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Howling for change

Matt Tunseth
Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News

When South and Eagle River take the field Friday night at Anchorage Football Stadium, the game is likely to be a contest in name only.

Despite similar histories, the fortunes of Anchorage’s two newest high school football teams couldn’t be more different. Since beginning varsity play in 2004, South has won two state championships and compiled a 68-33 record. Eagle River, meanwhile, has gone 9-58 since its inaugural season in 2006 and has never made the playoffs. The Wolves have won only five Cook Inlet Conference games (one of those by forfeit) and have been outscored 135-0 in two CIC games so far this season.

So what gives?

“For Eagle River, there’s a bunch of things that have played into where we are now,” Wolves head coach Matt Turner said earlier this week as his 0-3 team prepared for the daunting task of taking on the Wolverines (2-1 overall, 2-0 CIC), who are ranked No. 3 in Alaska’s large-school division. 

First, with about 827 students, Eagle River has the smallest enrollment in the eight-school, all-Anchorage conference, according to the Alaska School Activities Association. The eight CIC schools average 1,547 students, and the largest – East – has more than 2,000. That means the Wolves consistently have to fight to field a large enough team to be competitive.

A second factor that has hurt Eagle River is the transient nature of its student body, school principal Marty Lang said. Lang said about 45 percent of his students come from military families, meaning there’s a high rate of turnover.

“That has been a real factor for us,” Lang said.

Finally, the football program has failed to achieve any consistency in the coaching ranks. Turner is the Wolves’ fourth head coach -- the fifth if you count Jim Reeves, who served as interim coach last season when Jason Brewer was called to serve with his National Guard unit. South, meanwhile, has had only one coach since day one, John Lewis.    

“You just can’t build any tradition that way,” said Turner, a 1998 Chugiak High grad who teaches social studies at Eagle River.

To combat disparities in school size, ASAA created two classifications -- large and small -- for high school football in 2000. In 2011, ASAA added a medium-school classification, giving Alaska three classifications for its 31 football-playing schools.

“Football, because it’s such a numbers game, it causes a noticeable difference,” said ASAA executive director Billy Strickland.

But the creation of a medium-school division hasn’t helped Eagle River, because the school has never dropped below the 801-student cutoff needed to move down a division. Schools can choose to play in higher-enrollment division, Strickland said, but they can't drop down to a smaller one.

Turner isn’t sure dropping down to the medium-school division is the answer, anyway.

“I really don’t want us to drop,” he said.

One idea that has been floated in recent years would be to move Eagle River into a different conference -- perhaps the Railbelt, which features schools from Fairbanks and the Valley with smaller enrollments than schools in the CIC. Turner said he’d be open to such a proposal.

“That’s probably the best idea I’ve heard so far,” he said.

Strickland said ASAA is looking at a number of issues regarding competitive balance in football. He said a six-member committee will submit its findings to the ASAA board in October, and it’s likely the full board will vote on any proposed changes in December.

“Within that discussion are some situations where an Eagle River might get moved somewhere else,” Strickland said.

Among the options being explored is an 8-man football classification  for the smallest football-playing schools. However, there are currently no proposals on the table to move Eagle River into another conference or classification. Instead, the Wolves will remain in the CIC for the foreseeable future.

South’s Lewis said he would like to see Eagle River have a chance to succeed. If that means moving the Wolves to a different conference, so be it.  

“At least give them some options,” he said.

Lewis said it’s difficult to prepare for Eagle River because of the likelihood of a lopsided outcome. He said he plans to play all of his starters at the beginning of the game Saturday and substitute according to how things play out. To do any different, he said, would be unfair to the Wolves.

“Out of respect for them we’re going to come out and play our A game,” said Lewis, who grew up in the Eagle River area and graduated from nearby Chugiak High.

Lewis said it’s unfortunate the Wolves have struggled to gain traction in the CIC. He believes Eagle River’s players work as hard as any athletes in the state.

“They absolutely play their guts out,” he said.

Lang echoed those sentiments, saying the Wolves’ lack of success doesn’t have anything to do with the effort of players.

“It’s not that our kids aren’t out there playing with a tremendous amount of passion,” he said. “They are.”

Lang said he doesn’t know what the answer is, but he’s open to suggestions.

“I would be willing to have a dialogue on what the benefits would be of a potential move,” he said.

In the meantime, Eagle River’s players, coaches and fans will continue to fight what’s been an ongoing uphill battle to earn respect at the highest level of Alaska football. Lang said he thinks one problem -- coaching consistency -- has been solved with the hire of Turner, who grew up in the area and has deep ties to the community.

“He’s a local boy, he’s committed to being a teacher in this district for the long term,” he said.

Turner said his plan for the South game is to simply try to improve over last week.

“We’ve been telling our kids all week that we’ve got to focus on the small victories,” he said.

As for the larger picture, Turner said he’s hopeful something can be done to help the Wolves become competitive year after year.

“There’s no easy fix,” he said. “But I’d like to see something change.”

Contact sports reporter Matt Tunseth at 257-4335 or mtunseth@alaskadispatch.com

 

Eagle River year-by-year results

Year    CIC     Overall

2006    0-7       0-8

2007    0-7       0-8

2008    0-7       1-7

2009    2-5       3-5

2010    0-7       1-7

2011    1-6       1-7

2012    1-6       2-6

2013    1-6       1-7

2014    0-2       0-3

Totals:  5-53     9-58