Every football game amounts to a playoff game for East High these days, which made the Thunderbirds' explosive start in Friday's 33-6 victory over winless Bartlett particularly stress-relieving.
East scored three touchdowns in the opening 8 minutes, 13 seconds at Anchorage Football Stadium and cruised to a Cook Inlet Conference victory that kept it in the hunt for the last of the league's four state playoff berths.
The dream sequence began with a game-opening, seven-play, 67-yard drive capped by quarterback Jesse Vanilau's 1-yard sneak for a touchdown. Bartlett countered with a strong initial drive, but a poor option pitch by quarterback Zyrelle Jones was scooped up by East's Jarred Laws, who returned it 72 yards for a touchdown.
And after a three-and-out by Bartlett on its next possession, Laws returned a punt five yards, then latched onto Vanilau's 38-yard touchdown pass on East's first snap from scrimmage.
Presto -- 19-0 Thunderbirds.
"The last few games we got off to slow starts,'' Laws said. "Bartlett can be explosive, so we wanted to get on them early.''
The victory improved East to 3-3 overall and 2-3 in the CIC. With South, Service and West all 4-0 in conference and locked into playoff spots, the final playoff spot will be earned by either East or Dimond (3-1 CIC).
East, which has regular-season games remaining against Eagle River and Chugiak, which are both winless in conference, must win out to seize the final playoff spot. If the T-birds do that, Dimond, which still faces West, Service and South, must win one of its last three games to seize the berth.
In the event East and Dimond end up with identical conference records, East owns the tie-breaker by virtue of its 21-0 win over Dimond.
Friday's win was also meaningful for the T-birds because it came in the annual showdown for the East Side Boot. That's the traveling trophy East and Bartlett have competed for the last 11 seasons to honor the memory of former all-state East defensive lineman Aanooalii "Auno'' Filoialli, who died in a car accident in the summer of 2002. East leads the series for the Boot, 8-3.
"No doubt it was a big game for us,'' Laws said of playoff implications. "It's the Boot game too. The next two games, we have to come out, play hard, and win.''
Vanilau, who ran for touchdowns on a pair of 1-yard sneaks in the first half and scrambled before finding a wide-open Laws for a 21-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, said the T-birds have greeted the stress of big games with determination and some light-heartedness.
"We just try to have fun, but at the same time execute,'' Vanilau said.
While East surrendered 278 passing yards to Bartlett sophomore quarterback Jones, it also delivered stout defense when it mattered. Twice in the first half, East snuffed Bartlett (0-6, 0-5 CIC) inside the red zone, and did it again early in the fourth quarter.
"Bend, but don't break -- again,'' said East coach Jeff Trotter. "Once the field shortened, it allowed us to do some things. The coaches put players in good position, and the players made plays.''
East's Brandon Viena and Osa Atiifale Jr., each intercepted Jones at the goal line in the fourth quarter. And linebacker Presley Piliati, who recorded one solo sack, stopped Jones for negative yardage on fourth-and-goal from the East 8 in the fourth quarter.
Even so, Jones completed 24 of 42 passes and connected with Edress Irving for a 31-yard touchdown pass with less than two minutes to play. Irving caught 10 passes for 140 yards.
But Laws and company were too much for their rivals. Laws accounted for 224 all-purpose yards -- he caught three passes for 66 yards and two touchdowns, returned that fumble 72 yards, returned an interception 73 yards and gained 13 yards on two punt returns.
The T-birds also rushed for 200 yards. Jakeil Bell covered 56 yards on four carries, Atiifale gained 51 yards on six carries and Diego Su'a Te'o bagged 50 yards on 12 carries. Bell accounted for 109 yards total offense on six touches -- he caught two passes for 53 yards.
All that put a bow on what Trotter called a strong week by his team following a 35-0 loss to West last week.
"We had a great week of practice,'' he said. "I think they were really looking forward to getting back on the field.''
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Bartlett 0 0 0 6 -- 6
East 19 7 7 0 -- 33
East -- Vanilau 1 run (run failed), 8:48.
East -- Laws 72 fumble return (run failed), 6:18.
East -- Laws 38 pass from Vanilau (Gingras kick), 3:47.
East -- Vanilau 1 run (Gingras kick), 3:41.
East -- Laws 21 pass from Vanilau (Gingras kick), 3:20.
Bartlett -- Irving 31 pass from Jones (pass failed), 1:39.
First downs 21 14
Rushes-yards 34-33 37-200
Passing yards 277 120
Return yards 98 190
Passes 25-43-3 7-12-2
Punts 4-35.8 2-18.0
Fumbles-lost 5-1 5-3
Penalties-yards 7-60 10-81
RUSHING -- Bartlett: Jones 24-28, Reynolds 2-7, Rowland 1-5, Parker 3-5, Honore 2-1, Torres 2-(-13). East: Bell 3-56, Su'a Te'o 12-50, Vanilau 10-33, Lealao 1-10, Jones 2-2, Luafulu 1-0, Wolfe 1-(-2).
PASSING -- Bartlett: Jones 24-42-3--278, Torres 1-1-0--(-1). East: Valilau 6-11-2--125, Laws 1-1-0--(-5).
RECEIVING -- Bartlett: Irving 10-140, Rowland 5-47, Reynolds 3-33, Parker 3-13, Mahe 2-23, Hoffman 1-20, Honore 1-2. East: Laws 3-66, Bell 2-53, Su'a Te'o 1-6, Luafulu 1-(-5).