Members of the Juneau Huskies practice on Tuesday. After COVID-19 forced the cancelation of the 2020 high school football season, the Juneau Huskies are eager to take the field for the season opener against Colony High School. The varsity and JV squad will both play Saturday, August 14 on the field at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park. (Ben Hohenstatt/Juneau Empire)

Huskies football returns —after nearly 700 days between games

The Juneau high school football team prepares to take the field.

When the Juneau Huskies take the field to face off against the Colony High School Knights on Saturday, 674 days will have passed since the team’s last game.

Coach Rich Sjoroos isn’t worried about the time gap.

“We have a good solid group of seniors that have played together back into the youth league, and they are backfilled by some really good juniors who are backed by underclassmen, Sjoroos said in a phone interview Wednesday. “A lot of the seniors were in the varsity program two years ago when we won the title.”

The Huskies clinched the Chugach Conference title at the end of the 2019 season with a lopsided 67-24 win over Bartlett High School. At the time, Sjoroos sounded an optimistic note for the team’s future and said he was looking forward to the 2020 season.

COVID-19 had other plans. The 2020 season was canceled.

“Last year, we practiced over 100 days and didn’t plan any games,” Sjoroos said.

The return to the field has the team experiencing all the feelings.

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“It’s a wide range of emotions. A little anxiety. The kids are excited to play a game. It’s been a long time,” Sjoroos said.

The team has made good use of their time off from games.

“We’ve focused on the fundamentals. We got back to basics and that has carried over to this year. As a whole, we are better blockers and catchers. The kids have enhanced all their skills,” he said.

Sjoroos said the team members are “in better shape than any team I’ve ever been a part of” and benefited from attending a camp in Oregon in July.

“That was great,” he said of the camp. “It felt like we were playing some real football.”

Juneau Huskies quarterback Noah Chambers practices on Tuesday ahead of the 2021 season. (Ben Hohenstatt/Juneau Empire)

Looking forward

Sjoroos said the team is stacked with talent and that he has high hopes for the season. Coaches plan to run the same system they’ve used in the past with no significant changes, just minor tweaks based on the skill sets available on the team, he said.

“We are balanced on both sides of the ball and tackle well,” he said. “We have the potential to be one of the best teams we’ve had.”

Despite the year off of play, the team still has an experienced quarterback in senior Noah Chambers, a starter as a sophomore in 2019.

Sjoroos said he’s looking for big things from junior Sam Sika, who plays both fullback and on the defensive line.

“It’s not a typical combination but Sam is speed and power coming together,” he said. “He’s got a high ceiling.”

In addition, Sjoroos said that senior Wallace Adams is “the best kicker in the state.”

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The competition

The Huskies schedule will look a little different this year, as the team rejoins the Cook Inlet Conference based on a recent reshuffling by the Alaska School Activities Association. The Huskies last participated in the conference in 2004.

According to Alaska’s News Source, the conference “will be the lone Division I conference with eight teams, with every team qualifying for the single-elimination state tournament.”

“This is going to be great as this is the top conference and top division,” Sjoroos said.

Sjoroos said he expects perennial powerhouses West Anchorage and East Anchorage to be in the mix for the championship this year.

“Those teams have large turnouts with 100-plus kids and a veteran coaching staff, which is important,” he said. Other teams in the conference are “wild cards,” Sjoroos added.

Ben Hohenstatt/Juneau Empire 
Hunter Derr, who plays for the Juneau Huskies, secures a pass from quarterback Noah Chambers, during a Tuesday evening practice outside Thunder Mountain High School.

Ben Hohenstatt/Juneau Empire Hunter Derr, who plays for the Juneau Huskies, secures a pass from quarterback Noah Chambers, during a Tuesday evening practice outside Thunder Mountain High School.

COVID mitigations

As the teams retake the field, precautions are in place to keep players healthy. Games will take place on Saturdays, so teams can fly in and out on game day and avoid overnight trips. Additionally, the teams will avoid restaurants by bringing food to the field.

“People are getting creative,” Sjoroos said, adding that barbecue grills will likely make appearances for traveling teams.

“The piece that you miss is that bonding part. Every time we’d go on a road game it’s an adventure. It’s the relationships that you build that last for years. That part has been challenged,” he said, reflecting on the changes.

Know & Go:

What: Juneau Huskies home football opener.

When: Varsity plays at 3 p.m., junior varsity at noon.

Where: Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park, next to Floyd Dryden Middle School

• Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at dana.zigmund@juneuempire.com or 907-308-4891.

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