Glenn Nelson, coach of the defending state champion Houston Hawks football team, isn’t taking anything for granted when it comes to this year’s season. He’s telling players to enjoy practice today, because tomorrow is uncertain.
Dale Ewart, the activities director at Palmer High, is hoping for the best and planning for the worst. And so Senior Night for the Moose will happen at the first home game of the season instead of the last one, because a complete season is uncertain.
Billy Strickland, the executive director of the Alaska School Activities Association, is trying to hold a moonbeam in his hand. He and his staff are trying to solve a problem called COVID-19, the source of the uncertainty.
“It’s like nailing Jell-O to a wall,” Strickland said of the ebbs and flows of coronavirus cases that are wrecking schedules and jeopardizing high school sports in Alaska and the rest of the nation.
The nation’s first high school football game was played in Utah last week, and this weekend eight more states including Alaska will kick off their seasons, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. All 50 states and the District of Columbia intend to play high school football, although 16 states and the District of Columbia have moved the season to the spring, the NFHS said.
Alaska’s season-opening weekend will be modest: Three games on Friday night, two on Saturday. Two are in the Valley, three are in Fairbanks.
Everyone else, including Anchorage’s eight teams, will be sidelined either because they started practice later than scheduled due to a high number of COVID-19 cases or because of district-imposed travel restrictions.
It will be a season with limited fans, limited travel and limited games. A season where face-masking isn’t just an illegal tackle, it’s something expected of spectators when they enter a stadium. A season where being in the red zone doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in good scoring position, it might mean you’re in a high-risk area where games aren’t going to happen.
The landscape can change as quickly as a pick-six, something Soldotna and Kenai Central learned this week.
On Saturday, they participated in a football jamboree in Kenai. On Tuesday, they learned sports were suspended for Central Peninsula schools because 14 cases of COVID-19 that day put them in the high-risk category.
“It was as close to normal as we’ve had since spring break. I saw a lot of smiles out there,” Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. said of the scrimmages and practices prior to the suspension of activities. “It was not football as normal, but they had that taste that this is what life can be.”
It won’t be football as normal this weekend in Palmer, Houston, Fairbanks and North Pole. But it will be football.
Palmer’s Machetanz Field, where the Moose will host Colony on Friday night, holds a couple thousand spectators, but because of social-distancing requirements only 700 people will be allowed other than players, coaches, band members and cheerleaders.
Of the available tickets, 50 will go to essential personnel, and each team will get 325 tickets, Ewart said. At Palmer, each varsity player will get four tickets to disperse to family or friends.
Fans who don’t get tickets may be frustrated, but social distancing at the stadium is one way to ensure the Moose keep playing, Ewart said.
“Bottom line is kids are playing and parents get a chance to see it,” he said. “We’re a lot better off than our counterparts in Anchorage.”
At Houston, where the Hawks will play Wasilla, the stadium holds more than 1,000 but there are just 450 tickets -- 50 for essential personnel like officials and school staff members, and 200 apiece for each team. Each of Houston’s varsity players will get five tickets a piece, athletic director Norm Bouchard said.
Both host schools will provide separate concession stands and separate port-a-potties for home fans and visiting fans, who as usual will sit on opposite sides of the field.
“We can get through the night with no intermingling between fans unless they choose to cross that border,” said Bouchard, who said Wasilla fans will use a separate entry gate than Houston fans. “... If we can prove we can do this without a lot of the (COVID-19) numbers going up, it would be really, really good to feel like things are getting back to normal.”
The Wasilla-Houston junior varsity game was scheduled for Thursday night, “and that’s the only game we know that’s for sure,” Nelson said on Thursday morning.
The Houston coach wasn’t being pessimistic. He was being realistic, which he thinks is important right now.
“The only thing guaranteed today is today,” he said. “We tell the guys that to prepare them in case things change, so that it’s not a big emotional letdown. The Peninsula got shut down pretty quickly.”
And so just like Palmer, the Hawks will honor their seniors in a pregame ceremony Friday instead of waiting until their final home game.
Good idea, said Strickland. He advises everyone to plan Senior Night for their first home game this season.
Strickland said he’s hopeful the season will culminate with state championship events but expects modifications.
The Division I playoffs for big schools might have four teams instead of eight, which would give Anchorage teams an extra week to play regular-season games, he said. The Division II and Division III playoffs may skip the semifinal round and go straight to a championship game between conference champions.
Some teams will start the season knowing they have no path to the playoffs.
Barrow and Kodiak both face travel restrictions. The Whalers can’t travel until October, so that essentially takes them out of the playoff picture, Strickland said. And Kodiak can’t travel to or through any red zones, which means the Bears can’t fly to Anchorage. Flights from Kodiak to the Kenai Peninsula went away when Ravn Air Group did, but there’s a chance Kodiak could get to some games by taking the ferry to Homer, Strickland said.
In the Valley, teams are limited to inter-district play. The school district’s five teams -- Colony, Wasilla, Palmer, Houston and Redington -- will only play each other, so they won’t get enough conference games to contend for a playoff spot.
“It’s a six-game season and If we make it that far, we don’t see it going any farther,” Nelson said. “But as fast as this thing is changing, maybe they’ll open things back up and we’ll make another run at a state championship.”
This week’s games
Wasilla at Houston, 6 p.m.
Colony at Palmer, 6 p.m.
Eielson at North Pole, 7 p.m.
Valdez at Monroe Catholic, 1 p.m.
West Valley at Lathrop, 5 p.m.
This story was updated to add the Valdez-Monroe game to the weekend schedule.
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