Though his receiving crew suffered from an early case of the drops, Service High quarterback C.J. Toomer ended up giving them much-deserved props.
Toomer shook off early struggles by his teammates Saturday night and helped the No. 2-ranked Cougars scratch back from a 19-point first-half deficit by throwing for 435 yards and four touchdowns, and rushing for one touchdown, to deliver a 37-36 Cook Inlet Conference victory over No. 1-ranked South.
The 3-hour, 4-minute drama played out at Anchorage Football Stadium, where Justice proved quick and unmerciful -- South's Justice Augafa furnished touchdown runs of 65 yards and 24 yards inside the opening seven minutes -- but perseverance provided prosperity for Service.
Toomer's first two passes were on the money, and ended up on the turf. His receivers suffered six clean drops and could not secure several other catchable balls, but the senior endured and his receivers finally got a grip.
Toomer completed 26 of 59 passes and threw two second-half touchdowns to Nahshon Fromm, who finished with 13 catches for 215 yards.
"It is frustrating,'' Toomer said. "But as a quarterback, you have to be calm and collected and tell them, 'Put it in the past and let's go out and catch some balls.' I told them that, and that's what they did.''
Fromm, who caught touchdown passes of 78 yards and 9 yards, said Service's coaching staff continued to push the passing game even as Cougar receivers suffered from self-inflicted wounds early. At one point in the first quarter, Toomer threw on 14 consecutive snaps from scrimmage. He unleashed 40 pass attempts in the first half alone.
"It's hard to regroup after drops, but the short passes were open, so our coaches kept throwing the short passes to get the receivers' confidence up and the quarterback's confidence up,'' Fromm said.
Service's Armend Aliju caught eight passes for 86 yards and two first-half touchdowns. The Cougars (5-1, 4-1 CIC), who moved into a first-place tie with defending state champion South (4-2, 4-1 CIC), favored passing over running by a margin of more than 2-to-1 -- they rushed 27 times.
"We decided to air it out against them and figured that's how we'd win,'' Toomer said.
Service did not lead until Fromm caught a ball on a quick curl pattern, eluded a tackle and scored on his 9-yarder with 5:57 left in the third quarter. Haleigh Van Allen's point-after gave the Cougars a 30-27 lead.
South countered less than four minutes later to forge a 30-30 tie on Eyob Imlach's 37-yard field goal.
Two plays later, Toomer hit Fromm deep on the right side for a 78-yard touchdown and a 37-30 lead.
South quarterback Alec Valdez connected with Max Micks on a 28-yard touchdown pass with 10:00 left in the game -- Micks was so open no defender was within 15 yards of him -- but the snap on the ensuing point-after attempt forced holder Tyler Kile to attempt a pass that was deflected. That held Service's lead at 37-36.
Imlach's 22-yard field goal attempt with just 98 seconds left to play was plenty long -- his earlier 37-yarder would have easily been good from 47 -- but slipped wide right, barely.
The kicking game, in part, proved South's undoing -- a snap over the head of punter Andrew West led to a first-quarter safety for Service.
Augafa, who rushed for 160 yards on 18 carries, generated the early excitement. On South's second snap from scrimmage, he carried the ball into the right side of the line, where there looked to be a traffic jam. Yet Augafa pierced the congestion and raced 65 yards.
"It was a small hole,'' Augafa said. "I got tripped up, but kept my balance and got underneath the tackles.''
Valdez's 26-yard touchdown pass to Alain Devoe on the first play of the second quarter staked South to a 21-2 lead, but the Cougars trimmed that margin to 21-16 by intermission.
Yet Valdez blazed 59 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the second half to give South a 27-16 cushion before Toomer and his receiving crew continued to feast on the Wolverines' secondary.
Service, leading 37-36 with less than five minutes to play, also survived its bold, go-for-it decision on fourth-and-14 from the South 46. Toomer's pass fell incomplete, which turned the ball over to South. The Wolverines marched to the Service 2, but an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty backed them up and preceded Imlach's missed field goal.
Service and South have played in the last two state championship games. South won last year and Service won in 2011. Depending on how the state-championship bracket unfolds, Toomer said he wouldn't be the least bit surprised if these teams once again play the last game of the season.
Ditto for Augafa.
"We just have to keep our heads up as a team, stay positive and shake off the bad things,'' he said.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Service 2 14 21 0 -- 37
South 15 6 9 6 -- 36
South -- Augafa 65 run (Imlach kick), 10:41.
Service -- Safety, West tackled in end zone
South -- Augafa 24 run (Valdez run), 5;03
South -- Devoe 26 pass from Valdez (run fail), 11:53
Service -- Aliju 3 pass from Toomer (Van Allen kick), 6:53
Service -- Aliju 18 pass from Toomer (Van Allen kick), 1:43
South -- Valdez 59 run (kick fail), 11:42.
Service -- Toomer 1 run (Van Allen kick), 9:42
Service -- Fromm 9 pass from Toomer (Van Allen kick), 5:57
South -- Imlach 37 FG, 2:27
Service -- Fromm 78 pass from Toomer (Van Allen kick), 1:51
South -- Micks 28 pass from Valdez (pass fail), 10:00.
First downs 20 25
Rushes-yards 27-65 50-278
Passing yards 435 126
Return yards 43 149
Passes 26-59-1 6-14-3
Punts 6-41.5 5-41.2
Fumbles-lost 2-2 2-2
Penalties-yards 9-70 7-64
RUSHING -- Service: Peltola 19-73, Jones 3-(-1), Toomer 4-(-2), Tatum 1-(-5). South: Augafa 18-160, Valdez 9-47, Imlach 2-46, West 5-22, Maisey 4-18, Hoover 2-4, Morman 4-3, Alsworth 1-2, Stephan 2-(-1), Light 1-(-3), Team 1-(-20).
PASSING -- Service: Toomer 26-59-1--435. South: Valdez 6-14-3--126..
RECEIVING -- Service: Fromm 13-215, Aliju 8-86, Srisaneha 2-80, Bibbs 2-35, Johnson 1-30. South: Micks 3-61, Devoe 2-36, West 1-25.
By DOYLE WOODY