This time, the West High football team didn't crumble.
Instead, the Eagles conquered.
A year after it rolled through the regular season undefeated and promptly withered under its first contact with playoff pressure, undefeated West faced the same possibility in the postseason Friday night, but endured and advanced.
The Eagles used a timely, and deadly, fourth-quarter fake punt to keep alive a drive that ended with their backup quarterback zipping the game-winning touchdown pass in a 20-12 victory over persistent West Valley of Fairbanks.
The top-ranked Eagles face the winner of tonight's game between Chugiak and Juneau in next week's semifinals.
The victory at Anchorage Football Stadium in the opening round of the state large schools playoffs helped West (9-0) push aside the horror of 2009. Last year, North Pole smacked West early on in the quarterfinals, and the Eagles basically turtled.
Friday, though, West's veterans earned themselves redemption on a night when they fell behind 12-7 and were pressed time and again by the Wolfpack (4-5).
"This was a very, very big deal,'' said West receiver Will Sharp, who caught one touchdown and executed the 32-yard run on the fake punt that helped seal victory. "We overcame, basically.
"I think we all, as a team, think of it as a big family thing. We really eat up that family thing. If you're family, you stick together. In the locker room at halftime, we talked about believing in each other.''
West led 13-12 with 7:50 left in the game when it faced fourth-and-10 from the West Valley 46. Wesley Tulimasaelii lined up to punt and Sharp positioned himself in the backfield as the up-back. Sharp took the direct snap and bolted to West Valley's 14 for a first down, as well as precious momentum and field position.
Senior quarterback Brady Grisham, who replaced sophomore standout Conor Feckley because West coach Tim Davis thought Feckley might have a concussion and wanted to be cautious, ran a bootleg for a 5-yard gain. Grisham then hit Marcel Dion with a laser for a 9-yard touchdown with 6:35 left and Tom Troxel's extra-point furnished West a 20-12 lead.
Davis said he and his staff considered running a fake punt earlier but decided to hold off. Sharp's fake punt, he said, was prompted by field position and how much time was left in the game. Also, Tulimasaelii's punting had been poor to that point.
All Sharp knew was that when he received the snap, he saw plenty of room to roam on the artificial turf.
"I saw a good block and a bunch of green,'' Sharp said. "When you see a bunch of green, you have to take it.''
Davis said Sharp's burst "sparked a sputtering offense.''
Grisham -- that's "Tom" Brady Grisham, said West linebacker Jacob Eisses -- only became eligible halfway through the regular season because he missed practice time early while on a family vacation. Still, he said, he felt he could contribute Friday.
"I know the team believes in me -- they've told me before,'' Grisham said. "And coach Davis prepares me really well.''
No one was happier about Grisham's success than Feckley, who completed 17 of 32 passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns but also threw an interception Joe Nottie returned 16 yards for a first-quarter touchdown.
"I felt terrible about coming out of the game, miserable,'' said Feckley, who said he felt decent after the game. "Watching Brady jump, throw, hurdle -- he did what he had to do. That was really, really cool.''
West Valley suffered its own quarterback quandary. Sophomore Tucker Plass was excellent early. His 63-yard strike to Will Vealy furnished a 12-7 lead halfway through the first quarter. He completed 5 of 9 passes for 101 yards before a bum ankle suffered midway through the second quarter forced him out for most of the remainder of the game.
"It took us out of our rhythm,'' said West Valley coach Daniel Esparza. "We were throwing the ball on them. He commands our offense.''
Nottie's interception return and Plass' bomb to Vealy offset Feckley's 12-yard touchdown pass to Sharp on the opening drive of the game. Feckley hit J'Vonte Buster with a 16-yard touchdown late in the first half to give West a 13-12 lead. Buster caught eight passes for 73 yards, and Sharp latched onto four for 79 yards.
West's defense held West Valley to less than 20 yards total offense in the second half. Just two plays after Grisham's game-winning touchdown pass, Dahmir Bell intercepted a Larenzo Graham pass. West Valley's desperation fake punt from deep in its own territory with a couple minutes to go came up well short.
Still, the Wolfpack put a scare into the Eagles, and Davis agreed losing Plass damaged West Valley's chances. Esparza was justifiably proud of his team.
"We made every play to win it and just enough plays to lose it,'' he said. "I'm proud of our kids for coming down 400 miles to play the best team in the state and standing in the middle of the ring and going toe-to-toe with them.''
And West was happy to put the past -- last year's playoff collapse -- behind it.
"That was last year,'' Davis said. "Now, we're our own team.''
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
ASAA/First National Bank Alaska
State Football Championships
West Valley 12 0 0 0 -- 12
West 7 6 0 7 -- 20
West -- Sharp 12 pass from Feckley (Troxel kick), 9:49.
West Valley -- Nottie 16 interception return (kick failed), 7:24.
West Valley -- Vealy 63 pass from Plass (run failed), 5:37.
West -- Buster 16 pass from Feckley (kick failed), 2:42.
West -- Dion 9 pass from Grisham (Troxel kick), 6:35.
West Valley West
First downs 8 13
Rushes-yards 43-57 27-89
Passing yards 103 217
Return yards 71 33
Passes 6-14-1 18-35-1
Punts 2-28.5 5-23.0
Fumbles-lost 0-0 2-1
Penalties-yards 6-68 7-75
RUSHING -- West Valley: Vealy 15-44, Comeau 11-31, Anderson 3-9, Graham 11-3, Davis 2-(-6), Plass 3-(-24). West: Holtman 12-41, sharp 1-32, Grisham 6-11, Feckley 8-4, L. Tulimasaelii 1-1.
PASSING -- West Valley: Plass 5-9-1--101, Graham 1-5-0--2. West: Feckley 17-32-1--208, Grisham 1-3-0--9.
RECEIVING -- West Valley: Vealy 5-88, Graham 1-15. West: Buster 8-73, Sharp 4-79, Bell 3-37, Dion 2-21, Grisham 1-1.