Far-flung high school football teams beat geographic odds

Beth Bragg

Way up north, whaling season is going head to head with Whalers football and both are faring well, judging by the two bowheads crews have landed and the limited number of seats left on weekend flights from Barrow to Anchorage.

Way down south, folks in Juneau who hired kids to tear down their deck or mow their lawn during the summer are spending the fall cheering on their investments as those same kids chase a state championship.

And at the end of the road, Homer, aka Mariner Nation, is awash in blue and gold, basking in unprecedented glory.

"I tell you, there was a point in time in Homer's existence when people said, 'Football? Homer has a team?' '' football coach Cam Wyatt said. "We beat Kenai for the first time in almost 20 years and had 800 people at the game and when the game was over after double overtime, they rushed the field like some sort of crazy college team. I thought, 'Please don't break the goalposts. They're so expensive.' ''

Football fever is gripping parts of Alaska like never before as the biggest week in the history of far north football approaches.

Barrow, Juneau and Homer will join three Anchorage teams and two other Kenai Peninsula teams in Chugiak, where two state champions will be crowned and the finalists for a third championship game will be determined.

Alaska is a basketball state and will never rival Texas when it comes to the gridiron, but football has grown from 16 teams two decades ago to 31 teams today. Because of the wildly disparate sizes of those football-playing schools, the Alaska School Activities Association this season created a new division for medium-sized schools that are too small to compete in the same division as Anchorage schools but too big to play in the same division as schools like Nikiski and Barrow, which will meet for the small-school division championship Saturday.

The result? Tremendous geographic diversity for this week's four games. Barrow will fly 500 miles from the north. Juneau will fly 570 miles from the Southeast. Homer will drive 225 miles from the Kenai Peninsula.

Joining them for four games at Chugiak's Tom Huffer Sr. Stadium will be Kenai, Nikiski and three teams from Anchorage -- Service, West and South.


Playoff football came to the top of the world last Saturday when Barrow hosted Monroe Catholic of Fairbanks in a semifinal game at Cathy Parker Stadium, the blue-turf field adjacent to the Arctic Ocean. Players made snow angels in a light dusting of snow while spectators watched from vehicles that circled the field, even though the weather was a quite hospitable 30 degrees with little wind.

"The crowd was great," coach Brad Igou said. "We don't have a lot of bleachers for people to sit and watch but the field was totally surrounded by vehicles with people watching from their cars and, of course, listening on the radio.

"Basketball's pretty big here, I gotta admit, but this particular year, football is definitely on the radar."

Football is filling at least a niche, if not more, in Barrow.

The team debuted five years ago in 2006 with a game that earned headlines for being the first varsity football game in North America played above the Arctic Circle, which is 320 miles south of Barrow.

That kicked off a series of "firsts" -- in 2008, the first playoff game north of the Arctic Circle; in 2009, the first field goal kicked north of the Arctic Circle. And now, the first state championship game featuring a team located north of the Arctic Circle.

But the football team makes more than history for Barrow, Igou said. It makes a difference in the Inupiat village of 4,200 that is not connected to the road system.

"Football fills a niche. We have some kids that play football that wouldn't do anything else and it definitely motivates them to keep their grades up," he said. "It absolutely has had an impact that way."

With its nearest opponent 500 air miles away in Fairbanks, Barrow leads the Great Land Conference when it comes to travel budgets. The trip to Anchorage for Saturday's game will run about $25,000, Igou said. The North Slope Borough contributes greatly to the team's expenses throughout the season, but the kids pitch in too.

"We've done prime rib dinners, car washes, raffles, you name it," the coach said. "Try doing a car wash in 20 degrees. It's fun."


The Crimson Bears of Juneau-Douglas know something about raising money.

They play in the Railbelt Conference along with schools in Fairbanks and Mat-Su and are 570 air miles plus a 40-mile drive away from their nearest conference foes in the Valley.

Part of the agreement that allowed Juneau to join a conference back in 1995 was that the school help pay travel expenses for opponents. When the East Thunderbirds traveled to the capital city last week for a large-school quarterfinal playoff game, Juneau had to buy 30 airline tickets for the T-Birds. When the Crimson Bears are the road team, they pay their own way but split the gate with the home team.

It all adds up to an annual budget of $180,000, said football coach Rich Sjoroos.

The team is part of a true grass-roots program. The Juneau Youth Football League helped get football started as a club team back in the 1980s and continues to fund much of the high school team, which became a varsity program in 1990.

Each player must pay $1,500 to be on the team, which means lots of fundraising for most of the kids.

"It's been a lot of work by a lot of people, and you really see it when we have a playoff game in town like last week, just the energy they bring to the field and being able to turn to them at the end and give them a big thumbs-up, knowing it wasn't just the effort of that one night but the $180,000 we gotta raise," said Sjoroos, who played on the 1986 club team and joined the high school coaching staff in 2001.

The Crimson Bears have a program called Chorebusters, which offers able-bodied teenagers to those who need to hire help for odd jobs. One year, an elderly woman needed help putting up and decorating a Christmas tree, so she called the football team.

"We do a whole spectrum of jobs," Sjoroos said. "The kids really like the demolition stuff. Somebody calls and says, 'Hey, we need our deck torn down,' and I've got kids knocking on my door. Anything that involves sledgehammers and that kind of stuff, sign them up."


Homer is a Kachemak Bay fishing town of 5,000 known for its spectacular beauty, its bounty of halibut and an eclectic population that includes artists, activists and commercial and charter fishermen.

This year, the town located at the end of the Sterling Highway is getting attention for its football team too.

"A lot of people feel very good about this and want to be a part of it," Wyatt said. "Everybody wants to wear blue and gold."

Disciplinary problems at the school are "down substantially," the coach said, something he attributes to the distraction of a winning football team.

With an 8-1 record, this year's Mariners have won the most games in school history. Among their wins is a rare victory over perennial power Kenai, a team Homer last beat in 1992 -- and will face again Saturday for the medium-school championship.

"We're a seasonal community and people are putting away their boats and tourism has stopped; some people had good years and some didn't have such good years because of the economy," Wyatt said. "We don't have a lot of kids with the right last name, that drive fancy cars. They're hard-working, blue-collar kids playing a sport. A lot of them gave up their summer jobs early, which a lot of them couldn't afford to do, but they felt like more (football) would equal more success."

The team will drive to Anchorage on Saturday instead of Friday and will use the money saved on hotel rooms to rent more comfortable transportation than a school bus -- and to buy some practice time early in the day at the AT&T Sports Center, which has a turf field.

"Some of our player have never played on turf," Wyatt said, so this will give them a chance to experience it before heading to Chugiak's turf field.

"We'll get the road wear off us a little, throw the ball and have fun, go through some plays, have lunch and check into our hotel," he said. "We'll put on our big-boy pants and get on that fancy bus and go to Chugiak.

"I told the kids, regardless of the outcome, you're gonna make memories that last a lifetime that you'll pass on to your kids. The community is 100 percent behind you. Go out and have fun and play your best game. You earned the right to get there.

"Our goal is to take that trophy back to our community and say, 'Thank you for believing in us.' "

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.

Anchorage Daily News