Late stand lifts Whalers to first state football title
PALMER — With the game, and the Barrow Whalers' dreams, on the line Saturday at Machetanz Field, reserve linebacker Jalen Tracey made sure his team got to kiss the golden football — as the groom for the first time.
Having entered the game only moments earlier when the team's starting outside linebacker was injured, Tracey found himself at the right place at the right time when he pulled down Homer quarterback Teddy Croft at the Barrow 2 yard line as time expired. His tackle enabled the Whalers to marry themselves to a thrilling 20-14 victory in the Division III state football championship.
"He's a second-string linebacker for us," said Barrow head coach Chris Battle. "All year we talked to the players about stepping up when they had to. Our kids were getting hurt and a little banged up so we had to put him in there and Jaylen saved the day for us. He stepped up. He stepped up for his team right there and helped us get a state championship."
"We got married today," he added. "The state title said 'I do' because of him. We couldn't be happier she said 'yes.'"
Tracey's tackle ended a gut-wrenching final five minutes of play for the Whalers. After a late interception by Homer's Joe Ravin had given the Mariners - the state's highest scoring offense during the regular season - new hope. Homer drove 80 yards to the Barrow 4. With just 30 seconds left on the clock, Croft sneaked to the BHS 2 on a 4th-and-1 play and moved the Mariners to within 6 feet of a potential game-winning touchdown.
With no timeouts, Barrow sophomore Vaka Tuifua stepped up. On the first play from the Whaler 2, he managed to stand up to Homer running back Noah Fisk at the land of scrimmage.
With time running, the Mariners scrambled to the line of scrimmage for a final play. The 2017 Peninsula Conference Player of the Year, Croft, took the snap from center. Having already rushed for a game-high 152 yards, the senior decided to put the Mariners' hopes on his legs and scrambled up the middle toward the goal line - only to be wrapped up by Tracey.
It turned out to be the tackle that shook the North Slope.
"Honestly, that play had been killing us the whole game," said senior Travis Adams. "For a guy that doesn't play very much. He made the biggest tackle of his career. He'll remember that for the rest of his life. I think we'll all remember that tackle for the rest of our lives."
Sophomore quarterback Anthony Freuan agreed, saying Tracey's stop helped the Whalers become the first team from the Arctic Circle to claim a state football title.
"We told everyone back in Barrow that we were going to bring this home," said Freuan, who passed for 56 yards and a touchdown. "We did. It is very special for us."
Homer, which was making its first appearance in the state championship game since back-to-back trips in 2011 and 2012, didn't make the Whalers' historic moment easy.
After Homer had forced Barrow to punt its first possession away, Croft hit stride quickly, leading the Mariners on a lightning-quick 3-play, 35-yard strike that took just 62 seconds off the clock. The Homer quarterback, who had scrambled for 21 yards to the Whaler 11 a play earlier, capped the Mariners' drive by lofting a pass to the side of the end zone that senior wideout Justin Sumption managed to pull in before falling out of bounds.
Sumption's TD reception staked Homer to a 6-0 cushion with 5:29 left in the opening frame.
Barrow didn't panic, however.
Despite a pair of costly penalties, the Whalers took the ensuing kick and pieced together a 12-play 66-yard drive that spanned more than seven minutes. Senior Running back Ben Heather finished off the drive at the third play of the second quarter by rumbling into the end zone from a yard out. He tacked on the extra-point kick and staked Barrow to a 7-6 advantage.
From there, Adams said he and his team knew they had a chance at history.
"We struggled at the beginning, but once we got it going nothing was going to stop us," he said.
The Whalers threatened to build on their lead later in the second. Sparked by a 17-yard run by Heather and 15-yard penalty on Homer for roughing the quarterback, Barrow drove to the Homer 11 before stalling. The Mariners' Dawson Felde thwarted the Whalers' scoring opportunity by intercepting a pass intended for Sione Tuifua in the end zone with six seconds left in the half.
During the half, Freuan said Battle didn't change the team's approach to Homer but, instead, urged his team to take care of themselves - especially when it came to penalties. As a team, Barrow was whistled for eight penalties for 60 yards in the first two quarters.
"At the half, coach talked to us and told us if we mess up on one play to just shake it off," he said. "We just had to pick each other up and shake off any mistakes and play our game."
Barrow got its offense untracked quickly in the second half. The Whalers took the opening kick and marched 54 yards for a touchdown that extended its lead to 14-6. Freuan finished off the drive with a stellar play on a 3rd-and-12 play from the Mariner 14. After taking the snap, the 6-foot-4 junior rolled to his right and then threw back across the field to Calvin Miller for a touchdown.
Miller's TD reception was the second-longest scoring pass in BHS history, edging out the 12-yard pass Cody Ponce De Leon caught from Edward Benson in the Whalers' only other appearance in the state title game - a 52-21 loss to Nikiski in 2011.
The longest TD reception by a Whaler was a 35-yard catch by Trace Hudson in the 2011 finals.
Barrow didn't have long to enjoy the historic aspect of Miller's reception - or the lead it gave them.
In fact, the celebration lasted less than 10 seconds.
Croft fielded Barrow's ensuing kick on a hop at his own 18, darted through an opening in the middle of the field and then raced 82 yards for a touchdown. Moments later, he tossed a short pass to Ravin in the corner of the end zone to complete the two-point play and tie the game at 14-14.
Overall, Croft rolled up more than 310 all-purpose yards in the game, including 152 rushing, 68 passing and 90 in returns.
Adams and Heather made sure the Whalers regrouped early in the fourth quarter. The BHS running back put Homer's backs against the wall on the second play of the final stanza by breaking off a 31-yard run to the Mariner 9. One play later, Heather took a handoff from Freuan and raced around the left end before completing a 9-yard touchdown run by diving into the end zone.
Heather's second TD of the game staked the Whalers to a 20-14 cushion with 11:37 remaining.
One of seven players honored as outstanding players after the game, Heather came up with a huge defensive play minutes later to help Barrow preserve its lead. After the Mariners had taken the ensuing kick and marched to the BHS 12, Heather raced in to recover a fumble pitch on an option play. His recover.
Ravin gave Homer one final chance at sneaking out a win with 4:34 remaining when he intercepted a pass in the HHS end zone and returned it to the Mariner 14. Eleven plays later, Croft scrambled to the Barrow 2.
Two quick plays after that, Tracey wrote Barrow into U.S. football history. With the win, the Whalers joined Barrow's 2011 squad and the 2010 Anaktuvuk Pass Wolves' squad as the only teams in the Arctic Circle to have competed for state football titles. Anaktuvuk Pass played in the inaugural 8-man state championship, falling to Voznesenka.
"This is a very special bunch right here," said Battle, who was an assistant on the Whalers' 2011 squad. "These kids have been winning since they were in seventh grade and they made it happen today. We had a saying all year, 'Dreams to Reality' and they made those dreams a reality today."
The win's importance wasn't lost on Adams, who played on the Whalers' first-ever state basketball squad as a freshman.
"I've been so blessed," he said. "To be a part of the first basketball state championship and now this. Not many get this feeling I have, so I can't tell you how blessed I feel."