When South High senior Michael Wilson was a sophomore, he kept noticing an impressive group of freshman football players on a nearby practice field and began to look forward to a day he could join forces with them.
"They had class," Wilson said. "They weren't a bunch of knuckleheads running around."
Tommy Hopp was part of that freshman class. Now he's a junior on a South team preparing to challenge Service in today's First National Bowl large-school state championship game at Tom Huffer Sr. Stadium.
Hopp plays running back, safety and linebacker for the Wolverines, often lining up alongside Wilson, who plays running back and cornerback.
South missed the playoffs last season, but hold an 8-2 record this season. A big reason for the turnaround is the way the juniors and seniors have worked together.
"It's been different than any other year," Hopp said. "We're one class this year."
South doesn't have standing team captains, Hopp said. Instead, the coaches select weekly captains based on how well players practice. It's part of a team-first philosophy that also teaches players numerous positions.
"You do your job, and we trust our brothers to do theirs," Hopp said. "We could hand (the ball) off to any player and it should work."
South coach John Lewis said years of coaching taught him the dangers of restricting players to one position. If a top player gets hurt, there is nobody there to back him up.
South uses between six and 10 ballcarriers in each game, but Wilson usually shoulders the biggest offensive load. His 618 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns lead the team. Hopp is second with 391 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
Hopp's best performance of the season came against Eagle River in Week 8, when he rushed for 71 yards and a touchdown on eight carries.
Wilson saved his best performance for last weekend's semifinal game against defending state champion West. He blazed for several big runs on his way to 137 yards and three touchdowns on 14 carries, a performance fueled by a little extra motivation.
"I just realize this is my last year I could ever play football," Wilson said. "I didn't want to have any regrets."
Strong defense has been the Wolverines' signature in recent weeks. They blocked a field-goal attempt in the waning seconds to preserve a 30-28 win over West last week and they recorded shutouts of Eagle River and West Valley leading up to that game.
Wilson said the Wolverines have figured out what they did wrong in a 48-13 loss to Service (9-0-1) early in the season and expect a better showing today.
"We're looking at it like we don't have nothing to lose," he said. "We're focusing on coming out strong."
Though Wilson's strength appears to be his offensive contributions, he prefers his defensive duties. Playing cornerback comes with a ton of responsibility, and Wilson said he takes pride in meeting the challenge.
"I don't think I've ever seen Michael get beat deep," Hopp said.
Still, Hopp can't help but marvel at Wilson's offensive talents. In last weekend's game against West, there were several times when Wilson made something out of nothing, providing big runs when the team needed them most, Hopp said.
While Wilson provides flash and speed, Hopp often makes the tough runs between the tackles and throws blocks for Wilson.
"I know if I'm running behind him, he's going to make a good hole for me," Wilson said. "He's just a good player. His next year should be a good year."
The Wolverines aren't looking past this weekend, however, putting all their energy into beating Service. Tuesday's practice started with film study at 3 p.m. and ended with outdoor scrimmaging until sunset at 7 p.m. Hopp and Wilson said the long hours are nothing out of the ordinary, just part of what it takes to be the best.
"We realize when we play our best, we are better than anyone," Hopp said.
Reach Jeremy Peters at email@example.com or 257-4335.
Service (9-0-1) vs. South (8-2)
LAST MEETING: Service won 48-13 on September 16.
PAST CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES: Service owns five state titles, the most recent coming in 2008, when it beat Juneau 22-14. The Cougars were runners-up to West last season. South has appeared in one title game, winning 26-16 over Colony in 2006.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Service -- Amu Aukusitino is the second-leading passer in the Cook Inlet Conference with 2,292 yards and the third-leading rusher with 770 yards. His top receiver is Alan Busey, who leads the CIC with 64 catches and 1,040 yards. South -- Michael Wilson is the team's leading rusher with 618 yards. Quarterback Zach Lujan is third in the CIC with 1,086 passing yards.
GAME NOTES: Service and South both played one game outside of Alaska this season, and both teams credit the experience for making them stronger. The Cougars opened their season with a game against Leilehua High in Hawaii. Service led most of the game before Leilehua rallied for a 34-34 tie. Like service, Leilehua (7-0-1) remains undefeated, so for the Cougars to play well against a good team was a huge confidence booster, coach Jason Caldarera said. "Getting that game against Hawaii set the tone for the whole season," he said. South's trip to California didn't happen until midseason, but a 65-40 loss to placer high (now 6-1) was an eye-opener for the wolverines. "They had two D-I running backs," South junior Tommy Hopp said. "We were amazed by their speed." South coach John Lewis said his team turned up the intensity since the game against placer, and he's excited to see how well the Wolverines play against the Cougars today. "I want to see what happens if we go toe-to-toe, athlete-to-athlete against them," he said.
-- Jeremy Peters