A year ago, Azariah Atonio and Austin Johnson were teammates together on the Bettye Davis East High varsity football team, where they had a nice connection as quarterback and wide receiver.
On Friday, when the Thunderbirds face off with crosstown rival West High, Atonio and Johnson will be adversaries for the first time at the high school level.
In the offseason, Atonio was one of four East players who transferred to West and switched allegiances from the blue and red to the black and orange.
“Everybody has choices to make, and those were made in the offseason,” East coach Jeff Trotter said. “We just step forward and move forward. One person is out, and the next person is up. It’s kind of like that with injuries. It’s not the first time that we’ve had losses in the offseason, and it won’t be the last.”
Both East and West, the two highest-ranked teams at the Division I level, are off to hot starts this season.
Neither has lost to Alaska competition yet, but that’ll change after what Antonio believes will be an intense matchup.
“There’s going to be a lot of talking on both teams, but we just have to stay focused and stick to the game plan,” he said.
Atonio’s decision to change schools wasn’t his alone — rather, it was a family decision, and one that he’s grateful for given the bonds he’s been able to build in a short amount of time.
“As soon as I came over here, it was all love,” Atonio said. “The connection wasn’t really there at first but as we grew friendships and everybody became closer with each other, that brotherhood came along.”
His family has a strong history and deep connection with the Thunderbirds program. Both his older brothers played and won state titles while at East.
He believes the move to West has given him an opportunity to create his own unique chapter in his family’s football legacy like his brothers established at East.
Johnson expects the matchup to be a “good back-and-forth battle,” and while it should be intense, he said there’s no ill will.
“It’s definitely different and there was a lot of adapting,” he said. “It’s nothing against what they did because they did what they had to do for the best of themselves. (We) have no hate for them. It’s all love.”
The Thunderbirds are 5-1 against the Eagles since 2020 and 12-5 in regular and postseason meetings between the two programs over the past decade, dating back to the 2013 season.
East believes they have a good game plan in place for West on both sides of the ball, and the Thunderbirds are excited to finally implement it Friday night.
“We’re just looking at it as another game because it has to be,” Trotter said. “Between the two of us, it just affects seeding and that’s about it. We might play each other again in three to five weeks if we’re lucky to make it that far.”
While East is downplaying the significance of the game in their eyes, West is not.
“People talk about iron sharpens iron, and they use that probably when they don’t know what to say, but that’s what this really is,” West coach Tim Davis said. “This is two great programs, two great teams, and (both are) preparing with a great amount of focus.”
Emotions can run high in any typical rivalry game. Given what transpired in the offseason, Davis knows that this matchup might be even more emotionally charged for some players on both sides.
Assuming the mantle of leadership and making a smooth transition
Johnson got some starting quarterback experience last year when Atonio missed games due to injury, but making the full-time transition to the position is something he didn’t anticipate. Nonetheless, the senior has rolled with it and has taken the position change in stride.
“I think Austin has stepped up as much as anybody could,” Trotter said. “He made some sacrifices and would’ve loved to stay at receiver, but he stepped in and went to quarterback.”
Johnson believes that “it’s definitely been a blessing in disguise” because it has helped the Thunderbirds come closer together despite losing some players that they expected to be key contributors.
He attributes his growth as a leader to an increased awareness of his body language and non-verbal communication.
“(It’s) not the way that I speak to them but the way I carry myself out there on field and in practice,” Johnson said.
He believes a win over West would be a “big confidence booster” for the Thunderbirds, but they still refuse to treat the heavyweight CIC clash as anything more than just another game on their schedule.
“We always want to keep our composure, keep humble, and stay within ourselves,” Johnson said. “They know that what (the transfers) did is what they did and it’s not personal. We just have to go out there and play football.”
Atonio believes that coming over to West has changed who he is on and off the field, and he’s enjoyed establishing strong bonds with his new team.
“The different coaching staff, the kids, and just the community on the West side has built me into a different person,” he said.
He admits that getting on the same page with some of his new pass catchers was “a little shaky” at the beginning of the year because they had never played together before, but their chemistry has come a long way since then.
“Once we started connecting on the field, during practices, and even when we got our alone time to get together, that chemistry just slowly built over time and I feel like it’s A-1 now,” Atonio said.
Depending on the result of Friday’s game and the final few weeks of the regular season, this might be the last time that Atonio steps foot on the East field in uniform as a player. He hopes to make the most of it with a win.
“It would mean a lot,” Atonio said. “I grew up on that field, played three years on that field, but it would mean a lot as an Eagle.”