With only 22 players, a quarterback nursing a broken back, the loss of an all-state linebacker, new coaches, no JV team, new wrinkles to the offense and a junior class that makes up two-thirds of the squad, uncertainty reigns for this year’s Juneau-Douglas High School football team.
But uncertainty is the flip side of opportunity, and as the coin spins before Saturday’s opener against Thunder Mountain High School, the Crimson Bears feel good about their chances.
“I think there are positives about it (the uncertainty). We’re looking forward to a challenging season but everyone is willing to put in the effort necessary to put our best foot forward,” JDHS coach Kevin Hamrick said during practice last week.
JDHS went 5-3 overall last year and 1-2 in the Southeast Conference. The Crimson Bears were held out of the medium school state playoffs by a Glacier Bowl loss to TMHS, a 48-0 defeat that marked their first-ever loss to the Falcons and held them out of postseason play for the first time since 2002.
After that loss, the hunter has become the hunted, with the road to the state playoffs likely going through Thunder Mountain.
Bolstering the Crimson Bears’ lean 22-man roster (Hamrick still expects a few more players to suit up) is a class of 15 juniors, many of whom had varsity experience last year. Hamrick said the group is experienced and tight-knit.
“This junior class is great,” Hamrick said. “We don’t have the senior leadership that we had last year, but these juniors are stepping up and they’ll have two years to be seniors.”
Due to lack of numbers and budget, JDHS is without a JV team for the second year in a row.
Swift and deep at skill positions, and with the return of junior quarterback Bubba Stults, the Crimson Bears should score in bunches if their offensive line can stay healthy.
“We have a lot of speed and we have a good line but we don’t have a lot of depth at line,” Hamrick said. “We have good depth at our speed positions.”
After graduating all-conference tight end Hunter Hickok (86 catches, 1,247 all purpose yards, 9 touchdowns) the offense will work without the security blanket he provided. Stults, last year’s SEC all-conference quarterback, has earned Hamrick’s trust and said this year “everybody is a target” as he plans to wheel and deal in the Crimson Bears’ pass-happy offense.
“Last year was my first time as varsity quarterback, so it was just ‘give it to the big guy (Hickok) and let him do what he does,’” Stults said. “I am more experienced now with the help of the coaching staff so I think they’re going to trust me to throw the ball a lot.”
Stults — who suited up this year despite suffering a broken back in last season’s Glacier Bowl — has been cleared by doctors and looks nimble in practice. He still feels a little discomfort with his back sometimes but with his rigorous offseason therapy he is hopeful the injury won’t be an issue.
JDHS is getting practice reps to several other options in case Stults is sidelined, with junior Liam Van Sickle and sophomore John Hamrick taking snaps as backups.
The Crimson Bears filled several new coaching positions this year, including hiring a new offensive coordinator, Rory Niere. Niere and the coaching staff are installing a new offense that should help the Crimson Bears cut down on mistakes and strengthen their running game.
“It’s not a total change, but we added a more refined running game to balance our offense. We’re trying to get a good running game going to support our already advanced passing game,” Hamrick said. “We’re trying to reduce some of the information the QB and other players have to deal with. … Last year we had too many reads for a high school team.”
Being competitive means eliminating mistakes, according to Hamrick’s philosophy. The new offense, while allowing more balance between the running and passing game, will also cut down on the reads, or decisions, offensive players will have to make on a given play. JDHS’ short roster necessitates players learn multiple positions. The simpler, more balanced offense is intended to facilitate that.
With the new offense, JDHS will take advantage of their backfield’s speed. Running backs Van Sickle, Donavin McCurley and Lance Galletes-Fiagatusa will look to keep defenses honest with a combination of speed and power.
“Oh, it’s good,” Stults said of the running game. “We have a lot of quick people. Liam is quick and we have Donavin (McCurley) too, he’s quick and small and nobody can tackle him.”
Van Sickle and McCurley are two of the fastest players on the team. Galletes-Fiagatusa is one of the team’s hardest hitters.
“Lance is just as fast as anybody else; he’s a manimal and he’s fit to truck somebody,” Elisoff said.
If Hickok’s graduation left a hole in JDHS’ offense, it created a cavern on defense. The all-state linebacker and two-time SEC defensive player of the year averaged 12 tackles per game last year, something Hamrick said they simply can’t account for.
“You can’t replace him altogether, maybe two guys can replace him,” Hamrick said. JDHS will look to Nathan Van Sickle for leadership in the box. “Nathan Van Sickle is a good inside linebacker for me. Hunter (Hickok) was such a unique combination of size and speed but I think Nathan (Van Sickle) could get there when he’s a senior.”
Hamrick is also experimenting with defensive lineman John Elisoff in the linebacker position.
JDHS defense is simple and relies on speed and positioning rather than size. Sometimes the Crimson Bears run four man fronts, sometimes five, but in any case Hamrick likes to keep as much speed on the field as possible, which often means relying on undersized tacklers. To compensate, the coaching staff teaches an “alligator” tackling technique which allows his smaller, faster players to take down big opponents and avoid leading with their heads.
“You lead with your shoulder and twist, which gives the smaller guys leverage if they hit low,” Hamrick said. “With all the new rule changes telling us you can’t lead with your head, high school referees are getting coached up and called on it.”
With such small numbers, the main concern for JDHS on either side of the ball is staying healthy, which means they’re doing less full-contact work in practice and more conditioning.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s offense or defense, with these numbers, for us it’s about staying healthy,” Hamrick said. “We have a great first squad and if we can stay healthy we’ll be successful.”
2016 JDHS football schedule:
Aug. 13, JDHS vs. TMHS
Aug. 20, JDHS vs. Kodiak
Aug. 27, JDHS at Ketchikan
Sept. 3, JDHS at Homer
Sept. 10, JDHS vs. California
Sept. 17, JDHS vs. Ketchikan
Sept. 24, JDHS at North Pole
Sept. 30, JDHS at TMHS
Two teams from the Southeast Conference (TMHS, JDHS, Ketchikan and North Pole) will make it to the state medium school playoffs to face two teams from the Northern Lights Conference (Soldatna, Kenai, Palmer, Kodiak and Eagle River). Seeding is based on conference records.
2016 JDHS football roster:
(Positions weren’t available at press time)
John Williams SR
Luis Lozada SR
Donavin McCurley JR
Liam Van Sickle JR
Jonathan-Che “Bubba” Stults JR
Devin Stevenson JR
Lance Galletes-Fiagatusa JR
Koen Schultz JR
Max Wheat JR
Cody Galletes JR
Tyler Collins JR
Elliott Gifford JR
Nathan Van Sickle JR
Derrick Roberts JR
Dylan Vernon JR
Dominic Watt JR
John Elisoff JR
John Hamrick SO
Cristian Batac SO
Tristan Bryant SO
Luis Mojica FR
Kasey Hamrick FR
Head coach: Kevin Hamrick
Position coaches and coordinators:
Rory Neire, Sam Dalin, Vincent Yadao, Mike Behrends, Dave D’Amore and Ryan Van Sickle
Manager: David Timothy
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