Service High assistant football coach Numi Ilalio took two medals from the Cougars' runner-up finish in last season's state football playoffs and smashed them against the locker room wall as part of Saturday's pre-game speech.
The Cougars got the message and didn't settle for second place this time, instead capping an undefeated season with a 37-23 win over South in the First National Bowl large-school state championship at Chugiak's Tom Huffer Sr. Stadium.
The win gave Service (10-0-1) its sixth championship and its second undefeated season, the first coming in 1999.
Service scored three offensive touchdowns and two defensive touchdowns. A 25-yard, fourth-quarter interception return by Daniel Murakami put Service ahead by 14 with nine minutes remaining, virtually sealing a hard-fought, see-saw battle in which the lead changed hands three times in front of a large, energetic crowd.
"I think we shocked everyone here," South senior Michael Wilson said. "Heart-wise, we came out strong."
The Wolverines scored the game's first points on a short first-quarter run by quarterback Zach Lujan. The touchdown capped a methodical drive from near midfield, which followed a sturdy defensive sequence by the Wolverines.
"We showed we could hold 'em on defense," South coach John Lewis said. "It comes to rising to the occasion and turnovers were the key. Four turnovers, we gave the game away."
The first turnover occurred as the first quarter neared an end, and it was a costly one. Lujan attempted a backward pass, but Murakami tipped the ball and sent it bouncing between several players. The ball eventually bounced off the foot of a South player and into the hands of Service senior Stephen Ellis, who took it into the end zone from the 11-yard line.
Ellis said the play helped make an already emotional game one he'll never forget.
"Every ounce of my warrior spirit was pouring through my body every play of this game," he said.
A failed two-point conversion attempt left Service trailing 7-6, but the touchdown seemed to energize the Cougars. On the second play of South's next possession, Alan Busey intercepted a Lujan pass at midfield and returned it to the South 30-yard line. Busey then converted the turnover into points when he caught an 11-yard pass from Amu Aukusitino a few plays later.
When Murakami sprinted in for a 15-yard touchdown run with about three minutes remaining in the half, Service owned a 20-7 lead.
South closed the first half by taking advantage of two 15-yard personal foul penalties called on Service. Lujan hit Will Krolick on a pretty 8-yard pass to the back of the end zone with seven seconds left before the break.
When the Wolverines came out of the locker room, they reclaimed the lead on an 88-yard kickoff return by Gabe Steele that made the score 23-20.
"It was just joy when that happened," Wilson said. "We thought that we could get the win."
But those turned out to be the last points for South (8-3), and Service's combination of Murakami and Aukusitino proved to be too tough to stop in the second half.
Murakami led the Cougars in rushing with 129 yards and Aukusitino churned out tough run after tough run on his way to 115 yards. The quarterback also completed 18 of 24 passes for 179 yards, including his second touchdown toss on a 28-yard strike to David Lambe in the third quarter.
"You gotta rely on the athleticism of a kid like that," Caldarera said of Aukusitino. "But you gotta give credit to the guys up front. They did their job and let him be an athlete back there."
Aukusitino is one of many talented juniors and sophomores who plan to return and defend the title next season. Nik Butler, a junior who caught four passes, said he's already thinking about next year.
"Huge enthusiasm," he said. "On Monday, I'll be back in the weight room."
Reach Jeremy Peters at email@example.com or 257-4335.
South 7 8 8 0 -- 23
Service 6 14 10 7 -- 37
South -- Lujan 1 run (Toomey kick), 6:58.
Service -- Ellis 11 fumble return (pass fail), :41.
Service -- Busey 11 pass from Aukusitino (Ilalio run), 10:05.
Service -- Murakami 15 run (pass fail) 3:28.
South -- Krolick 8 pass from Lujan (Whitinger run), :07.
South -- Steele 88 kickoff return (Hopp run), 11:46.
Service -- Lambe 28 pass from Aukusitino (Bomar kick), 7:13.
Service -- Bomar 22 FG, 1:47
Service -- Murakami 25 interception return (Bomar kick), 9:00.
First downs 25 13
Rushes-yards 30-85 43-249
Passing yards 98 179
Return yards 102 71
Passes 13-24-2 18-24-0
Punts 2-40.0 0-0.0
Fumbles-lost 4-1 1-1
Penalties-yards 4-37 9-90
RUSHING -- South: Hopp 8-37; Whitinger 4-14; Toomey 3-10; Wilson 6-9; Augafa 2-6; Taha 2-4; Lujan 2-3; Erickson 3-2. Service: Murakami 22-129; Aukusitino 15-115; Pili 2-5; Busey 1-4; Ilalio 3-(-4).
PASSING -- South: Lujan 13-23-2--98. Service: Aukusitino 18-24-0--179
RECEIVING -- South: Toomey 5-39; Krolick 5-37; Page 3-22. Service: Busey 7-56; Butler 4-26; Williamson 3-33; Lambe 2-47; Ilalio 2-27.
By JEREMY PETERS
Anchorage Daily News