Bartlett all-state linebacker J.J. Tito is a 5-foot-11, 230-pound brute capable of pulverizing opposing ball carriers on the football field. But when the all-state linebacker used to walk into school on Mondays, he’d keep his head down.
“Everyone in the school used to make fun of us,” recalled Tito, a senior who anchors the middle of the Bartlett defense. “It was a hallway of shame.”
As a sophomore in 2012, Tito and the Golden Bears endured an embarrassing 0-8 campaign that caused players to question their devotion to the program. After starting last year 0-5, things weren’t looking much better. But a 14-7 Bartlett victory over rival East in the 2013 battle for the "East Side Boot” keyed a turnaround that’s seen the Golden Bears reel off four consecutive victories and help restore pride at Bartlett, which hasn’t made the postseason since the team’s 2009 state title run.
The shame has turned to fame now that the Golden Bears are 1-0 following a 47-14 nonconference dismantling of Lathrop in Week 1 of the prep season.
“On the first day of school teachers I didn’t even know were coming up to me to congratulate us,” Tito said.
Bartlett will look to continue its run against a familiar foe when it battles its biggest rival on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Anchorage Football Stadium in the annual trophy game against the T-birds.
East coach Jeff Trotter expects a battle.
“I think it’s going to be smash-mouth football,” said Trotter, whose team finished 1-7 overall last season and is 0-1 this year after a 23-13 loss last week to Colony.
Bartlett enters the game riding a wave of confidence after running back Vincent Lobendahn piled up 163 yards and five touchdowns against the Malemutes. East, meanwhile, will be looking to rebound in the first Cook Inlet Conference game of the season for both programs.
“I think it’s going to come down to conditioning and who makes the fewest mistakes,” Trotter said.
Trotter said he expects both teams to rely heavily on the ground game. Bartlett, which is now led by co-head coaches John Jessen and Daniel Esparza, has returned to the wing-T offense, while the T-birds run the Fly. Trotter said his team’s strength is its big offensive line, and he hopes to wear down the Golden Bears on the ground.
“I think we’re kind of mirror images of each other,” he said.
Jessen said players and coaches look forward to the annual “East Side Boot” game because there are always close ties between the schools, which are just four miles apart.
“It’s almost like brothers,” he said. “It’s a good, healthy rivalry.”
The coaching staffs are also close. Trotter played for Jessen in the early 1990s at Chugiak when the Bartlett coach was an assistant coach for the Mustangs. The fourth-year East head coach later joined his former mentor on the sidelines as an assistant at Bartlett, where he helped Jessen and the Golden Bears to a state championship in 2002.
Although Bartlett’s big win over Lathrop might seem to give the Golden Bears the upper hand Saturday, Jessen said he’s not allowing his team to take the T-birds lightly.
“East is a sleeping giant,” Jessen said.
Tito, who said he knows many of the East players well, agreed.
“Every year they always put up a fight,” he said.
No matter the outcome, the big linebacker said he’s proud of the way his team has opened the 2014 campaign, and said the culture has definitely changed for the blue and gold.
“We demand hustle,” he said.
Tito said he had a talk with his teammates before the season and said he wouldn’t tolerate another season like the dreadful 2012 campaign.
“I told every one of them the past few seasons I’ve been through hell,” he said. “I know the feeling of what it’s like to lose all your games. It was hard for me.”
The pep talk seems to have sunk in.
“They responded really well,” he said. “We’re all like a family now.”
Slate of CIC games highlight weekend action
The Bartlett-East clash Saturday is the big rivalry game this weekend, but it’s far from the only game with CIC implications. All eight conference teams will be in action against each other, starting with Friday's 7 p.m.game between Dimond and West. The Eagles opened their season with a 28-6 nonconference win last week over Palmer, while the Lynx are already in need of a CIC win after falling 20-0 in last week to South in the conference opener for both teams.
On Saturday, Service and Eagle River get their CIC seasons underway at 1 p.m. at Anchorage Football Stadium. The Cougars look to remain undefeated after surviving Wasilla 14-6 last week, while the Wolves are hoping to rebound from a painful 53-6 loss to defending medium schools champion Soldotna.
Also Saturday, South coach John Lewis -- a Chugiak grad -- will return to his alma mater to face the Mustangs at Tom Huffer Sr. Stadium at 7 p.m. Chugiak opened its 2014 campaign with a 50-0 nonconference blowout over Kodiak on the Rock.
Reach reporter Matt Tunseth at firstname.lastname@example.org