In late October, Sean Duffy stood on one sideline for the West Anchorage High School Eagles. Ben Stewart stood on the other sideline for the Chugiak High Mustangs.
JJ Iverson was sitting in the stands at the Alaska High School state championship game, and he wasn’t quite sure who to root for.
“I wasn’t going to miss that one,” said Iverson, NFA’s lead coach in Alaska. “I’ve worked so closely with Sean since he was a sophomore, and I started working with Ben this summer. It’s kind of cool being the neutral coach. I was hoping for a close game, but unfortunately it was a 41-0 blowout.”
It was actually a close game at halftime, with West Anchorage clinging to a 7-0 lead. But in the second half, Duffy heated up and threw 2 of his 3 touchdown passes of the game to spark the romp and lift the Eagles to their third state title in the last six seasons.
“That was an awesome game to go out on,” said the left-handed Duffy, who connected on 14 of 26 passes for 300 yards in his final high school game. “Chugiak is a really good team. We lost to them in regular season. Prior to that game, I was like, ‘OK, let’s go out with a bang. Let’s win this thing.’ We went out there and did it.”
During the regular season, Chugiak beat West Anchorage 28-21.
It looked like another close game was in store at the half, but Duffy got hot and the Eagles’ defense turned it up against Stewart and the Eagles.
“It was just an off night for the whole team,” Stewart said. “We just had a lack of execution, Mentally, I don’t think we were in it. We had the effort and we had a lot of opportunities to do well in the game, but we just didn’t execute.”
Getting to the state championship game was a huge accomplishment for both schools, and winning or losing does not change that fact.
“High school sports are all about fun, and it was a lot of fun,” said Duffy, who was later voted Alaska’s All-State quarterback for the large-school division. “I’m really going to miss playing and hanging out with all my teammates. They were a great group of guys.”
Stewart, a three-year starter at QB for Chugiak, was All-State as a junior and second-team behind Duffy as a senior.
“I can look back on my career with a smile,” Stewart said. “I played with the same kids since the third grade and we grew up together being watched by the entire Chugiak community. I think I was a big part of turning around a program that wasn’t very good. My classmates, the other seniors, we were a really big part of it.”
The championship game was extra special because Duffy and Stewart are good friends, and they grew even closer while training together with NFA over the summer and into the season along with helping Iverson work with younger QBs in clinics.
“He’s a really good quarterback,” Duffy said of Stewart. “He’s an awesome runner and he can really throw the ball. But I still wanted to beat him. It kind of made it a little bit better, but if I lost or he lost, we were still going to be friends.”
Stewart agreed. “We’re really good friends,” he said. “After every one of his games, I’ll text him and we’re always talking during the season about how our teams are doing. We’re both captains so we got to go out before the game and shake hands. It makes it a lot more fun. Competition wise, you want to do better than him but it’s a lot of fun playing against a good friend.”
Iverson weighs in
There is little doubt that Duffy and Stewart are both very good quarterbacks.
“I think Sean is probably the most recruitable kid that Alaska has ever seen at the quarterback position,” Iverson said. “He passes the eyeball test – big kid, although some people might say he throws with the wrong arm. But I don’t care if you’re left-handed or right-handed, if you can put velocity on the ball and put some touch on it and make the right decisions and make plays when the defense is bearing down on you, he’s got pretty much all the boxes checked. Sean put it all together this year and really lit it up. He threw 10 touchdown passes in three playoff games and was the first quarterback in Alaska ever to throw for over 3,000 yards.
“Ben is cut from a different cloth,” Iverson added. “His school runs a veer/triple option offense and it is definitely more of a running game. But I think that helps in terms of leadership. When your teammates see you running the ball and taking hits, they develop more respect. They know you’re going to stick in there.”
Iverson is immensely proud of the development Duffy and Stewart have displayed. “It’s kind of cool how the NFA brotherhood bond forms,” Iverson said. “They really took to it and performed at a pretty high level.”
Playing in Alaska does present challenges, particulary for quality players like Duffy, who stands just over 6-foot-3 and weights 205 pounds, and the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Stewart.
“The competition is probably not as good as it is down in the States, and being recruited is harder,” said Duffy, who enrolled at West Anchorage as a sophomore after moving from the small Alaska town of Valdez. “But coming to a bigger school, the competition really increased. We still have really good talent here but maybe just not as much as there is in the States.”
Said Iverson: “Sean and Ben are definitely good enough to play in college. Kind of the drawback of being an Alaskan quarterback or Alaskan athlete, we just don’t get the exposure. Who’s going to fly a recruiter up here to check out one or two guys? And everybody always says, ‘What kind of competition are they playing against up there?’ I think they’d be surprised.”
Duffy has already heard from interested schools like Fort Hayes State, Western State in Colorado, the College of Idaho, Valley City State in North Dakota and the University of Dubuque.
“I think I have the skill level, the arm and the ability to play in college,” Duffy said. “I also play baseball and would like to play in college if I can.”
Stewart is also a standout baseball player and might play both sports in college. “There’s no doubt, I believe I can play at the next level,” he said. “I have a couple schools that have been talking to me, Louisiana-Monroe, some JC and lower level schools. I haven’t decided what route to go. I’m just looking for the right fit.”
On the football side, Duffy and Stewart give Iverson, Coach JC Boice and NFA big credit for helping them become the best quarterbacks possible.
“They gave me so much knowledge to become a better quarterback,” Duffy said. “They helped me with my throwing mechanics, reading defenses and they helped me become a leader.”
“NFA honestly helpd my game a lot,” Stewart said. “I didn’t play quarterback until my freshman year. I was just the biggest kid so the coaches decided to play me at quarterback. My game got tremendously better just from that camp in the summer. My footwork and everything else, it made a big difference.”