This story has been updated with additional details and to correct the final score.
For an early moment the lowest-ranked Juneau Huskies took the lead against the top-ranked Anchorage West Eagles in the opening round of the state high school playoffs — and anything seemed possible.
But the Huskies’ season came to an end on Friday night with a 48-7 loss, despite battling Anchorage to a draw during the first half — except for three key plays that all resulted in long returns for touchdowns for the Eagles.
The third and crushing blow came with time running out in the half when Juneau, down 21-7 with a first-and-goal from the Anchorage 5-yard line, fumbled and the Eagles returned it for a touchdown to make the score 27-7 at halftime.
The Huskies finished the season 1-8 and 0-8 in the eight-team conference, the first losing season in coach Rich Sjoroos’ 30-year career. Most of their losses were by lopsided margins, including losing to Anchorage West 59-21 two weeks ago after falling behind 52-0 at halftime.
But on Friday night the Huskies came out showing a lot more fight and creativity in calling plays after Anchorage took a 6-0 lead on its opening drive.
“I thought the energy was as high as it’s been all year,” Sjoroos said in an interview after the game. “I thought our defense played lights out throughout the game making big stops and forcing them to punt. I felt like West even went for it sometimes when maybe they wouldn’t otherwise, just because the score wasn’t what they were looking for and they kind of expected maybe a knockout blow in the first quarter.”
Sjoroos put juniors Jayden Johnson and Hayden Aube — the two biggest offensive playmakers of the season — in the backfield where they alternated signal calling at quarterback and taking direct snaps at running back. A few series into the game the Huskies opened up the passing offense with Aube throwing long and often, primarily for Johnson.
The two connected and Juneau took a 7-6 lead early in the second quarter on what the hometown stadium announcer called a “great pass” by Aube on a fourth-and-5 from the Anchorage 30-yard line.
“We were just trying to pick and choose, and then trying to get the ball in Jayden’s hands because he’s such an explosive player and talent on the outside,” Sjoroos said. “He had the big touchdown for us there to get us on the board in second quarter and then he drew some pass interference penalties because he had such a hard guy to cover.”
But then came the ensuing kickoff, with Anchorage returning it nearly the entire length of the field to reclaim the lead 14-7 with a two-point conversion. They would extend their lead to 21-7 with another special team score by returning a punt for a touchdown midway through the quarter.
But unlike many games this season where the Huskies let things get out of hand, they fought back and took advantage of mistakes by Anchorage in the process. Near the end of the first half a personal foul penalty gave Juneau the ball deep in Anchorage territory and then an encroachment penalty on a fourth down field goal try gave the Huskies a first-and-goal at the 5-yard line.
But Aube fumbled the shotgun snap on first down and, after recovering the ball and scrambling backward trying to avoid defenders, fumbled the ball again leading to Anchorage returning it for a touchdown to take a 27-7 lead rather than Juneau potentially closing the gap to one score.
“We were out of timeouts so we went through the scenarios of, you know, don’t take a sack (and) throw it away if it’s not there,” Sjoroos said, “Unfortunately there was a bobbled snap in the backfield, and his instincts were to take off and run trying to make a play, and then it just went from bad to worse. That was probably the worst possible way to end that half as far as momentum and so, yeah, it’s tough to bounce back from that.”
Juneau got the ball to start the second half, but was forced to punt and Anchorage scored again midway through the third quarter to make it a 34-7 game. One more touchdown in the third quarter and another in the fourth gave the Eagles their opening playoff win.
But Sjoroos, who ended last year’s season with a one-touchdown loss in the state title game, said the final score of Friday’s game didn’t reflect the hard-fought battle that occurred during much of the contest and this season ended on a positive note despite the loss.
“Overall I’m just super happy you got a lot of these kids coming back,” he said. “And my thought is some kids played above themselves today and played at a level that we hadn’t seen this year, and it just looks very promising for next year. In fact, I know it is. I have always been kind of a straight shooter as a coach and I really believe this team will be right back up near the top of the state next year, especially if they can put in the work in the offseason that I think they’re motivated to do so.”
• Contact Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com or (907) 957-2306.
(courtesy Alaska Sports Report)
Juneau 0 7 0 0 – 7
AnchorageWest 6 21 14 7 – 48
West – Iloilo 1 run (kick blocked)
Juneau – Johnson 29 pass from Aube (Menz kick)
West – Alexander 92 kickoff return (Faletio run)
West – Bautista 71 punt return (Crowley kick)
West – Muasau 76 fumble return (kick missed)
West – Hampton 25 pass from Atonio (Crowley kick)
West – Atonio 14 run (Crowley kick)
West – Tanoa 26 pass from Atonio (Crowley kick)
Total team yards
Anchorage West 301
Individual stats (Juneau)
Aube 35 passing
**Johnson blocked a PAT and drew two pass interference calls
Individual stats (Anchorage West)
RB Davis Iloilo 18-113 yards
QB Azariah Atonio 136 passing