The finish is always more important than the start, and the West High football team really knows how to finish.
After starting the season with two straight losses, the Eagles finished with nine straight wins, closing the run Saturday with the school's second large-school state title.
Things didn't start smoothly for West in the First National Bowl. The Eagles trailed Service at the end of the second and third quarters, but fourth-quarter touchdown runs from Lui Faamasino and Leroy Elliott sealed a 28-16 win at Anchorage Football Stadium.
"This season has been such a blessing, it's been amazing," said West's Leroy Elliott, the Cook Inlet Conference offensive player of the year. "I love this team, I love our coaches and our fans."
Fans filled the bleachers and lined the fence around the turf at AFS, watching the state's two top teams duke it out in a rematch of the 2010 title game won by West (9-2).
Service (8-3) held the explosive Elliott to just three catches for 37 yards prior to the game's final touchdown, a 37-yard journey that provided the game's brightest highlight and elicited some of the biggest cheers.
Clinging to a 21-16 lead, the Eagles lined up in a wildcat formation, which moves Elliott from his usual wide receiver spot to the quarterback position. It was a formation the Eagles found plenty of success with during the season, but hadn't used all game.
Elliott took the snap and ran to the right, breaking numerous tackles as he danced and weaved his way back to the left side of the field, where he dove for the pylon and gave West a 28-16 lead with 5:42 to play.
"That was crazy," Elliott said. "When coach called out the wildcat formation, I knew this was my only opportunity and so I tried to make the best of it. I got a few good blocks down field and somehow made it in."
With the West defense top-notch throughout the night, Elliott said he felt comfortable trying to hold a two-score lead with less than six minutes to play.
West contained a potent Service offense to 171 yards. Service quarterback C.J. Toomer, who set an unofficial single-season state passing record this season with 2,712 yards, needed 11 pass attempts before he connected with a receiver. He finished with seven completions for 88 yards.
The bulk of the West offense came from Faamasino, who bulldozed his way to 173 rushing yards on 34 carries and caught two passes for 43 yards. At times he appeared unstoppable, dragging tacklers for an extra three to five yards before going down.
By the time the second half arrived, Faamasino had taken a lot of hits to the legs and was often visibly in pain when getting up at the end of plays. He said he could hear fans yelling words of encouragement from the stands and it spurred him on. Prior to a play in the fourth quarter, West running back Jordan Murchison was sent in to replace Faamasino, but Faamasino waved him back to the sideline.
"It's my senior year, so I didn't want to leave anything behind, have any regrets down the road," the 225-pound running back said.
Faamasino was clutch down the stretch, catching a 32-yard pass from quarterback Tyrone Davis that gave the Eagles a first down on the Service 13 on the final play of the third quarter. Three plays later, he gave the Eagles the lead for good when he punched in a 3-yard touchdown run. To round out his performance, he recovered a fourth-quarter fumble to end one of Service's last gasps.
"Lui is a tough kid," said West senior Dave Tuilimu, who was named defensive player of the game. "He changed a lot this year, he pushed himself. He was a big part of this team, so I thank him for that."
Service, a team known for slinging the ball all over the field, started with 17 straight running plays. It looked like the strategy might work, but drives kept stalling. Prior to a two-yard touchdown run from Toomer in the third quarter, Service's only points were from a safety and an interception return by Chance Wetherington.
"We just couldn't get any rhythm going with the offense," said Service coach Kevin Kern. "Our defense played a hell of a game for the most part and made some great stands, but offensively we just didn't click like we normally click."
West led 7-0 after its first possession, scoring on a one-yard plunge from Faamasino, but trailed 9-7 at halftime after conceding a safety later in the first quarter and watching Tyrone Davis throw an ugly pass right to Wetherington in the second quarter. They squandered a chance to regain the lead when they came up short on a 34-yard field-goal attempt in the closing seconds of the half.
Overcoming setbacks was nothing new for the Eagles, who came from behind to beat Palmer in overtime in last week's semifinal. Davis, who filled in for injured quarterback Sam Wedin since Week 2, made up for his interception when he fired a 37-yard strike to Marquise Rayford in the third quarter. The pretty play was all the more impressive because it came on fourth-and-14 and gave the Eagles a 14-9 lead.
"When everything looked lost at multiple times, in multiple games throughout the season, they just kept coming back," said West coach Tim Davis. "This is the most amazing thing I've ever been around."
Reach Jeremy Peters at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.
West -- Faamasino 1 run (Ortland kick), 8:22
Service -- Safety, 3:39
Service -- Wetherington 2 interception return (Van Allen kick), 2:12.
West -- Rayford 37 pass from Davis (Ortland kick), 8:26.
Service -- Toomer 2 run (Raguindin kick), 2:37.
West -- Faamasino 3 run (Ortland kick), 11:07.
West -- Elliott 37 run (Ortland kick), 5:42.
RUSHING -- Service: Hansen 13-60; Toomer 17-16; K. Fomai 2-9; Jones 6-(-2). West: Faamasino 34-173; Elliott 2-43; Hamburg 1-15.
PASSING -- Service: Toomer 17-16-0--88; West: Davis 7-13-1--124; Duffy 0-1-0--0.
RECEIVING -- Service: Hansen 2-27; Srisaneha 2-14; Trevon 1-20; Fromm 1-18; Bibbs 1-9. West: Elliott 3- 37; Rayford 2-44; Faamasino 2-43.
First National Bowl
Large-school All-Tournament Team
Offense — Tyrone Davis, West quarterback; Leroy Elliott, West wide receiver; James Nisbett, Palmer running back; Lui Faamasino, West running back; Levi Hansen, Service running back; Chris Feero, West lineman; Tevita Fehoko, West lineman; Marquez Buster, Dimond wide receiver; Charming Launiuvao, Dimond lineman; Jordan Tufaga, Dimond lineman.
Defense — Marquise Rayford, West back; Chardo Elliott, West back; C.J. Parker, Dimond back; Levi Hansen, Service linebacker; David Tuilimu, West linebacker; Brodie Jones, Dimond lineman; Cody Wells, Palmer linebacker; Tevita Fehoko, West lineman; Chance Wetherington, Service lineman; Isiah Pili, Dimond lineman; Marquez Buster, Dimond lineman.
Kicker — Davis Ortland, West.
By JEREMY PETERS