The East Thunderbirds won their third straight Cook Inlet Conference regular-season football championship Saturday by holding on for a 20-15 victory over the Service Cougars.
A big defensive play saved the day for the defending state champions, who shut out Service in the second half.
With the Cougars driving down the field in the final seconds, junior defensive back Faleitu Sheck hauled in a tipped pass for the victory-sealing interception.
“Guys were where they were supposed to be in the first place,” said East head coach Jeff Trotter. “We were finding ourselves not lined up right and out of position in the first half, and in the second it was almost playing right into (Service’s) hands.”
The T-Birds improved to 4-0 in CIC play and 7-1 overall. They finished the regular season undefeated in Alaska — their lone loss was to Cesar Chavez in Laveen, Arizona.
The loss was the second straight for the Cougars, who slipped to 2-2 in the CIC and 6-2 overall.
Service marched down the field on the opening drive and scored when running back Ryan Williams ran up the middle for a 16-yard touchdown. An improvised two-point conversion gave the Cougars an 8-0 lead.
East drove to Service’s 3-yard line on its first possession but was denied on all four attempts to go the final 3 yards.
The Cougars took over on downs but went three-and-out. Their punter bobbled the snap and got tackled back where they started, putting the T-Birds back at the 3-yard line.
East senior running back Kalani Mederios lowered his shoulder to punch the ball across the goal line on the next play, but a failed 2-point attempt left the T-birds trailing 8-6.
“When you can give the ball off like that and he can run hard, it takes a lot of the weight off my shoulders,” said East senior quarterback Gavin Oakley.
After that, both teams gave up long passing plays for first-half scores.
Service’s came on a 92-yard catch-and-run from quarterback Damian Johnson to receiver Henry Helgeson. Helgeson made a one-handed snag on a slant route and outraced the coverage to the end zone for a 15-6 Cougars lead.
“I stepped up when I needed to,” said Johnson, who made his first start of the season.
East answered just before halftime when Oakley lobbed a perfect pass to junior receiver Jordan Holland, who ran 55 yards for the touchdown.
Oakley cut the Service lead to a single point, 15-14, on a two-point conversion run in which he beat the defender to cross the right front pylon.
The T-birds stayed on the ground on their first possession of the second half, grabbing the lead for good when Ellicott Fisher scampered 3 yards for a touchdown.
Then the East defense took over. Even though Service moved the ball at times, East came up with clutch stops and drive-killing sacks and harassed Johnson relentlessly.
“Defense was lights-out in the second half,” Oakley said. “They saved the game for us.”
East’s rushing attack was potent all game long. Mederios, who rushed for 116 yards, was a bulldozer all game long as he ran through and over defenders.
“He’s a stud,” said Trotter. “If he’s not the best, he’s one of the best running backs in the state this year.”
Despite the positive result, East was far from perfect. Trotter said the T-birds have to get better if they want to do well in the playoffs, which start next week.
“It was freaking ugly,” he said. “I thought (Service) played harder than us and out-schemed us…
“Luckily we boned up and offense sucked some clock and turned it on a little, but we know we can’t play like that if we want to keep moving forward.”
This week’s scores
Chugiak 35, Eagle River 8
Colony 44, Dimond 7
East 20, Service 15
Eielson 54, Monroe 15
Homer 58, Ketchikan 24
Houston 40, Redington 8
Juneau 67, Bartlett 24
Kodiak 16, North Pole 14
Lathrop 27, West Valley 12
Nikiski 42, Seward 12
Palmer 20, Wasilla 12
Soldotna 57, Kenai 12
West 19, South 9
Valdez vs. Barrow -- not reported