Juneau, Alaska (KINY) - The undefeated East Anchorage Thunderbirds will be the biggest test for the Juneau Huskies football team this season as the two Cook Inlet Conference powerhouses square off at 3 p.m. Saturday on the Adair Kennedy Field.
“The top team in the state,” Juneau coach Rich Sjoroos said. “I think everyone would agree with that assessment. They definitely have a pretty good tradition going there now and some great kids coming through their program. Lots of size and speed and things like that. So definitely going to raise our level of play this week to match that and have a good plan in place to have the kids be successful.”
East coach Jeff Trotter is in his 11th season with the Thunderbirds and is excited to come to the capital city, the team’s third trip here.
“You get that Lower 48-type atmosphere,” Trotter said. “You fly in, play a game. Juneau always has a competitive team. You are always looking forward to a tough matchup, and it is just a different experience from driving across town and playing a game.”
East has 25 seniors on their varsity roster, more than the combined junior and senior classes of the Juneau Huskies. Add in the 24 juniors and more than 20 sophomore Thunderbird players and the size, in numbers, is astonishing. They graduated 31 seniors from last season’s undefeated squad.
“We have a lot of athletes,” Trotter said. “We are young. We make some goofy mistakes sometimes but athletically they have been in the program. They are pretty sound as far as that goes.”
East’s physical size is also daunting. Nearly 30 East players stand six-foot or better and nearly 40 weigh more than 200 pounds or, roughly, more than 800 McDonald’s quarter pounders. Of that 40, 26 may have bathroom scales that show 250 or more and nine who are at least 300 pounds.
“Definitely lots of challenges you don’t see with some of the other teams from around the state as far as the depth that they have,” Sjoroos said. “Lots of seniors and all the things you typically see in a strong program.”
Juneau also boasts some physical strength with roughly 20 players over 200 pounds and 15 stretching above six feet. Yet the Huskies also have the muscle, heart and stamina across their roster that can get the work done. They have speed and skill and a football mentality that will take the day play-by-play and down-by-down.
“I like where we are at,” Sjoroos said. “I know we stumbled a little bit last week. But I still think we came away from that improving in some areas of our program and definitely gave us a checklist of things to work on this week, which so far has been off to a good start and we will definitely continue that all the way to Saturday.”
Players to watch for East include senior quarterback Kyler Johnson, who leads the state in passing and touchdowns and is replacing last year’s Alaska Offensive Player of the Year. His top targets are receivers Deuce Zimmerman, who has a full-ride Division I scholarship, and Damarion Delaney and running back Elijah Reed. Defensively look out for junior end Peter Mataia, senior linebacker Calvin Aioso and junior linebacker Puni Pa’u.
“We have good athletes who have some good prospects for bigger things down the road,” Trotter said. “We also have good attitudes. Overall I think we have definite deficits around as most teams are finding out in the last three or four games, what their strengths and weaknesses are. We’re finding ours. I like our team’s speed and athleticism.”
In the last Alaska School Activities Association First National Bowl Series Football State Championships in 2019, both East and Juneau lost in the opening quarter finals. East fell 28-27 to Colony and Juneau 54-14 to South. South went on to defeat West 21-14 in the semi finals and Service defeated Colony 27-18. South would win the 2019 state title 27-13 over Service.
COVID-19 canceled the 2020 season, although Anchorage teams played some interleague games. Trotter said the challenges of the pandemic still exist for all teams.
“I think it is the same as everybody,” Trotter said. “It is a little bit of the stuff changing day-to-day, week-to-week, stuff is getting thrown at all of us. Whether somebody ends up with a close contact or you have a family member get severely ill. We have had a couple pass away. We’ve done a decent job or the best we could hope for in these obviously abnormal times. Everyone is on the same page with this, we are all dealing with it equally.”
Graduations have shifted the 2021 gridiron landscape in the Cook Inlet Conference.
East is 3-0 with wins over Service 45-22, South 59-22 and non-league opponent Lathrop 50-26.
West is 3-0 with wins over Service 35-6, Bartlett 33-9 and Juneau 49-23.
Juneau is 2-1 with wins over Colony 53-12 and Dimond 35-6.
Colony is 2-1 with wins over Bartlett 40-13 and South 34-31.
South is 0-2 with losses to East and Colony, Bartlett is 1-2 with losses to West and Colony and a non-league win over Palmer 22-15, Service is 1-2 with a 26-20 win over Dimond and losses to East and West, and Dimond is 0-2.
“The last time we played East, I think the Juneau Unified team played them a few years ago, it was a pretty tough match up,” Sjoroos said. “But over the years, Juneau has held their own with East. So we would like to get back to that level and it has to start somewhere. Hopefully our plans get that rolling Saturday.”
The last time Juneau defeated East was in 2011. The then Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears defeated the Thunderbirds 7-6 in the state championship quarterfinals. The Crimson Bears fell to Service 64-21 in the semifinals. Service would win the state championship 37-23.
Trotter was in his first year as East’s head coach that season.
“The ugly 7-6 game,” Trotter laughed. “Then we came down in 2018 (and won 38-6). That was the first year of their combined. We had a tough squad (2018 state champs). They still played us well. The score didn’t indicate it in the end but the game was much closer than the score. It was a physical game and you could tell it was the start of something good going forward, which is what you have seen in the last two seasons.”
Trotter said Saturday is what football coaches, players and fans long for.
“You know you are in for a tough, hard hitting game and I think we kind of bring the same,” Trotter said. “It is kind of like playing a mirror image of yourself. I think we are in for a big challenge regardless of what is going on. I think Juneau matches up pretty well with us. They have athletes in the same spots we do. It will be an interesting game.”
Sjoroos added, “They can only put 11 on the field at one time, same as us.”
Above - The Juneau Huskies kicking game will be a vital part of Saturday's game against East Anchorage. (Klas Stolpe)
Perhaps one of JDHS’ strongest performances was in the 2013 medium school state championship loss to Soldotna 56-49. Soldotna was in the midst of a multi-year undefeated run against all opponents, large and medium classifications.
JDHS were the large school state champions in 2007 by virtue of a 23-13 win over Palmer (after topping South 31-14 in the semis and Colony 33-0 in the quarters) and were large school state champs in 2005 with a 49-29 win over Palmer.
Anchorage has a solid football background. East defeated West 35-6 for the 2018 state title. Bartlett topped West 40-33 for the 2017 title with East third. East were state champs in 2016 (13-7 over West), West in 2015 (41-0 over Chugiak, East was third), South in 2014 (20-6 over West), West in 2013 (28-16 over Service), South in 2012 (28-19 over Service. Service beat JDHS 58-10 in the quarterfinals).
In 2010, West took state and JDHS was third, in 2009 Bartlett took state and JDHS was fifth, in 2008 Service defeated JDHS 22-14 for the state title.
South won the title in 2006 and JDHS was third.
North Pole were champs in 2004 and JDHS was third. East defeated JDHS for the 2003 state championship 33-15. Bartlett won the 2002 state title. Dimond won in 2001 with JDHS fifth. Dimond won in 2000. Service won in 1999 with JDHS third and Service won in 1998 and 1997.
Game time on Saturday is 3 p.m. for varsity action (JV kick off at noon).
Above - Action from the 2013 medium school state championship game between JDHS and Soldotna.