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High School Sports

Teammates in middle school, east-side players face off for Anchorage football championship

  • Author: Matt Nevala
  • Updated: October 22, 2020
  • Published October 22, 2020

East quarterback Ja'Sem Atonio avoids a tackle during a 20-13 win over South last month. (Marc Lester / ADN)

The day after the Bartlett and East football teams advanced to Saturday’s Anchorage School District championship game, Golden Bears assistant coach Eric Boutte posted his version of a meme that took over Twitter recently.

How it started: A photo of Bartlett seniors Elijah Lewis-Tufi, Michael Elias and Bryson Litteral, East senior Ja’Sem Atonio and 2020 East graduate Carlos Soto Jr., showing off a Pop Warner runner-up trophy earned as middle-school aged teammates.

How it’s going: From last month, a photo of Lewis-Tufi and Atonio in opposing high school uniforms sharing a friendly handshake. Lewis-Tufi plays safety for Bartlett, and Atonio is East’s starting quarterback.

“What a great way to reflect back on when we were all on one team, what we went through together,” Atonio said of Boutte’s Tweet. “Now we’re older and we’ve went our separate ways. But it brings us back to a real brotherhood, one we always know is there.”

Saturday’s championship game is the culmination of a season shortened to eight weeks by the pandemic. Bartlett is 4-2 and East is 6-0, with five wins coming on the playing field and a sixth coming from an Eagle River forfeit.

On Friday night, Chugiak (0-5) travels to Service (1-3) to decide fifth place in Anchorage. Kickoff is scheduled for 6 in what will be the first game for either team in two weeks.

South and West declined to play the third-place game.

Bartlett defeated South and East beat West in last week’s ASD semifinals to set up Saturday’s clash. It’s just the second playoff game in the 50-year rivalry between Anchorage’s east-side schools -- East beat Bartlett 28-7 in the 2005 First National Bowl quarterfinals.

“From Muldoon to Mountain View, everyone should just be proud,” Lewis-Tufi said. "Both teams have been playing at a high level.

“It’s time to see which is the best east-side team.”

Bartlett's Elijah Lewis-Tufi tries to push past on East player in a Sept. 25 meeting won by East, 14-8. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Since 2002, the Golden Bears and Thunderbirds have played regular-season games for the “East Side Boot.” Those games feature a traveling trophy that has a cleat once worn by Aanooalii “Auno” Filoialii, an all-state defensive lineman for East who was 18 years old when he was killed in a car accident.

East pulled out a 14-8 win in this year’s Boot game on Sept. 25 -- the T-birds’ closest game this season.

“I’m not saying we took (Bartlett) lightly, but ‘The Boot’ game is always so significant for everyone involved,” Atonio said. “Maybe we let ourselves be too emotional, but not so much come Saturday.”

The pride and sense of friendship between players on both squads subsides once the game starts.

“The brotherly love is there,” Lewis-Tufi said. “But on the field, it’s a war zone.”

Atonio, a smooth-throwing lefty, agreed.

“We’re totally different off the field, we really take care of each other,” he said. “During the game, it’s business.”

Left to right, Elijah Lewis-Tufi, Eric Boutte Jr and Ja'Sem Atonio, taken when Lewis-Tufi and Atonio were Pop Warner teammates. (Photo courtesy of Eric Boutte Jr.)

On the street

As has been the case all season, COVID protocol means the ASD finale will be played with few fans in the stands. Each player is allowed to invite two spectators who are screened before entering the venue.

But keep a close eye on East High’s perimeter. It will be interesting to see how many vehicles line up along East 20th Avenue and at nearby Russian Jack Elementary to sneak a peek.

“Since this is a big rivalry game, I expect to see lots of people outside the gates, standing on cars, barbecuing, tailgating,” Atonio said.

City or state championship?

When the Alaska School Activities Association canceled most fall state championship events amid surging COVID cases, the Anchorage School District came up with a city tournament so kids could get a post-season.

The Golden Bears and Thunderbirds may call it a “state championship" because, well, why not?

“We’re treating this no differently,” said East coach Jeff Trotter, who saw his team fall to Colony in the 2019 quarterfinals. "It’s just one of those things. These kids have worked an entire year after not finishing last season the way they wanted.

“We’re not taking that effort or anything else away from them.”

Fairbanks schools played a couple of post-season games last week, although Fairbanks didn’t have a tournament bracket like Anchorage did. Lathrop downed Monroe Catholic 26-20 and North Pole walloped Eielson 48-8 in season-ending games.

There were no postseason games in the Valley or the Kenai Peninsula, and social media chatter being what it is, some have wondered if the ASD winner should or could meet a team from the Interior, the Kenai Peninsula or the Valley for state bragging rights.

Rising COVID numbers make such an idea implausible.

“It’s not going to happen,” Trotter said. “But win or lose (against Bartlett), we’d be willing to meet anyone if we need to do so.”

2020 Anchorage School District championship game

2 p.m. Saturday at East High

Bartlett vs. East

Attendance is limited. Online coverage at NFHS Network Live Stream (www.nfhsnetwork.com/playoffs/state/alaska)

Bartlett Golden Bears (4-2)

Coach: Chance Matsuoka (1st season, 4-2)

Points scored: 189

Points allowed: 124

Average rush yards per game: 269

Average pass yards per game: 41

East Thunderbirds (6-0)

Coach: Jeff Trotter (10th season, 57-33)

Points scored: 174

Points allowed: 31

Average rush yards per game: 192

Average pass yards per game: 185

East-Bartlett history

East defeated Bartlett 14-8 on Sept. 25

The series began in 1970; East leads 29-26

Shutouts in series: East 4 (1973, 1986, 1987, 1990); Bartlett 1 (2014)

Most combined points scored in single game -- 84 (Bartlett 56, East 28, 2015)

Fewest combined points in single game -- 10 (East 8, Bartlett 2, 1975)

Sources: Matt Nevala and Alaska sports historian Don Winchester

Matt Nevala co-hosts “The Sports Guys” radio show, Saturdays at 11 a.m. on KHAR AM 590 and FM 96.7 (@cbssports590). Find him on social media at @MNevala9.

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