The excitement of a Friday evening game. Opening night applause. Friendships formed at early morning practice.

When you think of your fondest high school memories, chances are they took place outside the classroom. And you’re not alone. Sports, the arts and other extracurricular activities are deeply ingrained in the high school experience. According to federal census data, more than 44 percent of American kids ages 12 to 17 participate in sports, and 29 percent participate in other clubs.

ASAA participants with banner at Dimond High School. (Matt Waliszek)

In Alaska, there’s one organization working behind the scenes to organize dozens of those activities: The Alaska School Activities Association. Commonly known as ASAA, this nonprofit strives to provide every student the opportunity to grow and learn through activities that range from athletic to academic, traditional to technological.

“We see ourselves as an extension of the school day,” said ASAA Executive Director Billy Strickland. “A lot of those things that you're learning in the classroom, you get to go apply in real-life settings.”

And the lessons often follow students for a lifetime -- long after their high school days have passed.

The football family

Talk to anyone who’s ever played football at Chugiak High School and they’ll recognize the name Tom Huffer. But you might need to clarify which one you’re talking about.

First there’s Tom Huffer Sr., a former college football player who landed in Alaska courtesy of the U.S. Army. After leaving the service, Huffer went into education with one objective in mind: He wanted to coach. When Chugiak was a brand-new school, Huffer helped start its very first football team, and he’s been a part of Mustang football nearly every season since as a coach, parent, grandparent, or proud fan.

It wasn’t always easy.

“We didn’t win too many the first seven years,” Huffer said. In fact, “we got hammered quite hard.”

That started to change in the late 1970s, and in the ‘80s, Chugiak grew into an Alaska football powerhouse, winning multiple state and conference titles.

“That’s when Tom Jr. enters the picture, of course,” Huffer said.

Tom Huffer Jr. -- known as “Huff” to his friends, and simply as “Junior” to his dad -- was the first Alaska football player to be selected for all-state honors in three positions (kicker, tight end and linebacker) two years in a row. He was a state wrestling champion, too, followed 16 years later by his younger brother John-Paul, another standout high school football player who is now on Chugiak’s coaching staff.

“All of us were involved with ASAA from day one,” Tom Huffer Sr. said. “They just do good things for kids.”

High school band students perform at the All-State Music Festival. (ASAA)

And not just kids who play football, Huffer Jr. added.

“My son was big-time into playing instruments in the band,” Huffer Jr. said. “That became a big thing in his life. There are so many opportunities that ASAA promotes in music, in debate and drama, in mock trial stuff. There are so many things that they help with that support every single kid. That’s awesome.”

Activities for all

Formed in 1956, before statehood, ASAA was originally established to unify two regional high school sports organizations in the Territory of Alaska. As schools grew following statehood and the oil boom, ASAA was formally organized under the state Department of Education and Early Childhood in the 1970s and funded by the state.

That funding was abruptly cut in 1986, when Alaska experienced a severe economic downturn. The ASAA board voted to incorporate as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit independent of the state, but it took time to work out the legal and financial arrangements. Today, state statute allows Alaska school districts to become dues-paying members of ASAA as long as the association upholds specific organizational standards, but at the time, the future looked uncertain for high school activities in Alaska.

“When we lost state funding in ’86, the association kind of muddled along for about a three-year period,” Strickland said. “Then the bank really came in and basically rescued us.”

First National Bank Alaska signed on as ASAA’s first-ever title sponsor in 1989, contributing financially and providing employee volunteers at championship events. Other corporate sponsorships eventually began to follow the bank’s example. It’s an important source of income for an organization that, like the state itself, has a “three-legged stool” revenue structure.

“Generally speaking, about a third of our budget is school dues,” Strickland said. “About a third of our budget is tournament gate revenue, and about a third is corporate sponsorships.”

That final third -- sponsorships -- is important because it helps ASAA keep activities affordable and accessible to all students. First National’s 30-year title sponsorship has also made it possible for ASAA to elevate experiences for students from every community in Alaska -- hosting state tournaments at the Alaska Airlines Center or bringing in out-of-state guest conductors for the all-state music ensembles, for example.

Billy Strickland, Executive Director of the Alaska School Activities Association, accepts donation to his organization from First National Bank Alaska at the First National Championship Cup. (ASAA)

“It allows us to do more for our students, provide more services to our member schools, without having to increase school dues or increase the entry fees at state tournaments,” Strickland said.

Absent that sponsor support, most tournaments would operate at a loss. But the organization’s mission is to involve students, not make money.

Strickland presents West High School hockey players with the First National Championship Cup. (ASAA)

“We’re not about providing a return to our shareholders,” Strickland said. “We’re trying to get students motivated to achieve some goal. That’s motivating (them) to keep (their) grades up, to have good attendance, to have good behavior in school.”

In the long run, he added, that’s good for everyone in Alaska.

“Ultimately it's helping our state have community members that are more productive and being the kind of citizen you want,” Strickland said. “Our goal is to make the student better while a student and in their adult lives as well. We want every student to have an opportunity to participate in an activity that's going to help them develop these positive life skills.”

The benefits of being involved

Activities aren’t just good clean fun. Teachers will tell you they’re a powerful tool to promote positive behaviors and academics. Students have to stay out of trouble and maintain a minimum grade point average of 2.0 to participate in ASAA activities.

“You learn self-discipline,” said Huffer Jr., who was inducted into ASAA’s Alaska High School Hall of Fame in 2011, the same class as Stanley Cup winner Scott Gomez and Olympic gold medalist Kikkan Randall. “That’s probably the biggest. You learn how to work with people and understand other people’s ideas and opinions.”

Studies have also shown that involvement in school activities directly affects students’ perception of their schools and consequently improves their academic achievement.

“If you can get a kid involved in sports, that keeps them grounded, keeps them involved with other people,” Huffer Sr. said. “It makes a better experience for the kid, better overall education.”

And it’s not just sports, Huffer Sr. added. His name might be on Chugiak’s football stadium, but as a former school counselor, he’s seen firsthand the importance of helping a student discover what they personally get excited about.

“Whatever a kid’s passion is, it’s an important part of what we do and what we are,” he said.

Students who are engaged in multiple ways -- academic, social, extracurricular -- are more likely to succeed academically and less likely to drop out. Those benefits are especially meaningful in Alaska, which has a high school graduation rate that’s significantly lower than the national average -- and another reason it’s important that ASAA offers so many different programs.

Students compete at the 2019 Drama, Debate & Forensics State Championships. (ASAA)

“We have a wide variety of activities that we offer, with the intent of making it really hard for a student not to find something that they can get excited about,” Strickland said. “We pride ourselves on being an activities association, not just an athletic association.”

In recent years, Huffer Sr. helped develop a girls’ flag football program that has proven to be tremendously popular. There’s “mix six” coed volleyball, too, which is a hit with small schools that have a hard time filling teams. ASAA also has programs in drama, debate and forensics; music; world language; student government; and even esports.

“As society evolves and as different activities become popular, we’ve tried to kind of stay on what is going to keep the students motivated,” Strickland said. “We’re always looking at things that will increase participation.”

That motivation leads to growth, according to Huffer Jr., who has watched his own three children and countless of his student athletes grow through school activities.

Three generations of the Huffer family who have all been involved in ASAA pose at the ice rink, including Tom Sr., brothers Tom Jr. and John Paul and John Paul's son, Tyler. (ASAA)

“I saw a lot of individual kids really go from point A to point B, to where they wanted to be,” Huffer Jr. said. “To me, it was really satisfying, watching these kids progress with what they wanted to do.”

And he knows from his own experience as an ASAA student athlete that those experiences have a lasting impact. Now retired, Huffer Jr. still credits ASAA activities with giving him a strong foundation for life.

“It’s really helped me become the person -- the family man and coach and person -- I am,” he said. “Without (ASAA), kids wouldn’t have these opportunities. That’s the bottom line.”

First National Bank Alaska has been Alaska’s community bank since 1922. We’re proud to support Alaskans by investing in your success as you take the leaps of faith, large and small, that enrich communities across the state.

This article was produced by the creative services department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with First National Bank Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.