It was a day of huge plays for the Juneau Huskies. Just not quite enough of them.
The Huskies were defeated 40-33 by the Dimond High School Lynx on Saturday at Adair-Kennedy Field in a game featuring huge momentum swings toward each team before a close battle in the final minutes. After Juneau fell behind 24-7 in the first half to a Dimond team able to sustain drives that capitalized on Juneau’s mistakes, the Huskies stormed back in the second half to take a 33-32 lead early in the fourth quarter with long scoring plays that took advantage of errors by the visiting team.
Jayden Johnson, a junior wide receiver who took numerous snaps at running back, set the big-play pace for Juneau with 286 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns — including runs of 91 and 51 yards, and a 73-yard catch. Dimond’s sophomore quarterback Cayden Pili — considered one of the state’s rising stars, with a family of talent that includes a brother currently in an NFL training camp — tallied 316 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns.
Johnson, who also caused and recovered a fumble on defense in the second quarter, said after the game the team’s overall effort was notably better than a week ago when a 6-6 halftime tie at home against East Anchorage ended in a 21-6 defeat.
“It’s a big difference I’d say right now,” he said. “We tackled better, we swarmed to the ball better, just an overall good game. We got good calls on offense.”
Juneau head coach Rich Sjoroos acknowledged after the game Dimond had a size advantage that helped allow the team to sustain drives against the Huskies, but said the main reason Juneau fell behind in the first half was “just uncharacteristic mental errors.”
“I said ‘Guys, we’ve just we got to stop that. If we can’t just literally line up in the right spot and snap the ball, and just give ourselves a chance to move forward, we’re not going to be in any ballgame, let alone today,’” he said. “And so in the second half we had zero turnovers, we had no false starts. The second half was much cleaner offensively and that got the crowd back into it, making some of those big plays and things like that.”
Both Dimond and Juneau offered a glimpse of the offensive showcase to come on their opening drives.
Dimond marched steadily and quickly down the field after the opening kickoff, scoring a touchdown and two-point conversion to take an 8-0 lead within the first two minutes of the game. The Huskies, after their first two plays left them facing a third-and-8 on their own side of the field, scored on a 51-yard touchdown run by Johnson down the visitors’ sideline and kicked the extra point to make the score 8-7.
“I saw open field and just turned the burners on,” he said.
Johnson forced the fumble and recovery on Dimond’s subsequent possession, which led to a scoreless back-and-forth skirmish with multiple turnovers that lasted until halfway through the second quarter.
The momentum began to swing in Dimond’s favor when Juneau, after gaining 19 yards on a pass to Johnson from sophomore quarterback Noah Ault on a third-and-20, fumbled on a fourth-and-1 attempt deep in visitor territory with about 10 minutes left in the second quarter. Dimond marched down the field in about four minutes, with Pili scoring on a quarterback keeper and a two-point conversion to put his team in the lead 16-7.
Dimond intercepted Ault on the subsequent Juneau possession. It took less than two minutes for Pili to run for another touchdown that, with another two-point conversion, put his team up 24-7 with 3:26 remaining in the half.
Juneau had a chance to narrow the gap before halftime when, after their next drive stalled, Dimond fumbled the punt on fourth down and the Huskies recovered. But they were unable to capitalize, punting with seconds remaining in the quarter and then sacking Pili to end the half.
The Huskies got the ball to start the third quarter and, much like their opening drive of the game, struck quickly on a 71-yard touchdown pass from Ault to senior wide receiver Kenyon Jordan, who broke away from a defender at the 10-yard-line to narrow the gap to 24-14. But Dimond’s Pili, facing a fourth-and-8 at the Juneau 30-yard line with 6:12 left in the third quarter, connected on a 27-yard pass. Dimond scored a touchdown on the next play and a two-point pass conversion by Pili made the score 32-14 exactly halfway through the third quarter.
Juneau’s breakthrough came four minutes later, after fumbles by both teams.
An interception by the Huskies’ Anthony Garcia in Dimond territory with less than two minutes left in the third quarter was followed by a 73-yard Ault-to-Johnson pass with just over one minute left in the third quarter, making the score 32-20. A halfback toss by Dimond on the first play of its next possession was intercepted — and on the next Juneau play another Ault-to-Johnson touchdown pass of 13 yards narrowed the score to 32-27 with 43 seconds left in the quarter.
Dimond was forced to punt on its next possession, with Juneau taking over on its own nine-yard line after a penalty. The result was another one-play scoring drive as Johnson scored on his second long sideline sweep — this time a 91-yard dash virtually untouched in front of his teammates.
“I saw open field and I just started running again,” he said. “Good blocks, good call.”
A two-point conversion was no good, but Juneau was in the lead 33-32 after scoring three touchdowns in about four minutes of game time.
The momentum streak seemed to be continuing as Juneau recovered the ensuing squib kickoff in Dimond territory. But the Huskies were unable to pad their lead as Ault missed a throw to an open Eric Tipton inside the 10-yard line on fourth down to end the drive.
Dimond took advantage with another sustained drive, including a 20-yard pass competition on a third-and-10 at the Juneau 35, to score the winning touchdown with 3:48 remaining.
The Huskies returned the kickoff to the 50-yard line. But a penalty moved them back 10 yards and Juneau, facing a fourth-and-9 on the Dimond 49 with 2:24 to go, was unable to gain any yardage. Dimond ran for 16 yards on the first play afterward, allowing them to then run out the clock.
Sjoroos said the size issue with the Huskies, which has a younger team than the one that reached the state title game last year, is likely to be a challenge all season.
“We’re used to it, it’s not anything that fazes us,” he said. “We just have to dig a little deeper, and keep finding guys and put them in the right spots.”
Against Dimond that meant taking advantage of the visiting team when it crowded up close to the line of scrimmage trying to stop Juneau’s running game, Sjoroos said.
“A lot of times we have a really powerful run game and so teams are really loading the box trying to negate that — and they did, they really shut down our running game,” he said. “But you can’t take away everything, you’ve still only got 11 guys out there. And so we were able to get some guys behind their group and we’ve got some speed.”
After opening with two games at homes, Juneau’s next three games are on the road, including a trip to Auburn, Washington, for a Friday night game Sept. 7. The team is still developing, Sjoroos said, so he expects the improvements he saw this week compared to last week will continue toward the midseason form he’s accustomed to seeing.
“This group’s just going to take a little longer to get there, but we will and we have a good ceiling,” he said.
Juneau Huskies 2023 schedule
(Note: all times are varsity games; junior varsity games start three hours earlier)
Aug. 26: @Bartlett, 2 p.m.
Sept. 2: @Service, 2 p.m.
Sept. 8: @Auburn (Washington), 7 p.m.
Sept. 15: Colony, 7 p.m.
Sept. 23: @West Anchorage, 2 p.m.
Sept. 30: South Anchorage, 3 p.m.