While upsets in sports can be bracket-busters come playoff time for some, they can also be inspiring examples of how athletes can overcome adversity and defy long odds to prevail.
That’s exactly what happened in the first round of the 2023 Alaska Division I state football playoffs when Bartlett and South Anchorage pulled off two of the biggest upsets of the year, at any level.
The Bartlett Golden Bears (3-6) avenged their semifinal loss from last year by knocking off the reigning Division I state champion Colony Knights 35-28.
“The coaching staff is very confident, the players are very confident, and we’re very happy and pleased with the outcome,” Bartlett coach Chance Matsuoka said. “We worked really hard.”
The South Wolverines (4-5) beat second-seeded Bettye Davis East for the first time since the 2015 season.
“That was huge for (the players), and now they feel like they can take on the world,” South coach John Lewis said.
Now, with a trip to the state title game on the line, the two confident underdogs will play each other in semifinals this Saturday afternoon at Bartlett.
“It’s going to be an absolute dogfight,” Matsuoka said. “We’re going against a good coach. (John) Lewis is a great coach and has lots of experience, especially in the playoffs. Their kids are on a high. Their kids have confidence, and they just upset the No. 2 team. It’s going to be a battle, and it will depend on which kids show up.”
It hasn’t even been a month since they last played each other. In Week 7, the Golden Bears spoiled the Wolverines’ homecoming by coming from behind to beat them 48-21.
“When we played here, it was a physical battle,” Lewis said. “It was a close game, and we were winning at halftime. Bartlett has all the advantages in the world. They beat us, they have the home field, no problem. I don’t care but we’re coming.”
From going winless to becoming respectable winners
Last season was Lewis’ first back at the helm of the South football program, and it couldn’t have gone any worse. The Wolverines still managed to make the postseason because of the modified structure, but they failed to win a single game in nine attempts.
“They don’t even get respect in their own building anymore,” Lewis said. “The kids would come in and say, ‘We get made fun of by our friends, and they won’t come to our games because they figure we’re going to lose anyway.’”
While the 14-12 win over East this past Saturday was the Wolverines’ biggest upset of the season, it wasn’t their first.
In Week 4, back in early September, they ended the longest active losing streak in the state at the Division I level with a shocking 31-23 upset win over Colony.
“For most of these kids, that was the first (varsity) win they’ve had in their career, which is amazing,” Lewis said.
The Wolverines came from behind to beat Chugiak a week later to win consecutive games for the first time since the 2020 season. They went on a short losing skid, losing to Service and Bartlett, but finished the regular season on a high note with a commanding 46-0 shutout of Juneau.
“That was really the kickoff because everybody just did everything we’ve been asking, and that led to (the upset of) East,” Lewis said. “It was about confidence.”
Senior safety Falealili Lefano believes their turnaround is a result of their strong bond as a team that was forged in a crucible of ridicule and widespread doubt, not only from their opponents but even within their own school.
“Even our school doubted us from Day 1 and Game 1,” he said. “Our team has never broken and as a team, we’ve always known ... we can all play at our best.”
Last year’s season was the first football experience for senior Hunter Fike at any level. He was one of the players who experienced their first high school win in their early season upset over Colony and is excited for another chance for the Wolverines to prove themselves again.
“Our confidence is up, but we know it’s going to be a battle,” Fike said. “We played them for homecoming and unfortunately lost that one, but we’re going to bring it back.”
South isn’t favored to win its rematch with Bartlett but couldn’t care less about the odds because they’re more focused on being there for one another.
“We call ourselves the underdogs, but it’s really whatever,” Lefano said. “We play for each other and no one else. It’s our season to win, and if it comes down to us in the championship, then so be it.”
Bartlett’s young talent has ‘bought in’ — and is thriving
After a rough start to the season, Matsuoka began seeing a shift in the team after their win over South.
“(After that) we played a really tough game against East, and we actually had a lot of confidence going into the Colony game,” he said.
Junior running back Makisi Poleo was on last year’s team, which was knocked out of the playoffs by Colony in an upset.
“It felt good getting them back finally,” he said. “We couldn’t do it the first time, but we got them back in the playoffs, so that’s all that matters.”
This year’s team has exhibited the most growth that Matsuoka has “ever seen out of a football team” during a season.
Once his players started figuring out and adhering to the tutelage from coaches, they completely “bought in.”
“You could see it in the game, and you could see it on film,” Matsuoka said. “They are 100% bought in, doing what we’re asking and enjoying the benefits of that.”
Matsuoka is proud of how far the Golden Bears have come this year but also knows that they’ll be facing a vastly improved Wolverines squad.
“We’re a different team than we were at the beginning of the year, but South is a different team than they were a couple weeks ago, too,” he said. “This is going to be a battle on our hands.”