A familiar face is returning to Bartlett's sideline for the upcoming high school football season.
After a two-year hiatus, John Jessen is back coaching the Golden Bears varsity program. Jessen and 2004 Bartlett grad Daniel Esparza will share the head coaching duties.
"It's a pretty overwhelming job for one person," Jessen said at a recent practice.
Esparza took over for his former coach after Jessen resigned following the 2011 season. In 16 seasons, Jessen is the winningest football coach in Bartlett history – he guided the Golden Bears to 80 wins. He's spent the past two years coaching Bartlett's C team to consecutive undefeated seasons.
"This isn't about me coming back," Jessen said. "It's about us working together."
Senior Deionte Love said practices are more intense now that Jessen and Esparza are running the team.
Jessen said he and Esparza aim to grow the program, something that's already happening. This season, 130 kids are playing football – the highest participation Jessen has seen in his tenure at Bartlett.
"Program is the key word," Jessen said.
Bartlett has struggled in recent years. The Golden Bears haven't made the postseason since 2009, when they won their fourth state title.
Bartlett started turning things around at the end of last season. In Week 6, it snapped a 17-game losing streak that dated back to 2011.
The Golden Bears ended last season with three straight wins and finished sixth in the eight-team Cook Inlet Conference, where the league's five finishers earn playoff berths.
Enduring the lengthy losing streak that included a winless season in Esparza's debut in 2012 serves as motivation, said senior Jay Tito.
"It makes us want to work harder," he said.
Bartlett features about 25 returners.
CHAMPS DIALED IN
Defending large-school champion West is focused on the present.
"This is one of the most dialed-in, focused group we've had in a while," said sixth-year head coach Tim Davis. "The guys are prepared."
West, which lost its first two games last season, is riding a nine-game winning streak that includes a 28-16 championship victory over Service.
The CIC will have two new head coaches this season.
Matt Turner is taking over at Eagle River while Roger Spackman is Chugiak's new boss.
Turner, a 1998 Chugiak grad, takes over for Jason Brewer, who coached the Wolves for two seasons but deployed out of state with his National Guard unit after Week 6 last season.
A lineman in high school, Turner won a state title with Chugiak in 1996. He played in college at Northern State University in North Dakota.
An Eagle River social studies teacher, Turner has also coached the Wolves' flag football and track and field teams.
Spackman replaces Duncan Shackelford, who retired after last season after coaching for 20 years – 10 years at Dimond and 10 at Chugiak.
Shackelford guided Dimond to consecutive state titles in 2000-01 and led Chugiak to the playoffs six times, including a loss in the 2009 state championship.
Spackman, a physical education teacher at Chugiak, coached the Mustangs' junior varsity team last season.
He served as East's head football coach for nine seasons and stepped down after the 2008 season. Spackman then coached the T-birds' flag football team from 2009-11 and returned to the boys game in 2012 as the Chugiak C team coach.
EAGLE RIVER UPGRADES
Current construction at Eagle River's field will keep the Wolves from playing on their home turf for more than half the season.
The stadium is receiving a home grandstand to seat 1,100, a press box, public address system, fencing around the field and a new concession stand, principal Marty Lang said.
Lang is hoping Anchorage-based architecture firm USKH Inc. will complete the project in time for Eagle River's Sept. 20 homecoming game.
The project is being funded by a $1.4 million grant from the legislature.
NO MORE SKYVIEW
With the closing of Skyview High in Soldotna, 10 schools will vie for a medium-school title this season – five from the Northern Lights Conference and five from the Southeast Conference.
Each conference gets two berths in the state tournament, which will be held at Anchorage Football Stadium and Dimond.
Last year, Soldotna capped a perfect season with a 56-49 championship win over Juneau. It was second-highest scoring game in state football history dating back to 1983.
Soldotna also played in the highest-scoring playoff game – a 77-42 Stars victory over Kenai in the 2010 small-school state championship before three football divisions were created.
Nikiski will look to defend its small-school title after beating Monroe, 36-28, in the final last season. Four of the state's seven small-school teams make the postseason.