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Expect closer games in this weekend’s large-school football playoffs

Jeremy Peters

Just one of last weekend's four large-school football playoff games was decided by a touchdown, but this weekend's semifinal games have the potential to be more closely contested -- at least that's what the coaches are saying.

"These next two games are gonna be really awesome to watch," South coach John Lewis said. "It's gonna be heated battles out there, especially with Palmer. I mean Palmer is gonna come right at you."

Undefeated and top-ranked Palmer takes on South to ignite the action Friday night at Tom Huffer Sr. Stadium in Chugiak. On Saturday, defending state champion Service will confront West in a rematch of the 2010 title game won by the Eagles.

The four semifinalists outscored opponents 153-42 in last week's quarterfinals, with Palmer's 13-6 win over East the only game decided by less than 28 points.

The last time South met Palmer in the playoffs, the Moose steamrolled their way to a 48-12 quarterfinal win in 2009, invoking a running clock in the final quarter.

But things can change dramatically from year to year in the world of high school football, Palmer coach Rod Christiansen is quick to point out, so it's tough to know what to expect Friday. Christiansen, who has led Palmer to the playoffs for 13 straight seasons, has been watching film on the Wolverines all week.

"I think they're quite talented this year," he said. "I see a lot of team speed all over the place."

South is trying to return to the state championship game for a second straight year. The Wolverines lost last year's to Service in last year's title game, 37-23.

"Last year, playing in the state championship was the best feeling ever and after we lost that game, I regretted all last year not working hard enough," said South senior tight end Louis Page.

A little extra motivation is driving Page this week, because Christiansen happens to be his uncle and Palmer senior quarterback Cameron Christiansen is his cousin. There will be at least 15 very interested members of the family in the stands Friday, including 77-year-old Carol Christiansen, who will have a hard time deciding which grandson to root for.

"I may try sitting on each side of the field, switching each quarter," said the elder Christiansen, who plans to wear a blue sweatshirt to represent Palmer's primary color and a black coat to represent South's primary color.

Palmer, led by junior running back James Nisbett, brings a relentless ground attack and an efficient, disciplined defense that is tough to crack, Lewis said.

"What they do best is simplify everything," he said. "Instead of having 150 plays, they are gonna go out there with 12 and they are going to do it right and perfect each time."

Saturday's game will be a rematch of the 2010 state championship, which West won 6-0 to cap an undefeated season. Defense ruled in that game, but there were lot more offensive fireworks when the teams met two weeks ago in the final week of the regular season, combining for 61 points in a 41-20 win for Service.

West quarterback Conor Feckley, who led the CIC in passing with 1,577 yards and 13 touchdowns in six regular-season games, missed this year's Service game with an injury. He returned to action last weekend and threw three touchdown passes to help the Eagles earn a 48-20 quarterfinal win over North Pole.

"Conor was amazing and we had some great plays from (Eric) Vandervort and our other receivers," West coach Tim Davis said. "Conor's probably not 100 percent, but he's maybe 90 or 95 percent."

Service has its own star quarterback in Amu Aukusitino, but calling him a quarterback doesn't aptly describe his contribution to the team. He also shined at defensive back. In last week's 58-10 quarterfinal win over Juneau, he accounted for seven touchdowns -- three on offense and four on defense.

"The hardest thing is to tackle him," Davis said. "He's pretty slippery."

Service coach Numi Ilalio said the combination of Feckley and Vandervort (nine regular-season touchdown receptions) is always a nightmare to cover. But he said the Cougars welcome the challenge.

"Whoever loves football, they need to come out and watch this game, because we're excited and they're excited and we're gonna do some fun things and they're gonna do some fun things," Ilalio said. "You don't want to miss this. You better bring your popcorn."

Reach Jeremy Peters at jpeters@adn.com or 257-4335.


By JEREMY PETERS
jpeters@adn.com