Anchorage — South and Service are approaching Saturday's state football championship with different mentalities.
South has been on a mission to return to the title game after losing to Service in the season finale a year ago.
"This is what we've been working for all year," South center Justin Moore said. "Everything is finally coming together and the light's at the end of the tunnel."
Service, which is riding a 19-game winning streak against Alaskan opponents, is taking a business-like approach.
"It's just another game for us," Service coach Numi Ilalio said. "We're excited about this last game of the season. We are ready for the challenge."
The title-game rematch seemed inevitable as South and Service separated themselves from the competition early in the regular season. South outscored its first four Cook Inlet Conference opponents 199-9 and Service won its first four CIC games by an average of 30 points.
Both teams had suffered nonconference losses to opponents Outside when they faced each other in Week 6, when Service solidified its role as South's nemesis with a 21-14 win to record its sixth straight win against the Wolverines.
South wasn't so much overmatched as outplayed during key moments of that game. While South won the turnover battle 5-0 and recovered all four of its fumbles, those fumbles were costly, making it all but impossible to sustain drives. A fumbled snap on the game's final play denied South a final shot at the end zone from inside the Service 10-yard line.
"We need to take every drive serious on offense," South senior Tommy Hopp said. "We can't get stalled like we did last time. We can't give up the big play against Service."
Many of the Cougars' big plays in that game came from quarterback Amu Aukusitino, who threw for two touchdowns and ran for another. But he also threw three interceptions and lost a fumble, a sign that South's defense is capable of getting to him.
"He's a great quarterback, but he's a better athlete than he is quarterback," Hopp said. "We have to take away the ability for him to run, make him throw the ball."
Aukusitino has accounted for 14 touchdowns in two postseason games, leading the Cougars to a 58-10 quarterfinal win over Juneau and a 49-34 semifinal win over West. Chief among the problems he presents to opposing defenses: He is extremely tough to tackle.
"It's gotta be gang-tackling," Hopp said. "You can't dive at him, you've gotta stay up, tackle him high. You can't go at the legs, because he's powerful and quick."
Though it may be difficult to quantify based on game results, Service faced some adversity this season. For one, an injury to Aukusitino's throwing shoulder in the season opener required junior C.J. Toomer to take over quarterback duties for four games. He filled in nicely, throwing for more than 200 yards in each start.
"We had some key injuries at the beginning of the season, we had some issues off the field, but the kids just keep fighting," Ilalio said. "I couldn't ask for a better group of kids to be around."
Ilalio is most of proud of his team's academic record, citing 15 players with a GPA of 3.0 and more than 75 percent of his 48 players achieving Ilalio's standard of 2.5. The school district requires athletes to maintain a 2.0 GPA, but Ilalio said the 25 percent under 2.5 don't play.
Ilalio said this was the first time in the seven seasons with the Cougars that there hasn't been an academic issue. Implementing study hall sessions in January helped, he said.
"I want these kids to understand the true meaning of student-athlete," Ilalio said. "With the kind of system we run, you have to have some brains to play."
The Cougars have bought in wholeheartedly to Ilalio's philosophy of playing one game at a time and trying to improve with each and every down. They enjoy football, Ilalio said, and will even coach each other during practice. When players were hurt and unable to play, they remained active in game planning and coaching teammates.
"It was actually a blessing in disguise," senior Matt Ilalio said of his broken leg, because his teammates rallied around him and helped him stay focused on a daily healing process, bringing the team closer together.
A two-way player at receiver and defensive back, Ilalio -- the coach's son - broke his fibula two days before the season opener in Hawaii. He didn't return to action until Week 7 and didn't play pain free until last weekend's win over West, when he caught two touchdown passes and snagged an interception.
"It was just fun to be out there playing with my boys, with my family, being out there and having the football experience I didn't get to have the first six weeks," he said.
Both teams say they are healthy for Saturday's game. South won its only state title in 2006, and Service will be looking for its seventh state title.
Reach Jeremy Peters at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.