After several weeks of uncertainty and doubts that the high school football season would ever arrive, the East High Thunderbirds opened things up with a commanding 55-7 victory over crosstown rival West High.
It was a night that every player and coach in the city had been waiting and holding their breaths for as the COVID-19 pandemic threatened Anchorage School District fall sports throughout the summer.
“I’m just taking whatever I can get,” said T-birds senior Jordan Holland, who caught three touchdown passes. “The whole corona, not having a season, I’m not going to hold anything back.”
Typically, Alaska’s high school football season begins in the first or second week of August, but this year in Anchorage it was pushed to the second week of September and most practices were limited to conditioning drills, with no contact coming until last week.
That didn’t stop the Thunderbirds from putting on an offensive clinic that featured a balanced attack and a dominant defensive performance that nearly shut out the Eagles.
“I was really happy for the kids on both sides, everybody being able to play a football game, because it looked bleak for a while,” East High coach Jeff Trotter said.
Despite coming out on the losing end of a lopsided contest, Eagles coach Tim Davis was elated to get the 2020 season underway after nearly a month of delays.
“You never want to take in on the chin but at the same time, you take a step back and you think about life and everything that’s going on right now,” he said. “I’m so proud of these guys who have done everything that’s been asked of them in COVID mitigations and they found a way to get on this football field. ”East made some mistakes here and there and showed a few first-game jitters, but it was able to move the ball and score at will through the air and on the ground.
T-birds quarterback Ja’Sem Atonio threw four touchdown passes in his debut as a starter, and three of them went to Holland, a wide receiver who picked up where he left off in a junior season filled with big plays.
“We knew playing West that they were going to bring it hard early so we just had to do our jobs, do our assignments and come out with a bang,” Atonio said.
Atonio and Holland first hooked up in the opening quarter when Atonio threw a dart to Holland in the back of the left corner of the end zone.
The second touchdown came on a 32-yard pass when the quarterback found his favorite target streaking wide open down the middle of the field after the Eagles defense completely sold out to stop the run that had been gashing them all game long. The play put the T-birds up 20-0 early in the second quarter.
Their third touchdown was the play of the game. Holland caught the ball with a pair of Eagles close in coverage, broke several tackles, cut across the field, stiff-armed another would-be tackler to the ground, stayed on his feet and had the awareness to play through the whistle after he was initially thought to be down.
The 76-yard catch-and-run came during a third quarter that lasted nearly 40 minutes.
Atonio and Hollands are close friends, and their on-field chemistry goes back to their middle school days.
“I’ve been playing with him since the eighth grade,” Holland said. “I know him as a friend and a QB and as a family member so I just play my heart out for him.”
Scattered fans did their best to be socially distant in the sparsely filled stadium, where attendance was limited to a couple hundred people. Besides the offensive show by the T-birds, fans saw East’s defensive line exert its will.
“We are pretty stout on D-line,” said Trotter. “We got a good two-to-three groups that we can rotate in, and our linebackers flow pretty well.”
The East defense practically lived in the West backfield from start to finish, racking up sacks and bringing down ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage.
“Defense led the way,” said Trotter. “We had big plays on offense but the defense led us because when we had lulls at times in the second and third quarters on offense, the defense kept plugging along.”
The T-Birds were the state champs in 2018 and a favorite to repeat last year until the Colony Knights upset them in the opening round of the playoffs. That abrupt and shocking ending is fueling this year’s team.
“They were burned last year when they got beat in the playoffs and it kind of fed them the whole offseason,” Trotter said.
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