The only teams to play in Alaska's large-school state championship football game the past three seasons are South, Service and West. Each of the Cook Inlet Conference teams won a title in that span, and each will open the season this weekend without the quarterback that guided it to glory.
Zach Lujan led South past Service in the title game last season and was one of 21 seniors on the team. He'll be replaced by senior Alec Valdez, who also plays free safety for the Wolverines.
"I like to run more than (Lujan) did," Valdez said. "He liked to stay in the pocket. I like to get outside the pocket and throw the ball, run the ball, do both."
Service won the 2011 title over South behind touchdown machine Amu Aukusitino, who threw and ran for a combined 37 touchdowns in 11 games in 2011 and 31 touchdowns in 10 games last season. Senior C.J. Toomer, who has already shown he can handle the job, will take over the offense this season.
"C.J. really was our starter for five games last year," said first-year head coach Kevin Kern, an assistant coach last season. "I really believe he is a strong candidate for the best quarterback in the state of Alaska this year."
West won a title in 2010, beating Service behind then-sophomore quarterback Conor Feckley, who threw for more than 2,000 yards in each of his three varsity seasons. He threw 23 touchdown passes in nine games last season.
West coach Tim Davis said junior Sam Wedin will be his starting quarterback. He has experience too -- he threw a touchdown pass in a loss against Service last year when Feckley was out with a knee injury.
"Sam has done everything right, from going to camps to being in the weight room to studying film,'' Davis said.
Another CIC team also has a new quarterback. East no longer has Jesse Vanilau, who quarterbacked the Thunderbirds to the playoffs as a senior and junior. Coach Jeff Trotter said junior Clayton Washburn has earned the starting nod.
"He's looked good, and the kids follow him,'' Trotter said.
CIC adds fifth berth
The traditional four state playoff berths awarded to the Cook Inlet Conference will increase to five this season, due to school reclassification.
Juneau and North Pole are no longer large schools playing in the Railbelt Conference. Each dropped down to the medium-school division and joined the Southeast Conference.
That left the Railbelt Conference, which usually received four state berths, with just five teams. The powers that be deemed it unfair to allow four of five Railbelt teams in the playoffs, so the extra berth went to the CIC, which has eight teams.
"It's great,'' West's Davis said of the extra playoff berth for the CIC. "I'd like one day to see more regular-season games and fewer teams in the playoffs. I would just love to see more football. I'll play by whatever rules I'm given.''
In all, 20 of the state's 31 teams -- or 64.5 percent -- will make the playoffs. Eight of 13 teams (61.5 percent) in the large-school division qualify for the postseason, as well as eight of 11 (72.7 percent) of teams in the medium-school division and four of seven teams (57.1 percent) in the small-school division.
The medium-school playoffs this season expand to eight teams from four.
The past as predictor?
West's four straight playoff appearances -- the Eagles have qualified every year Davis has been in charge -- marks the longest current streak among CIC schools.
Seven of the CIC's eight teams have qualified for the playoffs at least once in the previous four seasons. Eagle River, entering its eighth season of football, is still aiming for its first postseason berth.
Palmer of the Railbelt has made it to the playoffs for 13 straight seasons under coach Rod Christiansen.
Back to AFS
After a two-season absence, high school football playoff games will return to Anchorage Football Stadium.
Alaska School Activities Association football championships have been decided at Chugiak High the past two seasons because of facility issues at AFS.
"Chugiak did a great job for us," ASAA state championships director Isaiah Vreeman said. "We are excited to be back at AFS. We do expect to see an increase in attendance."
Attendance for playoff games in previous years at AFS was higher than the attendance at Chugiak, Vreeman said, perhaps because AFS is closer to more Anchorage schools.
Upgraded with newly installed FieldTurf, AFS still is in need of new locker rooms. Two portable trailers will serve as locker rooms throughout the regular season and two extra ones will be brought in for the playoffs, Vreeman said.
The concession stands are expected to be operational by playoff time.
Taking the reins
Kevin Kern is familiar with the Service play book -- he was an assistant coach for the last 10 years -- but now he'll be calling all the shots as the new head coach.
With his first gig as a head coach, Kern, 54, hopes to continue Service's run of recent success. The Cougars reached the state title game in four of the last five seasons, winning it all in 2008 and 2011.
"We've got a lot of stability with the coaches I kept on," Kern said. "Not a lot has changed, just bringing it all together has been a lot of work. Sometimes, as a head coach, you're doing a little more managing than you are coaching."
Service lost 20 seniors from last season's team as well as head coach Numi Ilalio, a fixture on the sideline for the past seven years, six of which he worked as an assistant to Jason Caldarera.
"Coach Numi, one of the best coaches I've ever coached with, has taught me a lot and taught my coaches a lot," Kern said. "He turned this program around, so one reason I took this position was to keep a consistency with these kids."
Chugiak football coach Duncan Shackelford will call it quits at season's end, closing a 20-year career as a head high school football coach that started with 10 years at Dimond and will end with a 10-year stint guiding the Mustangs.
"Somebody else can have all the glamour," Shackelford said.
Shackelford won back-to-back state titles with Dimond in 2000 and 2001, but hasn't won any titles since coming to Chugiak in 2004. He led the Mustangs to the title game in 2009, but lost 21-3 to Bartlett.
This season won't be filled with emotional farewells. Shackelford said he'll be too busy preparing his team for battle each week to think about the significance of his final season.
"There ain't no time to be melancholy," he said.
Seeking first win
Second-year Bartlett head coach Daniel Esparza is never short on enthusiasm regarding the Golden Bears, but his young career is short on wins.
The Golden Bears were the only team in the Cook Inlet Conference not to win a game last season, and senior wider receiver Edress Irving said that taught the Golden Bears that the hardest-working team prevails.
"Things are a lot better this year," Irving said. "I expect everybody to play their hardest this year, give 100 percent effort. Our receivers block better this year."
The Golden Bears will sport original team colors this season, accompanying their usual yellow trim with a softer blue in place of the dark blue that dominated their uniform in recent years. Esparza, who taught at Dimond last season, will teach special education at Bartlett this school year. Working at the school he coaches means he will be around his players during the day.
He said last year's disappointing campaign will fuel this year's.
"They know what happens when you don't work hard and you're a victim out on the field," Esparza said. "Hopefully, we've put that all behind us. Last year, we had seven kids going into the season that had played in a varsity football game, and this year we've got about 30."
New lids for Chugiak
Chugiak will don new helmets enhanced with the latest technology for protection against concussions.
The Mustangs will wear the Riddell 360 model. Riddell is the official helmet of the NFL, and Shackelford said he has been loyal to the brand for years.
The helmets cost around $300 apiece, making them one of the more expensive options. Donations made the purchases possible.
"We were really proud of the way the parents and boosters club got behind us," Shackelford said. "I think it's a really good advancement in technology."
Joining the fray
Voznesenka School on the Kenai Peninsula, with 38 high school students, is fielding its first 11-man football team.
Having previously competed in eight-man football -- even though there is no official eight-man football division in Alaska -- the Cougars join the small-school Greatland Conference, which also includes Barrow, Nikiski, Eielson, Skyview, Monroe and Seward.
Eventually, 25 players are expected to make up the Voznesenka squad, principal Mike Wojciak said. Some of them are still commercial fishing and will join the team later.
Voznesenka opens with a home game against Kodiak on Friday and will visit Barrow next week for the first of four road games.
"There is a lot of traveling that takes place," Wojciak said. "It's a big thing for the kids."
Head coach Justin Zank was instrumental in putting a team together, Wojciak said. A lot of effort was involved in organizing everything and convincing the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District that the school has a long-term commitment to football.
"Considering all the work it took, I hope it will continue," Wojciak said.
By JEREMY PETERS
and DOYLE WOODY