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Mustangs rally around ousted kicker

Matt Tunseth
MATT TUNSETH / Aklaska Star via The Associated Press

Chugiak High football coach Duncan Shackelford didn't know what to make of the skinny little kid with the big, shy smile and confident brown eyes, but he was intrigued when Craig Lowe introduced himself with a brash proclamation in November.

"He comes up to me and goes, 'Hey coach, I just want to let you know I'm going to be your new kicker next year,' " Shackelford said.

Over the winter, Shackelford rarely saw the kid -- for good reason. Lowe wasn't enrolled in school.

Although he attended Chugiak High as a freshman and had lived in the town for nearly a decade, from his sophomore year on Lowe attended school at home, where his proud Christian mother administered a curriculum of clean morals, love of family and a strong belief in God.

For the rest of the school year, Shackelford occasionally saw Lowe hanging around school or working out with the football players after the bell rang. But when it came time to start practice this season, Lowe was nowhere to be found.

"Then (the second day) he comes out and says, 'Coach, I had to take care of my little brothers and sisters, but I'm here to kick,' " Shackelford said.

"I go, 'OK, show me an extra point.' So he gets all stretched out and sets up his little stand and he goes back and goes up to the ball and ... Boom! Ball goes one bounce and over the fence. It split the uprights."

Shackelford started moving Lowe farther away from the end zone and the skinny kid kept banging the ball through the posts -- all the way to 46 yards out.

"You're hired," Shackelford said.

Lowe was overjoyed. In his new job, he would kick field goals, extra points and kickoffs for the Mustangs.

But after six games, an administrator from another high school called Chugiak and questioned Lowe's eligibility. Because he was enrolled in a correspondence program run by a district other than Anchorage's, Lowe was ineligible to play Anchorage School District sports.

Chugiak reported the ineligibility and the Alaska School Activities Association stripped the team of three victories earned while Lowe was on the team.

The forfeits cost Chugiak an appearance of the state playoffs, which wrap up this weekend with the state championship game between Service and South -- a team the Mustangs beat on the field, only to see the win become a loss because of the forfeits.

'HOW TO KICK A FOOTBALL'

Mary Vallieres is Lowe's mother. She and her family moved to Chugiak 10 years ago from Chevak, a village near the Bering Sea coast.

Like many villages in the Bush, high school sports are popular in Chevak -- Vallieres played basketball and ran cross country for the Comets -- but Western Alaska isn't exactly West Texas.

"There's no football out there," Vallieres said.

So when Lowe came to his mom a year ago and said he wanted to be a placekicker for the Mustangs, Vallieres thought he was dreaming.

"I thought it was something he was doing to pass the time away," she said.

But he wasn't just killing time.

"First I watched a video, like, 'How to Kick a Football,' " Lowe said.

Next, he found a football and headed to nearby Chugiak Elementary, where at night he started kicking the old football back and forth across the school's big, empty parking lot. Before long, the ball was jumping off his foot.

"I hit it right once and then I started to get it," he said.

As winter descended, Lowe's regimen ramped up. Whenever he could, he'd quiz Bryan Maley, Chugiak's all-state senior kicker last season, about technique. Sometimes, he'd sneak onto the turf at Tom Huffer Sr. Stadium and shovel off a patch of snow. Sometimes he used parking lots. Usually, he'd spend two or three hours a day kicking off the frozen ground -- often with one or two of his five siblings tagging along.

Vallieres said her son became obsessed with learning how to kick.

"He's been practicing in the rain, the snow, the cold, the dark," she said.

DREAM COME TRUE

Football is a big deal at Chugiak, the second-smallest football school in the Anchorage School District. The Mustangs pride themselves on playing a scrappy, hard-hitting brand of ball-control football built around toughness and conditioning. Shackelford said that's a reflection of the town's character.

"We like to think of ourselves as a little blue-collar out here," he said.

Chugiak's night games draw big crowds to Huffer Stadium. Being part of the games was a dream come true for Lowe.

"Like all my hard work had paid off," he said.

Lowe proudly took the field as a Mustang for the first time Aug. 13. Decked out in the team's traditional white uniforms trimmed in black and blue and sporting a new pair of bright orange and blue kicking shoes, Lowe kicked off four times and went 1-for-2 on extra points in his debut, a 21-18 win over South.

The Mustangs went a disappointing 3-3 through their first six games and were fighting for one of the Cook Inlet Conference's last playoff spots. Lowe started every game, booting 10 extra points and a pair of field goals.

Seeing Lowe out on the field was a huge thrill for Vallieres, who showed up to games wearing Mustangs gear and joining in the team's famous "Chu, Chu, Chugiak!" chant.

"I'm in awe, because it's like, 'Wow, my son's on the football team,' "she said. "This would have never been possible in Chevak."

ALL FALLS APART

Following a loss to Dimond in the sixth week of the season, Chugiak was down, but not out. It needed wins in its final two regular season games to clinch a playoff berth.

Then everything fell apart.

Home-schooled students are eligible to play high school sports, and many do. Before the season began, Vallieres submitted the required transcripts and paid Lowe's activities fee. Her son's eligibility was cleared with the Chugiak activities office.

It was all a new experience for Vallieres. Although her oldest daughter, Sandra, had graduated from Chugiak, none of her children ever played sports. She said she was led to believe Lowe's eligibility as a home-schooled participant wasn't an issue.

"The school thing didn't even cross my mind," she said.

For two months it didn't cross anybody's mind -- until the Chugiak's activities office got a call Sept. 21 informing them Lowe's paperwork should be checked.

A few hours later, activities principal Kevin Theonnes gave head principal Sam Spinella some very bad news: The Mustangs had an ineligible player.

Although the Anchorage School District includes two home-school programs, Lowe was taking his classes through Interior Distance Education of Alaska (IDEA), a statewide home-school program based in the Interior town of Galena.

That meant Lowe was enrolled in the Galena City School District. Students from other districts are ineligible to participate in Anchorage School District activities even if they live in Anchorage, a rule that strikes Vallieres as odd.

"We do pay our taxes in Anchorage," she said.

'I WAS DEVASTATED"

In a press release issued the next day, the school district said that Lowe should never have been ruled eligible to play for a district team. It said the team faced sanctions from ASAA, which in turn stripped the Mustangs of victories posted while Lowe was on the team.

After hearing the bad news, Shackelford called his team together for a meeting none of them will ever forget.

"Toughest 10 minutes of my life," Shackelford said of informing his team they'd have to forfeit their wins.

Lowe said he felt like he'd cost the team its season.

"I was devastated," he said.

But Kody Trombley, one of the team's co-captains, said nobody was about to blame the kicker.

"We stood by him and said, 'Hey, you got a bum deal, dude, and you're still part of our team and we still love you and we still want you out here,' " Trombley said.

The moment proved to be a turning point.

Chugiak still had two games remaining, but without their conference wins over Eagle River and South (their third victory was over nonconference Colony), the Mustangs had no shot at the playoffs.

"I told the kids, 'You've got two roads you can go down. You can snuggle up on the couch and watch a good cartoon, or you can go to work," Shackelford said. "They went to work."

'IT WASN'T HIS FAULT'

Two days after the forfeitures, Chugiak strapped on the pads for a showdown with defending state champion West at Anchorage Football Stadium. When they began warm-ups, Lowe was right there with them -- wearing street clothes while holding for new kicker Chase Wilson.

The Mustangs defeated West 34-32 to improve their official record to 1-6. In the parking lot after the game, West coach Tim Davis walked up to Shackelford, who was about to board the team bus for the ride back to Chugiak.

"I'm so proud of you guys," Davis told Shackelford.

Shackelford, who won two state championships at Dimond High before arriving at Chugiak in 2004, said the win over West was one of the most inspiring performances he's seen on the gridiron.

Trombley said having Lowe on the sidelines for the game made a big difference.

"It was extremely important," he said. "Craig's conditioned with us, he's practiced with us, he's been there with us all year.

"It wasn't his fault, and we all know that and we feel for him."

It wasn't just the Chugiak players who embraced Lowe in the days following the forfeitures. Vallieres said she was overwhelmed with positive words from her fellow parents.

"The support we've got from all the other Chugiak parents and the team has been wonderful," she said.

Sandra Lowe said seeing the team welcome her little brother back onto the sidelines was touching.

"I don't know what made me cry harder, finding out that he couldn't play or seeing everybody out there around him," she said.

FINAL PLEA

In the week leading up to the regular-season finale, Chugiak's administration said it planned to appeal ASAA's decision. The error that allowed Lowe to play was made by a Chugiak administrator, and the school argued that the students should have to pay for an administrative mistake.

The school would make its case at an ASAA meeting Oct. 3 -- two days after the conclusion of the regular season.

With a win over the T-birds on Saturday and a win in their appeal the following Monday, Chugiak would be in the playoffs.

The Mustangs delivered on their part. They beat the playoff-bound T-birds 24-7. Lowe served as a ball boy, tracking down wayward passes for referees while offering words of encouragement to his teammates on the sidelines between plays.

Two days later, ASAA shut the door on the Mustangs. In a unanimous vote, the board upheld executive director Gary Matthews' decision that Chugiak should forfeit the wins. The decision came despite impassioned pleas by Shackelford, Trombley and others.

Officially, the Mustangs finished the 2011 football season 2-6 overall and 2-5 in the conference -- in seventh place, one spot ahead of last-place Eagle River, whose only win was its forfeit against Chugiak. As far as ASAA is concerned, Craig Lowe never kicked a ball in high school competition.

But none of that seems to matter much to those who saw how Chugiak came together in the final weeks of the season.

"I believe things happen for a reason, and I think this has brought this team closer together," Shackelford said. "It's totally genuine the emotion they show when they see Craig."

Although the 2011 season will go down in the history books as a losing one, Shackelford said he's never been prouder of a group of players.

"This last two weeks is to me what coaching's about," he said. "These guys stopped being players and started being young men."


By MATT TUNSETH
Alaska Star via The Associated Press