of your senior careers at home and there’s just not many guys who have ever done that. Hats off to you guys for making it this far… it’s something nobody can ever take away from you.’ We’ve done a lot of great things to get to this stage right here. Two good football teams are going to go at it… I am glad we got to have them at home, we’ve faired pretty well here. We get that crowd behind us. It is nice the kids can wake up in their own beds and not have to get up to early to get on a plane and that kind of stuff. Hopefully it all works out to our favor.”
(To hear the podcast of this interview go to KINYradio.com, click the On Demand tab, and click Alaska/Juneau Sports with Klas Stolpe)
Above - The Juneau Huskies' Chris Harris (with ball), Wallace Adams (84), Sam Sika (13), Noah Chambers (8) and Dimond's Tikeri Asailevai (44) are shown after Sika's 75-yard touchdown run during Juneau's 31-3 playoff win against Dimond last week. Juneau will play the Bartlett Golden Bears at 3 p.m. Saturday on Adair Kennedy Field in a state football semifinal. (Klas Stolpe)