October 14, 2009

In Alaska, 4A high school football started in July and ends Saturday when the Bartlett Golden Bears play the Chugiak Mustangs for the state championship at Anchorage Football Stadium.

It's unseasonably warm (in the 40s), so there won't be snow on the field this year. In the background, the tree-lined Eklutna Mountains will tower over the stadium, and if a moose wanders over to check out the game, it won't be the first time.

Welcome to high school football played on top of the world.

Trying to stay ahead of the weather, Alaska plays its state championship games much earlier than schools "down South," which makes this weekend special. But there's another reason that the Bartlett-Chugiak clash is Rivals.com's Game of the Week: They play some pretty good football in Alaska.

Bartlett, a school in Anchorage, won the regular season clash between the two teams, 35-3, on Sept. 23.

It now comes into the game with a record of 8-2 thanks in part to its two star running backs, Jamal Hale and Chris Chennault.

Hale, the fullback, is a three-year starter who has rushed for more than 3,000 yards in his career and 1,160 yards this season. Chennault, who didn't even start playing football until the ninth grade, has rushed for 1,292 yards this season and has a 9.36-yards per carry average.

In the Golden Bears' 40-19 semifinal victory over North Pole, the two were almost unstoppable. Chenault rushed 19 times for 207 yards and three touchdowns, adding a fourth touchdown receiving, while Hale rushed 15 times for 185 yards and two touchdowns, including a 145-yard third quarter burst.

According to coach John Jessen, both are Division I-caliber players who would be attracting a lot more attention if they played down South. But Jessen said it's actually the defense that is the team's heart and soul. Strong at all three phases - line, linebackers and backfield - the squad is led by linebackers Junior Tufuga and Jacob Yates, defensive back Jordan Blount-O'Connor, and free safety Wilber Everett, who Jessen compared to former Golden Bear and current Chicago Bear Zach Bowman.

Chugiak, which is in Eagle River about 10 miles outside of Anchorage, doesn't have as much speed as Bartlett. Instead, its triple option wishbone attack chews up yards and plays smash-mouth football up and down the field.

"Basically, we like to line up and come at you and like to see what you got," Coach Duncan Shackleford said.

Leading rusher Greg Ghramm has gained 1,115 yards this season averaging 5.19 yards per carry, and though he can't match Hale and Chennault in a foot race, he's a smart player who plays hard from the coin toss to the final whistle.

"He probably runs a 4.7, 4.75 (40-yard dash), but he'll run a 4.75 on play one and a 4.75 on play 60," Shackleford said.

Neither team would have been favored to reach this point at the beginning of the playoffs.

Bartlett finished third in the Cook Inlet Conference with a 5-2 record, while Chugiak was fourth in the same conference at 4-3.

According to Jessen, the Golden Bears simply weren't playing hard enough earlier in the season, but a close loss to West Anchorage focused the team, and players began gaining confidence with succeeding wins against Dimond and Service. Lately they've been dominant as they steamrolled through the playoffs.

"We play way better when we're playing with great intensity, energy, effort," Jessen said. "When we're doing all that, things break for us."

It's been just the opposite for Chugiak, which keeps finding creative ways to win. The week before playing Bartlett in the regular season, the Mustangs blocked a last-second extra point to defeat Service, 21-20. Then against Juneau in the first round of the playoffs, the game was tied 14-14 with six seconds left when a Juneau long snap went over the punter's head and through the back of the end zone for a safety. The semifinals against Palmer were decided by an 18-yard field goal by junior Bryan Maley, his second game-winning kick of the year.

The Mustangs, who were fielding only about 26 players until they brought up a few members of the junior varsity, pride themselves on their team stamina. Perhaps those fourth-quarter wins were forged earlier in the year in practice when players ran 25 sprints a day up a steep cross-country ski trail known as "The Hill."

Both coaches said the regular season game, won easily by Bartlett, is not a good barometer for the state championship. The Mustangs, who had won one of their usual nail-biters the week before against Service, came out flat, and the Bartlett running attack broke open the game with some long runs.

Saturday could be different, especially with the way that Chugiak has been playing.

"We know that if we aren't playing hard, they can give us problems," Jessen said. "Our philosophy is, we feel like we can beat any team in Alaska, but we also feel like if we're not doing our job, we can get beat by any team in Alaska."

Does that include a team that can't seem to lose like Chugiak?

Shackleford recognizes that this team is special - so special that it has caused him to postpone thoughts of retirement. After its games have ended with a blocked extra point, two field goals, and a safety off an errant deep snap, it may or may not be time to call Chugiak a team of destiny. Regardless, it's time to line up and see what both teams have got.

"I tell kids their destinies are made when they step on the field," Shackleford said.

GAME OF THE WEEK: Bartlett (AK) vs. Chugiak (AK)
KEY TO THE GAME: Bartlett Golden Bears
Bartlett Bartlett has been cruising through the playoffs. If it can get its two star running backs, Chris Chenault and Jamal Hale, some running room, Chugiak simply doesn't have the speed to catch them. But Chugiak has been winning games in weird ways this season, so Bartlett needs to put the game out of reach before the fourth quarter.
KEY TO THE GAME: Chugiak Mustangs
Chugiak The Mustangs must stop Chenault and Hale at the line of scrimmage, or it will be a long afternoon. If they can win the turnover battle, their ball control offense can chew up a lot of clock and keep Bartlett's weapons off the field. Coach Duncan Shackleford said it best: "Bartlett's got just incredible speed, and if you let up for a second and give those guys a crease, it's a track meet, and it's a track meet we can't win. I've said it before: It's kind of the plowhorses versus the thoroughbreds."
Note: Big-game performance
Three weeks ago, Bartlett won their regular season game, 35-3. But three weeks is a long time in high school football.
RivalsHigh Game of the Week Prediction. 2009 record (5-3)
Bartlett easily won the regular season match-up and seem to have the more athletic team. Chugiak is flying high and believes to be a team of destiny. The Golden Bears have the speed on the field and with a warm dry field that speed is the difference. Bartlett 30, Chugiak 10


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