High School Sports

9-man football is a ‘good thing for Alaska football’ following a promising inaugural season

When Seward head football coach Tyler Mallory was approached with the proposition of his team becoming one of a handful in Alaska to start playing 9-man football, he wasn’t necessarily thrilled with the idea.

“I wasn’t exactly an advocate for it,” Mallory said.

But after one season of 9-man football, it appears to be sustainable, and coaches believe it could lead to the revival or creation of football programs for smaller schools all around the state.

“It’s been a road getting here, but at this point, I think the reality is that we’ve lost some teams over the years,” he said. “We’ve had Kodiak and some other schools that are five or six times bigger than us, populationwise, move down (to Division III). It was time for us to make the move so that we could make sure our kids were getting fair games.”

Last December, Seward was one of five schools that were sanctioned to participate in the modified version of the game this fall under the guidance of the Alaska School Activities Association while operating as independents. Nikiski, Valdez and Ben Eielson in Fairbanks joined Seward in the inaugural year. Monroe Catholic in Fairbanks had initially planned to join the group but was unable to field a team.

“We’re working on getting more teams,” Mallory said. “Me and the other coaches had some conversations at our all-conference meetings about what we’re looking at for what other teams we would need.”

Nikiski head coach Matthew Trammell just finished his second full season at the helm of the program after two years as an assistant coach. He said he was a little apprehensive of making the transition to 9-man football at first.


“For the most part, it is exactly the same as 11-man, and I think it’s where we as a program belong,” he said.

For his players, “it’s still just football,” and nothing has really changed. For a good chunk of the young team, it’s their first year playing football altogether, “so they don’t know any different anyways,” but returning players had to adjust to some slight terminology changes.

Mallory thinks that 9-man football is not only sustainable but that “it’s a good thing for Alaska football” as a whole.

“When you look at how big we are and how spread out we are as a state, a lot of places in the Lower 48 could have co-op teams when they have schools that are just 30 minutes away,” he said.

[Seward High’s run to Alaska’s first 9-man football championship was the culmination of a long building process]

Because of the increased distance between communities and schools, Mallory said, “the reality if we’re going to have football (for everyone) is that we’re going to have to have something like 9-man for these smaller schools to support it.”

Sustainability and getting enough teams to join to play a full slate of games was Trammell’s biggest concern, and even though Monroe Catholic had to drop out prior to the start of season, they were still able to “make do with four.”

“It’s not the ideal scenario, but we’d like to get the schools that used to have programs but folded back into the mix and allow more kids to play football in the state,” he said.

The only potential big hurdles coaches foresee would be the cost of travel for communities that aren’t accessible by roads and the construction of facilities such as football fields and bleachers.

“It certainly wasn’t easy,” Trammell said about the travel hurdle. “We probably had it easier than Ben Eielson or Valdez, where every away game was a seven-hour bus trip.”

Collective goal for growth

Trammell and his fellow 9-man football coaches have a simple sales pitch for prospective coaches who are interested in starting up a modified football program.

“Football is the ultimate team game, and we should have as many kids as we can playing it,” he said.

Mallory shared that their goal is to have another four to eight teams make the switch or start 9-man football programs in the next year or two.

“I think that is a possibility, to grow the sport back (in smaller communities),” Mallory said. “We used to have 40 teams playing football, and over the years, teams have folded for various reasons — and I think 9-man gives them an opportunity to look at coming back.”

During their coaches all-conference meeting, they found that about 15 to 20 schools fit the ideal size and population to sustain a team. Trammell mentioned Sitka, Anchorage Christian School and Delta as schools that used to have football programs and might be candidates to return with 9-man.

The path to becoming sanctioned

Another long-term goal is to have a conference and championships be both recognized and sanctioned through the Alaska School Activities Association. That requires more widespread growth.

To cap off the first year, Seward defeated Nikiski 42-0 last weekend in the championship game to compete in an unbeaten season.


“We’re working on getting more teams,” Mallory said. “Me and the other coaches had some conversations at our all-conference meetings about what we’re looking at for what other teams we would need.”

Trammell believes that getting enough programs to eventually get recognized by ASAA as a sanctioned sub-division and receive state championship trophies is “definitely attainable.”

The biggest reason that Monroe Catholic, which had hoped to join the 9-man ranks, wasn’t able to field a team the past two seasons is that there hasn’t been a head coach to lead the program — not because of a lack of interested student-athletes.

“First things first is we need to find a coach,” Monroe Catholic Athletic Director Abe Siddall said.

Siddall started his position on Aug. 14 of this year after the football season had already gotten underway.

“In the last couple months, as football has been going on around the Interior, I’ve had a lot of boys approach me saying, ‘Hey, if we had a team, I’d play,’ ” Siddall said. “As far as numberswise, we’re already up to 10 or 11 boys saying that they would want to play. A lot of them are sophomores, so I know the interest is there for sure.”

Siddall has a few candidates in mind who he hopes would be interested in coaching. Since their program folded, several students who still wanted to play football have co-opted to play for either Lathrop or West Valley.

“Going to Monroe and having that jersey on their back is important to the kids, so that’s what I want for them — is to play for their school,” Siddall said. “I think it would mean a lot to them, their parents and the community.”

Josh Reed

Josh Reed is a sports reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He's a graduate of West High School and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.