High School Sports

West High football pulls away from East late with key defensive plays

The final box score of Friday night’s Cook Inlet Conference football clash between crosstown rivals West Anchorage and Bettye Davis East indicated a nearly 20-point victory for the visiting Eagles.

However, the game of the week didn’t disappoint or lack for action before the Thunderbirds ultimately fell 41-22 on their home turf to West, the team that may very well be the most complete team in the state at the Division I level.

“To come out on top is a pretty good feeling, but at the end of the day, these kids worked so hard for it this week and put in a solid week of practice,” West coach Tim Davis said.

Through the first three quarters, it was anyone’s game as neither team held the momentum or a lead for long. The teams would answer one impressive drive with another impressive drive, and trade big play for big play.

“It snowballed and that scoreboard was nowhere near the game that it was,” Davis said. “It didn’t tell the story and we know that. We’re going to celebrate this one but just like Cinderella, when that clock strikes midnight, we’re on to the next one.”

The heavyweight bout that began as a back-and-forth affair turned in West’s favor in the fourth quarter when the Eagles scored three unanswered touchdowns in just over two minutes of game time, taking back the lead for good.

First came a 26-yard strike from senior quarterback Azariah Atonio to junior wide receiver Ariel Sanchez that gave the Eagles a 27-22 lead after a failed two-point conversion at the 7:51 mark.


Following an interception from junior safety Dylan Sanders near midfield that he returned to the East 7-yard line, the Eagles were back into the end zone after back-to-back carries by senior running back Davis Iloilo. That put West up by two scores at the 6:26 mark.

“It was a big play for the offense to get another score on the board to finish this game off,” Sanders said. “It was just an instinctive play.”

The final knockout blow was dealt when junior defensive end Leonidas Mata picked up a fumble by East quarterback Austin Johnson and proceeded to rumble 30 yards back the other way for a touchdown with 5:40 left in the game.

Sanders credits the relentless pressure generated by the Eagles’ defensive line in the second half as the key to forcing the two late turnovers that turned the tide.

“They’re just dogs down there,” Sanders said. “I only got a couple tackles, but all of them worked their butts off.”

Sanders was one of three Eagles to record interceptions in the game. In the third quarter, senior Aaron Hampton hauled in a tipped pass that bounced off the hands of an East receiver. Junior linebacker Christian Faletoi also had a third-quarter interception when he jumped an underneath route on the next East drive.

“Dylan Sanders is probably the best backyard football player west of the Mississippi,” Davis said. “The kid is just all over the place playing backyard football, catching tipped balls and trying to take them to the house.”

The result marked the first loss to Alaska competition for East this season, and the second victory for West over their crosstown rival since 2020.

It was especially meaningful for Atonio, who began his high school career at East. He was elated that perhaps his last time on that field ended with him walking off victorious as an Eagle.

“It means everything,” he said. “I transferred over here looking for a fresh start, and that’s what they gave me. Every opportunity was taken and we took off from there.”

[Previously: Anchorage’s crosstown high school football rivals rally around their unexpected starting quarterbacks]

He recorded the first two touchdowns of his hat trick in the first half on scrambles of 11 and 10 yards to give his team a 13-6 lead at halftime. East drew first blood on a 3-yard touchdown pass from Johnson to junior fullback Pusa Lilo in the first quarter.

“(Atonio) ran the ball, he played tough, he threw the ball and responded to adversity well,” Davis said.

East recaptured the lead 14-13 on a 5-yard touchdown from senior running back Saumani Atiifale followed by a successful two-point conversion.

The Thunderbirds’ lead wouldn’t last long as the Eagles answered quickly with a swift five-play drive that was sparked by three straight Iloilo runs for a combined 23 yards. It was capped off by a 20-yard touchdown run from senior Mason Tanoa, who lined up at quarterback in a wildcat formation. Tanoa ran in a two-point conversion as well.

“Davis (Iloilo) is a bulldozer,” Atonio said. “Once he gets the ball, there’s no stopping him.”

East answered right back with a run-heavy scoring drive of its own in which Johnson only threw the ball twice. The second attempt resulted in an 8-yard touchdown catch and run by junior wide receiver Brandon Young, who extended the ball over the goal line. The Thunderbirds then took the lead on another successful two-point conversion from Atiifale that looked short initially but was called good after officials conversed.


Atonio believes that this statement win over his former team will not only serve as huge confidence booster for his current team, but also send a clear message to rest of the state about what the Eagles are capable of.

“It tells them that we’re here,” he said. “No one believed in the beginning and everybody had their doubts, but they should know by now.”

[Split by grade, Anchorage XC runners relish the competition on a mud-splashed course]

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.