Thunder Mountain High School athletic director Jake Jacoby kept a running tally in his mind of the number of football players streaming out the west side of the school. It was a sunny afternoon in late July and the beginning of the third official practice of the Juneau unified football team, which met inside for chalk-talk before lacing up their cleats for practice.
The number of teens carrying football pads that afternoon was of interest to Jacoby — and other school administrators — because it shed light on an important matter: could the team field a junior varsity team? The JV programs at TMHS and Juneau-Douglas High School had evaporated years earlier with the shrinking rosters.
“That was a big part of why we did this combination (between TMHS and JDHS) is to provide that opportunity for young kids to get playing time instead of being thrown right into the varsity mix,” Jacoby said.
Now over a month into the season, the team has not only reestablished the JV program, but watched it flourish. The JV got its first win of the season on Saturday, defeating Lathrop 25-22 after a dramatic kick-off return in the final minute. A week earlier it gave East Anchorage all it could handle in a 30-24 loss. Now, the team will embark on its first road trip with the varsity, playing at Wasilla on Saturday afternoon. They’ll get to make another trip north at the end of the month to play Bartlett.
Juneau United head coach Randy Quinto said that even with about 50 players — a boost of about 15 from his team last year — it’s still barely enough to field two squads. Part of what’s made it work is the number of experienced freshmen on the team.
“If we could leave all those guys down there, it would be great,” Quinto said. “But because we don’t have the numbers up at the varsity level, those guys have to come up, plus they have some experience.”
Take Mathias Wiederspohn for an example. The JDHS freshman has been a varsity starter since the beginning of the season at defensive back. Wiederspohn started coming to team weight training in January, proving to Quinto by August he can hold his own.
“At one point we didn’t know if there was going to be enough players for a JV,” Wiederspohn said. “But I still wanted to come out here and learn with the varsity even if I wasn’t going to play a lot.”
Other freshmen also play up, but they’ve been most exciting to watch on the field playing JV. The Alaska School Activities Association, the state’s regulating body for high school sports, prohibits a player from playing in more than six quarters in a weekend (aside from kickers, who may play in eight quarters).
TMHS freshman Kaden Eppers has been soaking up his time with the JV program.
“Since we’re especially underdeveloped right now, I just see each week everybody gets a little better,” Eppers said, “like our O-Line gets better, and then our wide receivers, we’re all running better routes and our defense is just getting better and better.”
Juneau Youth Football League coach Chris Connally coached Widerspohn and Eppers and several others to the 13U Central championship at the National Youth Football Championships in Las Vegas last year. Connally said the players have improved just in the last year.
Connally has been to both JV games this year and has noticed the physical growth in his former players.
“When they’re growing more, they get more agile and the hand-eye-coordination comes along a lot better,” he said. “They’re able to actually now really excel in certain aspects of the game that struggled for them in JYFL.
“I’ve coached these kids all the way from third grade up but seeing that as a coach it makes you feel good that you had a hand in developing them,” he added, “and it’s great to see them go on to the high school level and succeed.”