Tuesday, November 27, 2007

In Alaska, Juneau-Douglas wins first state title

Single-Wing Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears


In Alaska, Juneau-Douglas wins first state title
By Eric Morrison, Juneau Empire/AP

JUNEAU, Alaska — It would be difficult for Hollywood to create a script better than the story of the Juneau Youth Football League and the success of the Juneau-Douglas High School Crimson Bears.

Beginning in the late 1970s with equipment passed out from the bed of a pickup, playing on rocky glacial silt, paying to fly teams to town, the death of a beloved coach, the nearly three decades of hard work and dedication climaxed Saturday with Juneau's first ever football state championship.

Juneau beat Palmer 49-29, finishing the season 10-1, with the only loss against a team from Washington.

The Crimson Bears began the season in adverse conditions, with the death of head coach Reilly Richey in the offseason and switching from the Cook Inlet Football Conference to the Railbelt Conference. Against all odds, the players rallied around each other and proved to be the dominant Alaska team the entire season.

"It's something that coach Richey dreamed about. I know he dreamed about it," football league board member Karen Lawfer said. "I think he knew this was the year but I think his body just couldn't hold out."

Lawfer said the team was on a mission all season to win for Richey.

"We're bringing home a state championship for coach and we did it, they did it," she said.

"It's a real big day. It's awesome," said Dave Behrends, a league board member who has two sons on the team. "I think it's a big victory for the community, a big victory for the team and a big victory for coach Reilly."

Lynn Bartlett, a former league president, said the state championship and the success of the league wouldn't have been possible without the dedication of the community.

"Each one of these kids that played today went out and raised $2,000, and it's $2,000 that the people in this community paid," she said.

Lawfer said the success of the team is not a surprise because of the dedication the players possess on and off the field. Each player is required to do a minimum of seven hours of community service, pay a $300 registration fee, raise at least $750 in program advertisements, and sell more than $400 in raffle tickets.

League president Ted Lehrbach said he is very proud of the work the coaches, players, parents and volunteers have done all year long.

"I think the community should be very proud of this group of young men," he said.

Taking state came down to four things.

"Probably if you wanted to sum it up — character, courage, commitment and honor," Lehrbach said. "This team had the character to develop the courage, and in order to make a commitment you have to have those qualities. ... They have honored this community on and off the field."

Although this is the first football state championship since Juneau-Douglas High School first fielded a team in 1990, the Crimson Bears have a rich history of sports glory. Basketball has been particularly successful. The 2000s have been a highly productive period for producing championship teams from Juneau, with 16 team state titles since the beginning of the new millennium. Volleyball, soccer, track and softball have all made their marks in the state since then.

Lawfer said the football state championship would never have been possible if two guys didn't decide to start a makeshift league from the back of a pickup in 1978.

"It's 27 years of blood, sweat and tears to get where we are now," she said.

The leagee has come a long way since rocks were picked off the field before games, said Lawfer.

"Oh man, the things that the kids used to have to do to play football was just amazing — playing on glacier silt," she said.

Lehrbach said the league now has an annual budget of slightly more than $300,000, most of it going toward travel expenses. The league pays for 38 people from the opposing team to travel to Juneau when both varsity and junior varsity games are played, and pays for 20 tickets when a varsity team comes to play. Juneau-Douglas High School switched conferences this year in order to keep the fledgling junior varsity program alive, he said.

Bartlett said the league and Crimson Bear football is more than just putting together a winning football team.

"You want to teach them to set a goal and achieve it," she said. "You want to teach them self-responsibility and responsibility to others and how to be a part of a team because this stuff gets you through life. It gives you a foundation in life."

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