High School Sports

Juneau Huskies use physicality and perseverance to establish themselves as top dogs in Alaska’s Division I football

Football, South High, Juneau High, Denadre Pittman, Thomas Baxter, Head Coach John Lewis, Joe Stahlla, Jarrell Williams

In many ways, the Juneau football team’s 35-13 win over South Anchorage High on Saturday was a microcosm of its 2022 season thus far.

The winless Wolverines gave the Huskies all they could handle in the first half of their Cook Inlet Conference matchup and the two teams went into halftime tied at 13-13.

But the Huskies continued pushing in the second half, scoring 22 unanswered to remain undefeated on the year and improve to 6-0.

“Our energy level was tough, because we’re waking up at (5 a.m.) in the morning and coming here and just waiting and waiting to play,” senior quarterback Jarrell Williams said. “Our energy levels were off, but the halftime speech from our captains got us locked in and got us rolling.”

Juneau marched 60 yards on the opening drive of the third quarter and Williams punched the ball across the goal line for the 1-yard score, one of his five total touchdowns in the game.

“At halftime we talked to the whole group and tried to hype up everyone,” senior Sam Sika said. “When we came back to the field everyone was locked in, did their job, exploded to their gap, and we did our best in the second half.”

Football, South High, Juneau High, Denadre Pittman, Thomas Baxter, Head Coach John Lewis, Joe Stahlla, Jarrell Williams, Michael Ballou, Chris Harris

South junior running back Cole Bridges, who scored two touchdowns in the first half, fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Juneau recovered. Five plays later, Williams was in the end zone again on a 17-yard run.

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“In the second half we needed some kind of energy to get us rolling, and I think being able to go down and score on the first drive was big and then to be able to get a few turnovers,” Juneau coach Rich Sjoroos said. “Credit to our defense for being able to finally make a few stops and get the ball back.”

Juneau has made a habit out of overcoming slow starts and going on second-half tears. Colony coach Robbie Nash vividly remembers the series in his team’s game with them in Week 4 where the wind was taken out of their sails after initially leading 13-0 before allowing the Huskies to rally all the way back to win in dominant fashion.

“We were down on the five (yard line), got a penalty and should’ve been able to punch it in, but then they scored 42 unanswered points,” Nash said.

Traveling contributes to slow starts

Juneau has to hop on a plane for all of its road games. Having to travel and wait all day to play is a challenge for them every time.

“Everybody talks about how hard it is to go to Juneau and win, well it’s hard to go anywhere and win,” Sjoroos said. “We have to do it several times a year and a lot of times our opponents only have to do it like once every other year.”

On the morning of their game against South, the players were up by 4 a.m. and were on a plane at 5 a.m. They then had to wait to play until midafternoon because their junior varsity team played first.

“Sometimes it’s hard to get those energy juices flowing, and a lot of times you just need some plays in the field to get it going and that’s what happened in the third quarter, and we were able to carry it through the rest of their game,” Sjoroos said.

Football, South High, Juneau High, Denadre Pittman, Thomas Baxter, Head Coach John Lewis, Joe Stahlla, Jarrell Williams

Pride in physicality

The Huskies play a very physical brand of football, relentlessly running the ball at their opponents week in and week out. They also emphasize dominating at the point of attack on defense.

“We take a lot of pride in that,” Williams said. “We know we’re a hard-hitting team and sometimes we rely on that. If we’re not hitting hard, we get down on ourselves, and that motivates us to become better.”

“The refs say play until the play is over but in Juneau, you play until the whistle blows,” Sika said.

Bartlett is also a team that prides itself on physicality and uses an identical formula to win. The two teams played each other in Week 2, and Juneau came away with a 33-14 victory.

“They hit more than any other team we’ve faced this year,” Bartlett’s Zuriel Guzman said. “They get to it and that physicality is on par with us, and that’s what makes it such a great game between us.”

Football, South High, Juneau High, Denadre Pittman, Thomas Baxter

Next-man-up mentality

The Huskies were without their best player against South in senior running back Jamal Johnson, who was out with a leg injury. That meant Williams and his other teammates had to rise to the occasion.

“He’s like my brother, so it sucks but coach Sjoroos told me at the start of the week ‘You better be ready, because the team is going to be on your back,’ ” Williams said.

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He responded to the challenge by having a hand in or running in every touchdown the team scored in Week 6. Williams rushed for four scores, ran for 163 yards, and connected with M.J. Tupou on an 8-yard strike for his fifth and final touchdown.

“I love that kid, I love the way he plays, he’s just a piece of iron, and he’s not the biggest guy but he’s strong, he’s tough, wants the ball in his hands, and he brings so much stuff to the table that every team needs,” Sjoroos said.

According to Bartlett coach Chance Matsuoka, that hardnosed style of play is prevalent throughout their entire roster.

“They’re super disciplined and super well-coached and their kids are tougher than nails,” Matsuoka said.

Football, South High, Juneau High, Denadre Pittman, Thomas Baxter, Head Coach Riich Sjoroos

Unfinished business

Juneau returned a lot of players from last year’s state runner-up team which got a lot of invaluable experience during its run in the playoffs.

“These guys got a lot of good reps last year against some good football teams in Alaska, and now it’s their turn and they’re making the most of it,” Sjoroos said.

This year has been about unfinished business for their players and coaches. Their preparation dates back to last winter when they started their offseason program. The returning players were highly motivated the entire offseason to get better so that they could get back to the championship game and finish the job.

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“I think we’re back, and I think we’re ready,” Williams said. “We’re grinding every single week of practice.”

“They got the taste of being in the finals, but I think they know what it takes to get over the hump or at least they understand what it takes,” Sjoroos said.

With quality teams like Bartlett, West and Colony likely to be playoff opponents, Sjoroos said the Huskies will have to continue to improve each week.

“It’s going to be an exciting, interesting, challenging finish to the season,” Sjoroos said. “Hopefully we put ourselves in a good position to maybe get a playoff game in Juneau, keep trying to get better for the rest of the regular season and see where the playoffs take us.”









Josh Reed

Josh Reed is a sports reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He's a graduate of West High School and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

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