Football is arguably the most popular sport in the United States, and Alaska is no exception.
The love for the game at the high school level in particular inspired a group of smaller schools in remote parts of the 49th state to seek a way for their student-athletes to be able to play the game in a safer manner against equal levels of competition.
Five schools in the state were recently sanctioned to participate in nine-man football next fall under the guidance of the Alaska School Activities Association.
Eielson, Monroe Catholic, Valdez, Nikiski and Seward are now permitted to “basically operate as independents,” according to ASAA Executive Director Billy Stickland.
“At the small schools, numbers are just difficult to maintain,” Valdez football coach Tyler Calvert-Thompson said. “9-man gives us that flexibility to pull people off the field when we want, give them a little break and keep them a little safer.”
Nine-man football is just a modified version of American football that is played with two less players on both sides of the ball compared to traditional 11-man football. It was developed to allow schools with smaller enrollments the opportunity to field a team and safely play the game by having enough players to give players some plays off and reduce the chance or risk of injury.
According to topendsports.com, as of 2015, 116 high school football programs play the modified game and it’s even played at smaller schools in parts of Canada and at a junior level in France, Australia, Norway, Italy and Argentina.
“Football is the only sport where ASAA gets involved in the regular season scheduling,” Strickland said. “It’s because there is such a limited number of schools.”
This realignment also allowed Kodiak, a small school which had already been requesting to get moved down to Division III to have its request obliged. The only holdup preventing it from moving down according to Strickland was that the even smaller schools that now make up the five-team independent conference, didn’t want them coming down to their level.
“Since those smaller schools are no longer in that conference, competition-wise and size-wise, Kodiak is a pretty good fit to be in there with what’s really some of our largest of that group,” Strickland said.
The eight teams remaining at the Division II level will not be competing in a singular eight-team conference similar to the Cook Inlet Conference in Division I. Unlike Division I where all eight teams make the postseason no matter their regular season record, the pared-down Division II conference will still only have four teams advance to the postseason and keep its playoff structure.
“The top two teams will host three and four (seeds). No. 1 will play No. 4, No. 2 will play No. 3, and then the winners of those games will come into Anchorage for the state championship game,” Strickland said. “In Division III, it will be the same way.”
One of the downsides of this new five-team independent conference is that there will not be a state champion crowned through ASAA and the teams will need to come up with some other culminating event at the end of their regular season.
A major upside is it will allow for the possibility of the programs to have a junior varsity and varsity teams. Younger players, mainly freshmen and sophomores, who are relatively new to the game, can learn, improve and gain confidence instead of having trials by fire as a result of going straight to varsity.
“Valdez, Seward, (and) Barrow are not in areas where younger kids play boys and girls club or Pop Warner (football),” Strickland said. “A lot of times, their football players coming out as a first year freshman really don’t have much or any football experience and it may take them a year or two to really be able to play because they’re being asked to play against seniors from another school.”
He believes having JV games will drum up more interest in the sport and get the less experienced players ready for the bump up in competition.
Valdez had an 11-man team in Division III in 2021 but didn’t have the numbers to field a team in 2022.
Calvert-Thompson shares the same belief and thinks the lack of “feeder programs” is a major hurdle as well when it comes to acclimating younger players.
“Kids are stepping on to the field in ninth grade with no prior football experience,” Calvert-Thompson said. “They don’t even know the game.”
Developing an alternative
About three years ago when rumblings for 9-man football began to ring louder, ASAA developed a policy that stated “by mutual consent, schools may play 9-man football.” These five particular programs have struggled to field teams year-in and year-out so the desire and need for a modified version of the game fluctuated as much as their respective roster sizes.
“Depending on the year, maybe (they’re) wanting to play 9-man but then their numbers may get up and they’d rather play 11-man and then in a couple years maybe their numbers go back down and they want to play 9-man again,” Strickland said. “As a group, they decided that they’re all better off going 9-man as the status quo.”
Collectively, almost all parties involved thought the move was a good decision.
“We have not been extraordinarily competitive in terms of winning championships, (but) we’ve been competitive enough that our coaches don’t want to play anything other than 11-man,” Monroe Catholic Athletic Director Frank Ostanik said.
The Rams were one of two teams that didn’t have enough healthy or interested kids to field a team and have a season in 2022 and Ostanik is still uncertain of whether the school will have one next year but believes the move to 9-man was in the best interest in the future of the program.
“Going from 11 to 9-man isn’t necessarily like going from 11 to 6. It’s only two less kids,” he said. “If we can find 13 to 15 kids that want to play, we want to have football. I did not like not having football this year but we still have to find kids within our school population of 101 kids who want to play.”
Valdez was the other that didn’t play this past fall which was heart-breaking for Calvert-Thompson and his two seniors.
“9-man was kind of the choice after we had to cancel the season this year to try to keep football alive here in Valdez,” he said.
This past year was his first at the helm and when he and his staff first started recruiting within the school, they had nearly 30 kids show interest. But by the time the season came around, the number “whittled down to around 17 or 18 kids” and after a few injuries right off the bat, they were down to 13 or 14.
One senior from Monroe Catholic, running back Marlon Mease Jr., was allowed to join Lathrop’s team after his school’s season was canceled and helped the Malamutes with their second straight Division II title back in October.
Strickland said that the schools from Region VI which is made up of Eielson, Monroe Catholic and Valdez “collectively decided” that they would like to make the transition and reached out to Seward and Nikiski and Seward to “see if they’d be like-minded.”
In the past, the best team coming out the Denali Conference generally couldn’t keep pace with the other top programs at the Division III level. That led to noncompetitive games and restricted the smallest schools’ opportunity to contend for a championship.
“Competitively, it puts them pretty similar in terms of ability, size of school and some of those components,” Strickland said. “I think it creates a more competitive balance.”
Ostanik thinks that it will create a “more leveled playing field in terms of competition” and he is hopeful his school will have kids excited to play next year.
“If you’re a skill player and you enjoy running with the ball, catching the ball and throwing the ball, 9-man is a far better experience than 11,” he said.