Wednesday marked the official start of the high school football season.
Unlike the past nine seasons, players from Juneau-Douglas and Thunder Mountain High School were practicing on the same field under the same coaches. It’s been over nine months since the Juneau School District announced it would consolidate the two high school football programs. And now, players from both schools are figuring out what that looks like.
Randy Quinto, the former TMHS coach tabbed to lead the unified team (known tentatively as Juneau Football Team), said the team is already coming together. JDHS and TMHS players have been in the weight room together since January and attended the same summer football camps, he said. On top of that, many grew up together in Juneau, playing on the same youth sports teams before going to different high schools.
“There’s nothing there as far as rivalry or animosity or anything between the two programs,” Quinto said. “The kids grew up together and played together and then obviously when they split high schools, they went their separate ways. Of course, on the field, there’s rivalry, but off the field, they’re friends, and that’s what I’m seeing at practice right now. It’s basically one team, one community.”
It’s unclear just how many players from each school will make up this year’s roster. Approximately 35 players attended practice on Thursday at TMHS, many sporting a different colored jersey than the player next to them, as black and white TMHS jerseys mingled with black and white JDHS jerseys. Quinto anticipates that team will grow as the season goes on and hopes to be able to form varsity and junior varsity teams.
Max Wheat, a JDHS senior, said on Friday the team’s collective desire to win with naturally bring it closer together.
“At the end of the day, we’re all on the same page: we all want to win,” Wheat said. “No one comes on this field saying, ‘Oh, I want to lose.’”
Wheat, who started at quarterback in place of injured Bubba Stults last year, will be taking reps this year with TMHS’ Thomas Willhoite, who last played quarterback two years ago as a sophomore.
“So far the feel has been surprisingly connected, there hasn’t really been any disconnect on JD or TM,” Willhoite said. “It’s felt like a team, a group of brothers so far. I think that’s pretty awesome.”
Chad Bentz, the JDHS athletic director, said the team represents something bigger than just the combination of two high school programs.
“This isn’t two schools playing together, this is Juneau football,” Bentz said. “And I just love the fact that we’re together again. I’m very excited.”
The team will have practiced a little over two weeks when it plays its season opener on the road against Palmer (Aug. 11). It will play in its first home game two weeks later against East Anchorage High School and host Lathrop the next week. Chugiak (Sept. 14) and Colony (Sept. 21) will also be coming to town this fall.
“I’m excited to see where it’s going to go and excited to see as many JD boys here at Thunder Mountain playing for the combined team as I’m seeing walk out of the locker room,” TMHS athletic director Jake Jacoby said. “I think it’s going to be a steep (learning) curve and it might be a little rough to start and we’re going to have to iron some wrinkles out. But I think in the long term, it’s the best thing for football in Juneau.”
• Contact sports reporter Nolin Ainsworth at 523-2272 or email@example.com. Follow Empire Sports on Twitter at @akempiresports.