High School Sports

Less is more for the Valdez Buccaneers, who play nine-man football whenever they can

Home games are always a plus for high school football teams -- friends and family get to watch, the crowd is behind them, they dine on home cooking before and after the game.

But in Valdez, home games come with a minus -- one the Buccaneers embrace.

This year in high school football, the Alaska School Activities Assocition is allowing teams from smaller schools to opt for nine-man football. In the Denali Conference, home to Valdez and four other teams, the choice is left to the home team.

And when the Buccaneers are home, they choose nine-man over 11-man football, with the belief that smaller is bigger.

With nine-man football, a small high school like Valdez -- which has an enrollment of 156 -- can play a varsity game and a junior varsity game. When the Buccaneers play 11-man football, they don’t have enough players for a JV game, because ASAA rules limit players to six quarters of football per week.

Valdez coach Lee Chadwick said the nine-man format is something he has long desired.

“I generally have 20, 22 kids come out, but when we play 11-man it takes 15 or so. So we always have a number of freshmen and sophomores who don’t see the field for two years,” he said. “The whole idea is we get some JV games this way. Otherwise you stick those freshmen out there (for the first time) against juniors and seniors and it’s unsafe.”

The Buccaneers are 2-1 on the season and both of their wins came in nine-man games, 66-26 against Seward (enrollment 147) and 66-24 against Eielson (enrollment 184).

On both of those weekends, Valdez also played JV games, something that pumped enthusiasm into the program, Chadwick said.

“They are so excited,” he said of his players. “They haven’t had a JV game in six years and now we’ve had two.”

They’ll get another one this weekend when Seward comes to town. The JV scrimmage will happen at 10 a.m. Saturday, followed by the varsity game at noon.

In the nine-man format, each team drops two linemen on both sides of the ball. Offensively, five play on the line and four in the backfield.

The rules remain the same and the size of the field remains the same. Eight-man football, which is wildly popular in some Lower 48 regions, involves a few different rules and often a narrower field.

Chadwick believes nine-man football could results in more schools playing football in Alaska.

“We just don’t have enough schools in Alaska who play football,” he said. “With nine-man, we didn’t have to change too much. We’re running the same offense that we’ve run for a long time.”

There are 27 football teams in Alaska this season, and wide enrollment disparities exist even between schools in the same division. Division III, for the state’s smallest schools, includes the Denali Conference and Mid-Alaska Conference, with schools ranging in size from Denali member Seward’s 147 to Mid-Alaska member Kenai Central’s 380.

None of the five Denali Conference schools has an enrollment higher than 200. Only one of the five Mid-Alaska Conference schools has an enrollment less than 300 (Barrow, with 287).

Football rosters reflect the disparities, Chadwick said, and the difference can be significant when the Buccaneers play an interdivision game against schools like Houston (320), Homer (365) and Redington (305). The Buccaneers’ lone loss this season came in an 11-man game against Redington, 40-20.

“There are times when you put a 110-pound freshman out there against a 220-pound senior, and that’s not safe,” Chadwick said.

JV games give those younger and often smaller players a chance to gain experience. When Valdez plays only a varsity game against a bigger school with a bigger roster and more big players, those younger, smaller kids tend to sit, he said.

Chadwick, who was on the Nikiski coaching staff for many years before becoming a Valdez coach four years ago, said he’s been hoping and pushing for a nine-man option for a few years now.

This year’s nine-man option represents a good step, he said. Another good step would be an entire conference for nine-man teams, and if the champion wants to take on an 11-man team at the end of the season, figure out a way to let that happen, he said.

“A lot of coaches have had resistance simply because they don’t want to change. It’s been frustrating,” Chadwick said. “My goal is to get as many kids on the field as I can.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that no school in the Denali Conference has an enrollment greater than 200.

Beth Bragg

Beth Bragg wrote about sports and other topics for the ADN for more than 35 years, much of it as sports editor. She retired in October 2021. She's contributing coverage of Alaskans involved in the 2022 Winter Olympics.