High School Sports

East’s Austin Johnson dominates both sides of the ball in Thunderbirds’ commanding victory over Service

What was expected to be the top Division I football matchup in Week 2 of the 2023 Alaska high school football season wound up looking like a complete mismatch as Bettye Davis East dominated Service in a 55-19 road win on Friday night.

“We had a good game plan and held a good Service team that’s explosive on offense to a low point total, at least for them,” East head coach Jeff Trotter said. “I thought our defense and offense played good. Special teams played great. I can’t really complain but we still have to fix some stuff.”

The Thunderbirds generated big plays in all three phases of the game and scored in just about every way imaginable. Leading the charge on both sides of the ball was senior Austin Johnson, who intercepted three passes on defense and scored four total touchdowns on offense that included a pair of long passes and two short rushing scores.

“I think we have one of the best quarterbacks in the state,” Trotter said. “He worked all offseason at quarterback and he’s been good. He’s trying to learn how to do the leading thing because he’s not used to doing that, and I think he’s picking it up.”

East had five players reach the end zone and three repeat scorers. Their final two touchdowns came on a 90-yard kickoff return by junior defensive back Marad Wright and a 52-yard interception return from junior outside linebacker Toa Samoa.

The Thunderbirds’ young offensive and defensive line dominated in the trenches as they owned the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball for the vast majority of the game.

“We’re not as big as we usually are (but) our team speed is our deal,” Trotter said. “This is one of the faster teams that we’ve had in a while and we’re going to utilize that speed to wreak havoc on some people.”


Johnson set up the team’s first scoring drive when he jumped a route intended for Service receiver Blaise Rinner, and would’ve taken it all the way back to the house had he been able to keep his footing before falling to the ground.

“I watched a lot of film and knew they were going to run that curl and post concept and I knew I was going to jump the curl,” Johnson said. “On film, a lot of times he’d look to where he was throwing.”

Senior running back Jon Jon Cervana rumbled into the end zone five plays later for a touchdown. Senior Andrew Montenegro racked up 40 yards on the team’s first possession. He accounted for 56 more yards on the ensuing two possessions that included capping off the team’s third drive of the game with a 30-yard scoring jaunt. He finished the game with a team-leading 108 rushing yards.

From that point on, the rest of the Thunderbirds’ offensive touchdowns came courtesy of Johnson’s arm and legs. He connected with junior wide receiver Brandon Young twice for scores of 35 and 19 yards on a pair of fourth-and-longs in the first half. Young made several impressive snags and catch-and-run plays throughout the game where he caught the ball over defenders or outran opponents. He finished as the team’s leading receiver with 136 yards on seven receptions.

“Brandon was one of the top receivers in the state last year as a sophomore, and now as a junior, he’s looking like be might be the top receiver in the state,” Trotter said. “He showed it today and has some skill sets that are impressive and will transfer to college later.”

Johnson’s rushing touchdowns came on a 1-yard quarterback power play in the second quarter and a 5-yard quarterback draw in the third quarter. His third interception came on an underthrow but on his second interception, his experience as a quarterback came in handy as he perfectly read the play and tipped it to himself.

“I read his eyes and kind of baited him into the curl and he didn’t want to throw it,” Johnson said.

Although colleges were looking and recruiting him to play wide receiver, Johnson the quarterback now has the Thunderbirds undefeated through the first two weeks of the season and looking like a top contender again after a bit of a down year compared to the program’s typical high standards.

“I just want to do what’s best for my team,” he said. “I want to help out my team, and I want to win.”

Fortunately for Johnson, he had his older brother, 2021-22 Gatorade Player of the Year and former East quarterback Kyler Johnson, to lean on and help him prepare for this full-time transition over the summer. Kyler Johnson is now playing collegiately at Western New Mexico University.

“It was a challenge and he’s one hell of a coach, for sure,” Johnson said. “It sucked sometimes because you don’t want to hear the real truth from your brother, but he’s probably the best coach that has ever coached me.”

Friday results

Colony 35, Bartlett 28

Soldotna 66, North Pole 0

Houston 50, Kodiak 6

West Valley 34, Chugiak 14

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.