Rich Sjoroos has been a football coach for nearly three decades, and two of the most indelible moments of his career have come in the last 12 months with the Juneau Huskies.
On a Wednesday afternoon last October, he had to tell the Huskies their season was over three days before they were scheduled to play a quarterfinal playoff game.
The Huskies had practiced 100 days without a game because of COVID-19 restrictions but had been given the go-ahead to participate in the playoffs — only to learn everything was canceled and it was time to turn in their uniforms.
“It was the most challenging time I’ve had in 28 years of coaching football, to go out that last day and tell them we were done,” Sjoroos said.
On a Saturday afternoon last month, after a fitful night worrying that something would derail this year’s season-opening game, Sjoroos stood on the sideline at Juneau’s Adair Kennedy Field as kickoff approached in a game against the Colony Knights.
It was Juneau’s first football game since Oct. 12, 2019.
“My energy level has never been that high for a game,” Sjoroos said. “To sit back and see the town excited and the kids excited and the energy they displayed for an entire game was something else. It was something I hadn’t seen before. It was just a great feeling to have football back in Juneau.”
Football is back in Juneau, and with a vengeance.
The Huskies — a blend of players from Juneau-Douglas and Thunder Mountain high schools — are 3-1 and riding the thrill of a 39-28 win over the powerhouse East Thunderbirds as they head to Anchorage for a Saturday afternoon game against Service High.
High school football has never been taken for granted in Juneau, which is geographically isolated from the rest of Alaska’s football-playing schools. The Huskies have to fly to every road game, and they have to provide airfare for the teams that come to play them.
Last year, pandemic travel restrictions sidelined the Huskies throughout the regular season, but each day they showed up for practice. COVID-19 mitigation policies turned the first month into expanded P.E. classes — kids had to keep their distance from each other and couldn’t use a football.
Eventually contact was allowed, but still there were no games. In their place, Sjoroos split players and coaches into two teams for a series of intrasquad scrimmages, but the games ended when too much friction developed between the two sides.
“The first one went well,” Sjoroos said, “but then I could start to see a divide in the team and I said, ‘These need to stop.’ The risks outweighed the benefits for sure. I didn’t (expect) our team to get divided like that.”
Cohesiveness hasn’t been a problem this season, and neither has motivation. Last season “instilled a mentality of every day might be the last day you play football, so go hard and do everything you can to be successful,” Sjoroos said.
There were 14 seniors on last year’s team, “and I tell our guys, you’re playing for yourselves and you’re playing for that group too,” he said.
“I’ll never, ever forget the guys that didn’t get to play at all. I don’t know that there will ever be a way to fully come back from that experience.”
Knocking off East and obtaining the No. 1 ranking in the state helps a little. So far all of Juneau’s victories have come at home — the loss to West happened in Anchorage — so they will try to pick up their first road win Saturday against the Service Cougars.
To limit exposure to the COVID-19 virus, all of Juneau’s games this season are happening on Saturday afternoons, which eliminates the need for overnight stays or even restaurant meals. When the Huskies travel, they catch the first flight of the day to Anchorage, play the varsity game at 2 p.m. and fly home the same night.
As long as there are no delays — the luggage shows up, a van is waiting, traffic isn’t snarled — all is good.
“From the time we land to the kickoff of the JV game is just under two hours. Just enough time to get a proper warmup,” Sjoroos said. “The varsity game ends two, maybe two-and-a-half, hours before the flight leaves.
“Anything that would make the game extend past 5 p.m., we start looking at the clock.”