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High School Sports

Alaska high school football is a whole new game this season

  • Author: Beth Bragg
    | Sports
  • Updated: 5 days ago
  • Published 5 days ago

Soldotna’s Aaron Faletoi-Eli tries to stay on his feet during a scrimmage against Chugiak last Saturday. The Stars put their 59-game winning streak on the line Friday when they host the West Eagles in the season’s first game. (Matt Tunseth / Alaska Star)

Nametags are in order when the high school football season begins this week — including one that still has no name.

The offseason brought massive coaching and conference-alignment changes, plus a nickname controversy.

Four of Anchorage's eight teams have new head coaches, including one who takes over after 13 years as an assistant coach at his alma mater and another who is back at the school he graduated from in 2011.

Alaska still has six conferences, but the Southeast Conference is gone and the Chugach Conference is making its debut.

Anchorage's teams, which once upon a time all played in the Cook Inlet Conference, are scattered in three conferences. Eagle River and Chugiak were moved out of the CIC a couple of years ago, and now the defending state champion Bartlett Golden Bears are out of the powerhouse conference too.

Bartlett will play in the new Chugach Conference along with Chugiak, Colony, Wasilla and a team that may or may not be called Juneau, which is where the blank nametag — and the nickname controversy — come in.

Name this team

The city of Juneau used to have two high school football teams — the Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears and the Thunder Mountain Falcons.

Over the winter the schools consolidated the football programs into a single team, and by February the schools picked a mascot: The Thunder Bears, which accommodated both halves of the one-time rivals.

Then, according to a Juneau Empire report, someone discovered a derogatory definition for the word "thunderbear" online and a committee of students voted 5-4 to get rid of the nickname.

A new mascot has yet to be selected, and for now the team is simply being called Juneau.

The Bartlett Golden Bears, shown here with coach Daniel Esparza on the first day of practice, open the season Saturday night in Hawaii, and “we’ll find out quickly how good we are,” coach John Jessen said.  (Bill Roth / ADN)

Meet the new guys

Tim Davis is going into his 10th season as head coach of the West Eagles, and Jeff Trotter is going into his eighth season as the East T-Birds head coach.

They were talking football one day earlier this summer when Trotter had a revelation.

"I said, 'Is it weird to you that we're the longest-tenured coaches in town?' " Trotter recalled.

The biggest coaching turnover in Anchorage history — there were three new coaches in both 2009 and 2000 — happened in the offseason, turning Davis and Trotter into old-timers.

Among those departing were longtime coaches like Jason Caldarera, whose first season as Service's head coach was in 2000, and John Lewis, who started the program at South High when the school opened in 2004.

Of course, the real dean of active Anchorage football coaches is Bartlett's John Jessen, whose first year as head coach was in 1996. But he isn't the longest tenured coach — he took a two-year hiatus in 2012-13, during which Daniel Esparza took over as coach. Jessen returned in 2014, and he and Esparza have shared the job since.

Here are the newcomers:

— Kahlil Bolling, a 2011 Service High graduate, takes over at his alma mater, replacing Caldarera.

— Walter Harmon, a former South High assistant, is the head man at that school, replacing Lewis.

— Bernardo Otero is back at Dimond High, where he spent two seasons under former coach Nick Winkler before spending last season as an assistant at Service.

— Ryan Landers is the new coach at Chugiak, the school he graduated from in 1998. He spent the last 13 years as an assistant coach for the Mustangs, most recently for Roger Spackman, who stepped down after a 9-1 season.

Bolling is one of Anchorage's youngest head coaches ever — Davis was 26 when West hired him in 2009.

He graduated cum laude in 2016 from Ferris State, where he was a starting defensive back for the school's successful Division II football team in 2014 and 2013.

"I'm trying to stay away from the traditional Xs and Os and trying to focus on the process," he said.

To ensure players keep their focus on learning and executing, every Service player must put his cellphone in a cardboard box at the start of every practice, Bolling said.

At South, Harmon's focus is on efficiency.

"There's a short window to teach a lot of stuff," he said earlier this week while conducting an interview at the same time he handed out uniforms to players.

Other new faces

Colony and Valdez also have new coaches. Fred McKenney replaced Rhett Magner at Colony, and Lee Chadwick took over from Steve Radotich at Valdez.

In Juneau, Randy Quinto will be the head coach of the consolidated team. Quinto was Thunder Mountain's head coach last season.

Among the many new coaches, Landers faces one of the toughest tasks as he assumes command at Chugiak: Finding a replacement for running back Derryk Snell, the Gatorade Player of the Year who moved on to Division I football at Montana State.

Whole new ballgame

Of all of the changes that came with realignment, perhaps the biggest impact will be in Fairbanks, which no longer has a team that plays with the big boys.

Lathrop and West Valley are still in the Railbelt Conference, but the Railbelt is no longer a Division I conference. It's a Division II conference that also includes Palmer and North Pole. The other two Fairbanks teams — Eielson and Monroe — are Division III teams.

Only 10 Division I teams remain. Dimond, East, Service, South and West make up the CIC, and Bartlett, Chugiak, Colony, Juneau and Wasilla make up the new Chugach Conference.

There's been so many changes that even the coaches are still figuring out where everyone landed.

"Bartlett's in the Railbelt," Davis said while discussing the reshuffling,  "or is it the Chugach?"

It's the Chugach. Not to be confused with Chugiak, which is a member of the Chugach.

Fewer teams on the scene

Alaska had 30 high school football teams last season and will have 28 this season.

Besides the merging of two teams into one in Juneau, Voznesenka opted to eliminate football after five seasons.

Voznesenka, a Russian Old Believer town on the Kenai Peninsula, decided to drop the sport due to limited resources, according to the Homer News. Last season's team had about 16 players.

Soldotna head coach Galen Brantley gives instructions to his team during a scrimmage against Chugiak last week. The Stars will take a 59-game winning streak into their season-opening game Friday.  (Matt Tunseth/Alaska Star)

And finally, the streak

Seems like an Alaska football season can't begin without mentioning Soldotna's winning streak, which dates back to the opening game of the 2012 season.

The Stars will go for their 60th straight victory Friday night against West. Tipoff is at 6:30 p.m. in Soldotna.

Soldotna is a Division II team but in recent seasons it has played at least one nonconference game against a top Division I team. This week the Stars will take their winning streak into a game against West, a perennial Cook Inlet Conference powerhouse.

The teams opened against each other last season too, when Soldotna grabbed a 21-0 victory in Anchorage.

Davis said he's excited to meet the Stars again.

"I love the challenge," he said. "I love opening with the best. You test your mettle right then and there."

An early version of this story had the wrong first name for Chugiak coach Ryan Landers .

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