High School Sports

Football culture is growing in a traditional Russian village on the Kenai Peninsula

Along a country road outside of Homer, the Voznesenka Cougars sweated through football practice on a field with a striking view of the peaks and glaciers across Kachemak Bay. Players ran sprints and went through drills, taking instruction in English and, as often as not, calling to each other in Russian.

The 16 players looked sharp, thought coach Justin Zank — a noticeable sign of progress considering the four-year-old program is hewn from a culture with no football tradition.

Players come from a triangle of Old Believer villages on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula. They practice at an elementary schoolyard 10 miles from their school. They have no tackling dummies or blocking sleds. They've never had enough men to run 11-on-11 plays in practice, and they have just two coaches. And they don't complain.

"Most people said that we wouldn't even be able to field a team, and we did that," Zank said. "And then after that, people said, 'Well, you're not going to be able to sustain it.' We've sustained it for four years now. And people said we would never win games, and we won games."

Zank, 33, takes pride in surprising people, and at an afternoon practice late last month, he and his team were hoping to pull off an epic shock.

The Cougars were preparing for a game against powerhouse Nikiski, which has played in the Alaska small-school championship game the last five years. A Voznesenka victory would mean the program has arrived and has paid its dues to earn an official slot in the Peninsula Conference.

"There is no impossible," Zank told the players. "We just gotta figure out a way to do it. We gotta find a way together."

And with that, the Cougars scattered from the field that sits partway between two worlds — the harbor-hub and highway-connected town of Homer to the southwest and the enclave of Russian descendants at the end of a gravel road in the other direction, a place that closely guards its traditions from the influence of the outside world.

The Culture

Friday afternoon's trip to Nikiski took the team just a few hours up the Sterling Highway. But Russian Old Believers have been on a journey across the globe since the 17th century.

In 1666, a segment of the Russian Orthodox Church protested reforms implemented by Patriarch Nikon. In the centuries that followed, communities of Old Believers settled in Siberia, China, Brazil and the United States, guided by a conviction to preserve their religious ways.

In the 1960s, Old Believer families from Oregon settled in the western Kenai Peninsula village of Nikolaevsk. A schism in the community during the 1980s led to the settlement of three villages on Kachemak Bay.

Some say tensions have eased in the decades since, but it would be a mistake to consider all of Alaska's Old Believers entirely like-minded. While half of the students at Nikolaevsk are not Old Believers, Voznesenka Principal Michael Wojciak said 100 percent of his students are. Nikolaevsk welcomes outsiders to some degree, but curious visitors to Voz, as it is often called, are generally less appreciated.

That's not to say the Old Believers live an entirely cloistered life. They fish commercially, own small businesses, drive cars and use cellphones. They spend time in Homer and shop at big box stores in Anchorage.

But there's a reason they settled at the end of the road.

"They've built kind of a private life, and that's what they want to keep," Wojciak said.

Zank, a physical education teacher in his sixth year at Voznesenka, said community trust was hard-won at first. Now he hopes to show sports can enrich student lives and stir pride in their school.

"There are a lot of kids who may not graduate or may not enjoy school or academics, and to get that hook and that buy-in a lot of times can be through sports," Zank said.

A state education database shows Voznesenka has had high graduation rates in recent years, something that wasn't always the case, Wojciak said. While sports isn't the only reason, he believes it's one of them.

"Maybe, maybe just for a couple kids, maybe it's a platform to get to that next level and get to college," Zank said.

In Nikaolaevsk, some Old Believer families have seen it happen. Nikolaevsk has a high school sports history that dates back to the 1980s, and in 2014 Nianiella Dorvall became the school's first girl to sign a letter of intent to play college sports when she committed to Skagit Valley College. She's one of four who have gone on to play college basketball, according to Nikolaevsk Athletic Director Steve Klaich.

"Sports is a tool. Kids don't look at it that way," Dan Dorvall, Nianiella's father, said. "If you can get them involved in things where they're excited to be there, it keeps them in school."

The Program

Thirty-five high school students attend Voznsenka School, but students from neighboring schools in the Russian villages of Razdolna and Kachemak Selo are allowed to play for the Cougars through an arrangement approved by the Alaska School Activities Association.

Although Wojciak and the school's coaches make sports work with a healthy dose of creative problem-solving, they tiptoe a fine line in a culture where sports participation is rarely a family tradition and hardly a given.

"There are some parents who are probably less apt to have their kids put in a predicament where they are exposed to things outside their culture," Wojciak said.

But for some kids the door is open, as long as everyone involved is mindful of significant religious days, dietary restrictions, church services and family responsibilities.

Even the school's academic calendar is modified to accommodate the culture. Holy days include Our Lady of Vladimir, the Beheading of St. John, the Exaltation of the Cross and the Birth of the Virgin, and that's just in September. Wojciak said the school sometimes holds classes on Saturdays so it can be closed on holy days.

Gaining parental permission and putting religion first are just two of the challenges for the football team.

The Cougars play their "home" games 22 miles away at Homer High School. For road games, Wojciak often drives the bus and sleeps on school floors like the kids do to save the school money. There's no booster club and few parent volunteers. There are weights, but no weight room. Zank jokingly refers to his outdoor sessions as a prison workout.

And while football players at many other schools work out all summer, boys on Voznesenka's roster are more likely to be commercial fishing on their family boat deep into August. That's the reason the team begins each season with a bye and plays only seven regular-season games, one fewer than the norm.

"Are we the team to beat? No," Wojciak said. "As a team, have we made considerable progress looking like and acting like a team. For sure. Do we have a ways to go? Yeah, sure, we have a ways to go. But we've come a long way from where we started."

Though it might be premature to say a sports culture has achieved durability at Voznesenka, teacher Rachel Allmendinger, who coaches girls soccer and girls cross country, has seen promising signs.

"I have elementary school kids in my classroom that are telling me, 'I'm going to play Cougar football,'" she said.

On the road

Since Voznesenka's first varsity game in 2013, there have been some beatdowns and only three wins. Zank knew establishing a football culture in a place without one wouldn't be easy when he signed up for the job. He seems to relish the challenge of building something  lasting out of the rawest of materials. But at times he has wondered: Are we doing something good here?

His players eased his doubts.

"The past two years now, they've come back from those losses and they want to get better," he said.

Zank started herding his team toward the bus at 11:30 a.m. Players — some wearing traditional embroidered shirts, some wearing game jerseys, some wearing the latter over the former — spilled from the relocatable buildings that house high school classes. They scooped up mesh gear bags, piled into cars and onto ATVs and headed down the dusty road to the bus a few miles away.

They had gone only a few miles to the Razdolna turnoff when they realized there was a problem. Lineman Arseny Basargin was nowhere to be found. One player said out loud what everyone must have been thinking. The Cougars don't exactly have a player to spare. As it is, nearly everybody on the team plays both offensive and defense, a grueling task.

"We need him," said a voice from the back of the bus.

"Ya think?" Zank shot back.

It turned out Basargin had forgotten his jersey and returned home to get it. It was decided assistant coach Ryan Miller, a teacher at Razdolna School, would pick up Basargin and drive him to Nikiski.

"It's always something, every week. It's always something," Zank said to no one in particular.

With the bus in motion again, the boys passed around smoothies made from the coach's own recipe, a brown concoction of coconut milk, walnuts, cocoa, cinnamon, banana and kale. Some drank it more willingly than others.

Michael Kusnetsov sat at the back of the bus. He was happy to be back with the team. The home-schooled senior missed the first two games of the season while driftnetting for salmon near False Pass and living on his family's boat.

His favorite football moment from previous seasons was a game against Eielson High School at the end of the 2013 season. No one expected Voz to win that day, not even the Cougars themselves. And they didn't. They lost 41-14.

But for a while, Voznesenka had Eielson's attention, scoring twice in the first half and pressuring the Ravens quarterback.

"The team itself, we were telling jokes out on the line. Everybody was just laughing and having a good time, actually," Kusnetsov said.

Kusnetsov said he doesn't entertain thoughts that his team, the smallest of Alaska's 30 schools with a football program, with few facilities and a small roster, is at a competitive disadvantage.

"I've never thought of it like that," he said.

Game time

In the dressing area, the team was quiet, but stirred with nervous energy. One player explained he loved these road trips with his friends, win or lose. He had to strike deals with his family to be a part of it, agreeing to extra hunting and fishing and chores at home.

On Nikiski's field, players lined up for introductions and a few laughed off the pronunciation of their Russian names.

After the opening kickoff, there were reasons for Voznesenka's coaches to feel optimistic. Nikiski, which ran the ball at will against its previous opponent, found few holes in middle of the field, thanks in part to Kusnetsov and middle linebacker David Sanarov, who played with an injured thumb.

Zank called plays by holding up pictures that represent them: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Katy Perry, an alligator. It's a method popularized at the University of Oregon and adopted elsewhere in football, but Zank uses it for a unique reason.

His players speak both English and Russian during games. By using the pictures there's one fewer way players can get tripped up by spoken words.

Voznesenka's Zasima Martushev gained yards in bursts and Nikiski was flagged for a few penalties. The score was 0-0 after the first quarter.

But while Voznesenka quarterback Reutov struggled in the passing game, Nikiski's Ian Johnson had no such trouble. He found receiver Patrick Perry, one of the team's best players, for long touchdown passes on consecutive drives, and the Bulldogs took a 20-0 halftime lead.

"We just keep shooting ourselves in the damn foot, just like we do every week," Zank told his team during the break. "We start moving the ball, and then we fumble it. We start moving the ball and we chuck it up for grabs. It's an (interception)."

During the second half, inexperience and exhaustion took its toll. The Cougars have 11 freshmen and sophomores on the roster. Of the 14 players that saw action, nine played every snap, including special teams. It was all Kusnetsov could do to catch his breath during a late timeout. When Sanarov got a rare rest in the game's final minutes, sweat dripped from his nose.

Final score: Nikiski 33, Voznesenka 0.

Family men

Back in a dim corner of the team's dressing area, Miller spoke in hushed tones to his colleague. Zank, seated and leaning on his knees, looked like a boxer who had just come to after a knockout.

"Coach is really upset right now because this was huge. We both thought that we had it in us this game to do something against Nikiski, and we fell short," Miller said. "Maybe we were a little more optimistic than we should've been."

"This one stings the most," Zank said on the way to the bus.

"I thought this was when we would take that step forward. If we won this game, that would've been a gigantic step for our tiny program, you know? And then to get beat the way we did was even more crushing," he said.

Miller had a different perspective. The boys of Voznesenka are many things, but they have only just begun learning how to be football players.

"Nikiski trains year-round. They weight-lift year-round. They're football players year-round," he said. "We're fishermen. We're family men. We're gardeners. It's a different world."

These weren't excuses. They were reasons to be proud of the boys for taking on this challenge.

The first hour of the bus ride home was quiet. One player held an ice bag to his face. Another pulled the strings of his hoodie tight. Collectively, they decided to head straight home without stopping to eat.

But as the scarlet sun dipped behind Redoubt Volcano on the west side of Cook Inlet, the boys slowly came back to life, listening to pop music, playing Risk on a tablet computer, talking and laughing.

Four guys huddled over a smartphone, reading and singing in Russian a folk song they all knew. The lyrics said something about thoughts turning to family when the bullets are flying on the battlefield.

Zank called a team meeting for Monday, in the living room of his home, to watch game film and regroup. Valdez was on the schedule the following week, the next opportunity for the Voznesenka Cougars to surprise people.

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