Juneau, Alaska (KINY) - One of the longest training camps in high school football history is about to end as the Juneau Huskies host the Colony Knights at 3 p.m. Saturday on Adair Kennedy Turf Field, almost two years since they last took to the gridiron in Alaska School Activities Association play.
The Huskies were the only Alaska football team to not play last season due to coronavirus pandemic mitigation plans in the local school district.
“We practiced over 100 days but were the only team in the state to not play any games that practiced like we did,” Juneau Head Coach Rich Sjoroos said. “It was a tough year last year for sure, but that has added to the excitement for this year. It has been a long road back to getting some live action. The kids have persevered, and I am excited for them to play. Saturday will be such a range of emotions, but one of the biggest ones will be relief, just the joy of playing the game with the scoreboard lit up.”
The Huskies are among the last of the eight large school football teams in the state, which are combined into one super conference in which every game will have playoff implications for the the season-ending First National Bowl in Anchorage.
The Cook Inlet Conference is packed with power that includes Bartlett, Dimond, East, South, West, Service and outside Anchorage, Colony. The other 19 schools with football programs play in the medium and small school divisions.
“We’re in division one, which is fine,” Sjoroos said. “I like the competition, and it is going to be good competition. We’ve been in division one for a little while now but this will be the first time that we are back in the Cook Inlet Conference since 2004. We play those teams once in a while but mostly in a playoff game. But now it will be week in, week out we will be taking on the biggest schools in the state. I know the kids are up for the challenge. I know coaches are excited. In the community, some of the older fans that have been around that remember those days of the great games against East and West and Dimond and Service, all that is going to be coming back again this year.”
To help keep players on the field during road trips, the team will travel, play and return the same day.
“There are some good athletes in Juneau and we have been fortunate to get a good chunk of them out for football,” Sjoroos said. “The core of this team has played together for a lot of years. So that is something you can always build around when you have that kind of chemistry with our junior and senior class. We’ve got some good depth on the line, a senior quarterback, and some good weapons all around. We have a pretty solid group it is just a matter of getting the rust off and actually going against live action for more than just a few plays but for four quarters and seeing how they hold up.”
Juneau’s last game was a first-round playoff loss in 2019 to South Anchorage 54-14, after clinching the Chugach Conference title at the end of that season 67-24 over Bartlett. South would go on to win the state championship, defeating West 21-14 in the semifinals and Service 27-13 in the title game. Roughly 680 days have passed since then.
There was no state tournament last season due to the pandemic but Anchorage schools still competed through a season while Juneau sweated on practice fields with the chill of the Mendenhall Glacier, the fall rains and the dwindling daylight as their opponent.
The Alaska Sports Broadcasting Network preseason football poll lists East the top division one team, followed by Colony, West, Bartlett and Juneau. Division two/three has Soldotna on top, followed by Lathrop, West Valley, Palmer and Houston.
Juneau played Colony in 2019 and fell 28-20. Then-sophomore quarterback Noah Chambers broke his foot early in the first half of that contest and has not played in a league game since.
“Every year we are just hoping for a good time, a lot of competitive football games and just to have a lot of fun playing football,” Chambers said. “This year I am looking for a great senior season. It is great that we have the opportunity this year. Hopefully we can stay safe, on and off the field, and come back and show them what Juneau is about again. We put together a lot of good games my sophomore year, 2019, and hopefully we can build on that with the team we have this year. I am excited to see Colony again, it is going to be a nice ‘get back into it game’ for competitive games in the Cook Inlet Conference.”
Chambers will have two veteran running backs in senior Gaby Soto and junior Jamal Johnson. Junior Sage Sika has been impressing the coaching staff by taking the ball through the line but also stopping the ball on the other side of the snaps. Senior Wallace Adams will play both sides of the ball as a kicker, tight end and safety and is one of the offensive and defensive stalwarts who appears to have spent the hiatus in the weight room.
“Getting this opportunity again just feels like a blessing because when you grow up you just think everything is going to be handed to you,” Adams said. “And you feel like that’s the way it is. And then when it all gets taken away you realize how grateful you should be to have the opportunity to do this and play when other people aren’t. I’m very excited to play for the first time in a year. This team is very hungry. We are starving to win and we want to win. We are not the biggest team and we’re not the strongest team but everybody is here for a purpose. Everyone tries their hardest and everyone is running the sprints as hard as they can go and everyone is just hungry. Colony looks like a pretty strong team but I think we have a good shot and I think we are pretty even.”
Across the roster, players acknowledged their team-first mentality.
“I think we have some guys this year,” junior tight end and linebacker Lucas White said. “We’re not going to wow any teams with our physicality but we can go out and play competitively with anyone. We are all pretty excited to play a good football game.”
Four-year varsity offensive and defensive lineman Mathias Wiederspohn was noted as a standout during practices by coaches.
“It is really exciting for me because I haven’t been able to play since my sophomore year,” Wiederspohn said. “So I am just ready to get out here and play and have fun. Colony is a good team. I am really excited to play them because they are a conference team and I know we will try extra hard against them. I like that all our guys try a lot harder than everybody else, they want to be better than they were before. That’s what matters to me.”
The pandemic sent some school athletes down different paths but the Huskies have managed to hold onto just over 50 players.
“I think that once kids see games are back being played, whether it be football or cross-country or any other sport, I think you’re going to see more kids get back into the athletic mix,” Sjoroos said.
Sjoroos noted that fans will see the energy level of the athletes.
“Hopefully that will bleed over to the crowd and create a great atmosphere for home football games,” he said. “We have always been one of the toughest places to play in the state and I think it comes from not just the energy level of the players but from the fans too. Hopefully they will see an aggressive, fundamentally sound group of kids that tackle well and just get after it for all four quarters. That has kind of been the theme leading up to this, is these kids have gone so long without a playing a game you just kind of let it loose and have some fun along the way but at the same time play good football.”
Added Sjoroos, “This is just such a coachable group of kids. It makes you go home at night feeling good about what you are doing. Just for the fact that they give so much when they are out at practice and you know it is going to carry over to the games. It is going to be a long road, but hopefully they get rewarded with some strong performances along the way."
The key to the first game of the season, according to Sjoroos, is not to expect mid-season form.
“Week one is usually decided by five or six key plays throughout the game,” he said. “As far as a turnover here, a penalty there, or a missed block or a missed tackle or a big catch. Just that kind of stuff. I just think it is going to be who can calm their nerves and settle in and make adjustments at halftime.”
Sjoroos said the long layoff was hard on both players and staff.
“It has been tough,” he said. “I would like to say we kept a hold of everybody but we didn’t. There are some kids that kind of got their spirit broke and have given up sports for now. Hopefully when they see games can be played and we can navigate this thing they will be back in the mix. Whether it be our sport or a different sport. That has been the biggest disheartening thing is seeing kids that have kind of given up. But the ones that are in there it has hardened them up a bit, showing them to appreciate this day whether it be a practice or a game. In some ways, the group that was already close, it brought them even closer.”
Kickoff is 3 p.m. Saturday at Adair Kennedy Field. JV action is at noon.
JUNEAU HUSKIES ROSTER
Head Coach - Rich Sjoroos.
Assistant Coaches - Jeff Hedges (Varsity OL/DL, Assistant HC), Mitch Haldane (Varsity DC), Evan Rothfled (Varsity DB/WR), Steve White (Varsity Assistant), Chris Connally (JV HC), Marcos Morehouse( JV DC), Romney Tupou (JV OL/DL), Mike Behrends (JV Ast.), Brandon Ridle (JV Ast.).
Managers - Bailey Foster, Reese Bunten.
Seniors - #84 Wallace Adams, #17 James Buker, #52 Nathan Burkhart, #8 Noah Chambers, #10 James Connally, #34 Jack Gregson, #75 Landon Guthrie, #26 Matthew Hartsock, #14 Wyatt Harvey, #68 Reilly Hayes, #66 Darian Kowalcik, #25 Kurtis Lee, #77 Anthony Martinez, #63 Julian Mayeda, #2 Kadin Messmer, #50 Miles Peterson, #3 Gaby Soto, #70 Sione Veikoso, #58 Mathias Wiederspohn.
Juniors - #65 Brandon Campbell, #40 Chase Darbonne, #44 Hunter Derr, #9 Payton Grant, #5 Chris Harris, #7 Jamal Johnson, #- Tommy Pearson, #57 Sage Richards, #13 Sage Sika, #88 Matt Spratt, #64 Isaac Talatoa, #60 Marcus Underwood, #12 Lucas White, #1 Jarrell Williams, #55 TJ Womack.
Sophomores - #6 Owen Adams, #19 Victor Crondahl, #- Iverson Niautola, #22 Anthony Garcia, #90 Silvester Montez, #- Primo Nauer, #15 Parker Overson, #18 Deandre Pittman, #38 Eric Tipton, #51 Sione Tupou, #23 Layla Webster, #54 Robert Zukas.
Freshmen - #20 Hayden Aube, #24 Justus Darbonne, #29 Gavin Gerrin, #4 Jayden Johnson, #32 Jonathan Kestel, #12 Quincy Malacas, #- Drew Ryan, #78 Shaun Schrader, #11 Sage Schultz, #16 Caleb Ziegenfuss, #56 Benny Zukas.
HUSKY CHEER ROSTER
Varsity Head Coach - Carlene Nore.
Varsity Assistant Coach - Colby Sanders.
JV Coach - Chelsea Kilgore.
Manager - Hayden Leggy-Smith (TM soph.)
Seniors - Ben Iona (JD), Olissa Oliver (TM), Grace Stewart (TM).
Juniors - Emma Busby (JD), Gilian Essay (JD), Kristie Kulbeth (TM), Natalie Wittwer (JD), Reilly Halverson (TM), Saelyr Hunt (JD), Giana Vigil (JD), Sandrina Nickel-Bean (JD).
Sophomores - Claire Durling (JD), Katelyn Kohuth (TM), Mila Griffin (JD), Ryan Shattuck (JD), Yela Cristobal (JD).
Freshmen - Aurora Johnson (JD), Samantha Day (TM), Ariana Harris (TM), Gracie Kohuth (TM), Tenlee Roemer (TM), Lashya Bagoyo (TM).