Anchorage, Alaska (KINY) - It wasn’t the script the Juneau Huskies had hoped to follow in the ASAA First National Bowl Football State Championship game at Service High School against the Bettye Davis East Anchorage Thunderbirds, but the 30-17 loss was one they read with passion and heart until the final seconds ticked away the dream that had captivated their capital city community.
“I’m disappointed of course,” senior Gaby Soto said. “I mean, anyone would be disappointed if they came in second. I’m shocked. It’s my last game in high school. My boys played their hearts out. No matter what they kept rolling and rolling. They didn’t want to stop, I know they didn’t want to stop. We could go another four quarters and I know they would keep playing no matter what. I’m just… I’m proud. I’m proud of the coaches, I’m proud of the players, I’m just proud of everyone. It’s not the outcome we wanted but I’m just glad we were able to make an impact back at home. I just hope that this carries on.”
Soto, classmate James Connally and junior Hunter Derr were selected to the all-state tournament team. Soto rushed for over 100 yards and was selected the Player of the Game. Connally had a 36-yard pass reception from senior quarterback Noah Chambers and also passed for a touchdown to junior Jarrell Williams. Senior Wallace Adams added both extra points and kicked a 42-yard field goal.
The team also received the Academic Award for having the highest grade point average.
Unofficial statistics showed Derr registered five solo tackles, and along with seniors Mathias Wiederspohn and Wyatt Harvey and junior Brandon Campbell with three solo tackles apiece the Huskies outsized gang-tackling defense kept the southeast boys within striking distance throughout the game.
“I’m just so proud of all of us,” Wiederspohn said. “How far we have been able to come. We don’t have the numbers or the size most of the time but we find a way to get all the way here. My freshman season, I was on a team that went 0-8, just being here is so much of an improvement. It shows what you can do if you put your mind to it and work hard.”
Soto started the night rolling, opening the first possession of the game with two runs for a first down. Chambers connected with Adams for a first down pass and Soto and Chambers both took turns rushing among the larger East line. The drive would stop just short after an incomplete pass, a Huskies penalty, and a pass to junior Chris Harris and Juneau would miss a field goal.
East took possession from their own 25 yard line and senior quarterback Kyler Johnson steered classmate running backs Elijah Reed and Amosa Sou and sophomore Andrew Montenegro down the field, using over five minutes of clock before junior running back Punimatagi Pa’u blasted through first-and-goal for a 6-0 advantage. Pa’u would also run over the two-point conversion for 8-0.
Juneau would move the ball from their own 34 yard line to East’s 36 on their next possession but would have to punt the ball away.
East took the ball into the second quarter but the Juneau defense limited them to just one series and the Thunderbirds punted.
Soto carried three consecutive times from the Huskies 49 yard line and on second-and-six from the East 36 yard line Chambers connected on a touchdown pass to Connally and Juneau trailed 8-6. Adams kicked the extra point to trail by one, 8-7, with a half a quarter until the half.
The Juneau defense forced East to fumble on the Thunderbirds next possession and Huskies junior linebacker Lucas White recovered. Juneau would work into the East 20 yard line but two incomplete passes stalled the drive and the Huskies missed a field goal.
East took possession from their own 20 yard line with 5:38 seconds left in the half and two first down passes from Johnson to senior Damarion Delaney, a keeper by Johnson, and two runs by senior Calvin Aioso and Market Henrys put the Thunderbirds at the Juneau 20. Johnson ran to the four yard line and Pa’u ran his second touchdown over for a 14-7 lead. Aioso ran a two-point conversion in for 16.
East had first possession of the second half and ran the ball behind their large line until Johnson kept it himself across the goal line for a 22-7 lead and then passed to Henry for the two-point conversion and a 24-7 advantage.
“They had a good power run game,” Sjoroos said. “It’s been there all year and they definitely leaned on that. It showed that they had a ton of respect for our pass defense. They really didn’t go to the air very often and didn’t have a ton of success there. They have a big line and they leaned on us, they got their backs going in stretches of the game. Credit to them. They used their size to their advantage.”
Chambers moved the Huskies on the ensuing possession. A pass to Harris, runs by Williams and Soto and a pass to Connally moved the ball but the East defense stiffened again and Adams would be called on to strike a 42 yard field goal to trail 24-10.
East’s Pa’u recovered Juneau’s ensuing onside kick with four minutes left in the third quarter. Johnson used a misdirection play, handing off to Delaney who passed to senior Hasani Zimmerman for a first down. Runs by sophomore Austin Johnson, Sou and Montenegro led to Johnson keeping the ball for his second scamper over the goal line in the quarter and a 30-10 lead. East’s two-point pass conversion was shut down.
Juneau’s next possession went into the top of the fourth quarter but stalled on a fourth-and-20 play.
East did ran one play less on their possession and were stopped on fourth-and-four, giving Juneau the ball on their own 47 yard line with nine minutes to play.
Harris caught a pass and Soto weaved his way through the East line on four consecutive carries. Williams and Soto inched the ball down to the 10 yard line, Chambers edged it closer, and Williams carried it in for a touchdown and Adams kicked the extra point.
Trailing 30-17 with five minutes remaining there still remained a glimmer in the night air that the Huskies could find a path.
Juneau struck an onside kick but it was smothered by East. Even with two penalties and facing first-and-30 the Thunderbirds moved forward. Montenegro ran and Johnson passed short and a Juneau penalty kept the ball in East’s hands.
“I feel for the kids,” Sjoroos said after the game. “I’ve been here some times before. I’ve been on teams that have won and been on teams that haven’t won and I just know that everything they are feeling right now is totally natural. And I just feel for them because it takes time to get through those emotions and to be able to reflect. And I can’t rush that for them. I just need them to kind of go through that, experience it. Nobody ever wants to feel that but, like I just told them, ‘it’s all natural, just get through it, you guys are an awesome family.’ I love them to death. I just can’t say enough good things about the way they played this year and prepared. All the adjectives you want to use for a football team, all the good ones anyways, this group was full of them. We knew it was going to be a challenge. East is a good football team. They don’t lose very often. And to be able to get them earlier this year showed us some things that worked well, but at the same time it gave them some things to correct and they did a good job tonight. They took away some things that were there the first time around, especially offensively. We had to dig deep into the play book and just weren’t able to get enough points on the board to beat them.”
After the clock hit zero, after handshakes between victors and vanquished, after trophies and awards were given, and with the East Anchorage crowd and the Thunderbirds team still celebrating across the field, Chambers called the Huskies into a huddle together.
“We’ve got heart!” Chambers yelled to them. “Look at what we did! Look at how far we came! We play hard, that’s what we do. Let’s go out in life, seniors, let’s work hard, let’s love each other, we’re family, let’s keep going all right? And you juniors, sophomores and freshmen let’s keep it going for the program.”
Then Chambers said, “Bring it in. Family on three, family on me. One, two …”
And on the count of three they yelled, “Family!”
SCORE BY QUARTER
Juneau 0 - 7 - 3 - 7 = 17
East 8 - 8 - 14 - 0 = 30
HOW THEY SCORED
2:37 - Thunderbirds - Pa’u 1-yard run. Pa’u 2-pt conversion. 8-0.
9:31 - Huskies - Chambers 36-yard pass to Connally. Adams PAT. 7-8.
1:24 - Thunderbirds - Pa’u 1-yard run. Aioso 2-pt conversion. 16-7.
7:52 - Thunderbirds - Johnson 16-yard run. Johnson pass to Henry 2-pt conversion. 24-7.
4:03 - Huskies - Adams 42-yard FG. 10-24. 10-24.
0:27 - Thunderbirds - Johnson 1-yard run. 2-pt conversion fails. 30-10.
5:02 - Huskies - Connally 10-yard pass to Williams. Adams PAT. 17-30.
“We knew coming up here, we talk about it all year, making that journey a team has got to find a way to win on the road,” Sjoroos said. “We knew from day one that the state title couldn’t be won in Juneau and the kids did everything you could ask for. The coaches, everybody, just did a tremendous job to prepare for this game. It was a hard fought game. Lot’s of turning points in that game. Credit to East, they found some things that worked for them, made some adjustments from the first time we played, and played better defensively and kept us out of the end zone a few times. We just didn’t get some momentum going early and hats off to them. They deserve the title. They played better tonight, but I like the state of our program. I like where we are heading. I like the fight in these kids and the program and the coaches and our community. We will do everything we can do to keep building this program and get back to this stage again.”