Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion                                 Koleman McCaughey talks to Nikiski assistant football coach Tim Johnson on Saturday at the football jamboree at Ed Hollier Field at Kenai Central High School in Kenai, Alaska.

Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion Koleman McCaughey talks to Nikiski assistant football coach Tim Johnson on Saturday at the football jamboree at Ed Hollier Field at Kenai Central High School in Kenai, Alaska.

Football jamboree marks return of prep sports

“We watch each day with our fingers crossed hoping there won’t be an explosion of cases.”

High school sporting events returned to the Kenai Peninsula on Saturday with the football jamboree at Ed Hollier Field at Kenai Central High School.

Kenai Central, Soldotna, Nikiski and Homer gathered for a round-robin event where teams ran a series of plays against each other and no scores were kept.

This is the first time peninsula schools got together to compete against each other since sporting events were shut down by the new coronavirus pandemic in spring.

“We’re fortunate to come out and have the chance to compete and play football,” Nikiski head coach Paul Nelson said. “We told the team that every day, every practice and every game, they should be grateful for the chance to play football.

“There’s a lot of kids in the state and around the country who are not getting the opportunity right now.”

On the Kenai Peninsula, the opportunity for games to take place hinges on the number of positive tests for COVID-19 over the past 14 days. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District uses the number of resident cases to determine the risk level for the southern peninsula, central peninsula and eastern peninsula.

Games can take place at the medium- and low-risk level. As of Saturday, Homer moved to low-risk level while central peninsula and eastern peninsula were at medium-risk level.

Seward, from the eastern peninsula, didn’t come to the jamboree because the Seahawks were not allowed to start practice until Monday due to being at high-risk level. The four teams at the jamboree had been practicing since July 29.

Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. said many of his players already lost a sporting season in the spring. He added those players, especially the seniors, have put in a lot of work over the course of their lives to play football this season.

“It feels good to have some normalcy when so much has been everything but normal,” Brantley Jr. said. “We watch each day with our fingers crossed hoping there won’t be an explosion of cases.”

Practices have been held with numerous coronavirus mitigation measures in place. When it came to getting the players ready for physical nature of football, though, all four coaches said it was pretty much business as usual. All coaches said their players were as ready as could be expected when the real hitting started Saturday.

“We’ve got some guys that are banged up so we’ll make sure they rest up and heal,” Kenai Central head coach Travis Akana said.

Coaches also liked what they saw in the brief glimpse they got at their teams.

Akana said the Kardinals have a lot of seniors out who didn’t play last year. He said those seniors have blended nicely with the leadership on the team, and young players have responded to that leadership.

After winning the medium-school state championship last season, Soldotna lost all of its starters. Brantley Jr. said this season’s players worked hard despite having to sit behind a talented group last season. He said all that hard work is set to pay off this season.

Nelson said there is only so much that can be learned by playing the first and second units against each other in practice. He said the Bulldogs learned a lot in the jamboree and he’s anxious to get started fixing things.

Homer coach Justin Zank said his team had to go from the limited contact of practice to the first scrimmage of the day against football juggernaut Soldotna. Zank said he was pleasantly surprised with the way the Mariners held up against the Stars.

On the field itself, football looked pretty normal. Players had to wear a mask when they did not have a helmet on and stay 6 feet apart on the sidelines.

Coaches have to wear masks.

“It’s hard to yell, that’s for sure,” Akana said.

Brantley Jr. said masks present challenges, like figuring out how to blow a whistle. The coach added he’s learning to deal with those challenges. He pulled a device out of his pocket that made a whistling noise when he pressed a button.

In addition to coaching the Stars, Brantley Jr. is a teacher at SoHi and also coaches Pop Warner, meaning he has a mask on from when he leaves for school in the morning until 8:30 at night.

“Instead of a sock tan, I’m going to have a mask tan,” Brantley Jr. said.

Nelson said the mask also gets itchy with the full beard he has going, but Zank summed things up for all the coaches when he said the trouble of a mask is worth it.

“I’m constantly adjusting it and that makes it hard to blow a whistle,” Zank said. “Like everything else, it’s just an adjustment I have to make so we can play football. Whatever I have to do, I’ll do it.”

While coaches and players have already become accustomed to coronavirus mitigation procedures, this was the first time a school put on an event. Jesse Settlemyer, athletic director at Kenai Central, said the administration put in a lot of work to put mitigation measures in place and he’s happy with the way those measures worked.

Athletes arriving on a bus already had a temperature check and had answered screening questions, but athletes not arriving on a bus had a temperature check and screening before entering the fence to the track and field area. Anybody else entering the fenced field area had to undergo a temperature check and screening.

Kenai Central had markers in the stands for social distancing, had signs up regarding masks and social distancing and had a procedure for keeping the port-a-potties sanitized.

Settlemyer even said there is a two-page mitigation plan for selling Kenai Central apparel. No food concessions are allowed at the games.

Saturday also was the community’s first exposure to the district rule saying spectators not in the same household should social distance at 6 feet and spectators should wear masks.

“Social distancing was really well followed,” Settlemyer said. “We’d also like the encourage the community to wear masks as often as possible.”

Kenai Central principal Briana Randle said the community is on a steep learning curve when it comes to new district rules for spectators.

“Was it perfect? No,” she said in regard to spectators wearing masks. “There’s room for improvement and it will improve. It’s a joint effort by everybody, by all our communities.”

Kenai Central assistant principal Will Chervenak said he had conversations with spectators about the new rules and those conversations were positive.

Soldotna quarterback Brock Wilson prepares to pass at the football jamboree Saturday at Ed Hollier Field at Kenai Central High School in Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna quarterback Brock Wilson prepares to pass at the football jamboree Saturday at Ed Hollier Field at Kenai Central High School in Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai Central receiver Dave Martin and Nikiski defender Gavin White compete for the ball Saturday at the football jamboree at Ed Hollier Field at Kenai Central High School in Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai Central receiver Dave Martin and Nikiski defender Gavin White compete for the ball Saturday at the football jamboree at Ed Hollier Field at Kenai Central High School in Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai defender Levi Good chases Homer’s Lars Pleznac on Saturday at the football jamboree at Ed Hollier Field at Kenai Central High School in Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai defender Levi Good chases Homer’s Lars Pleznac on Saturday at the football jamboree at Ed Hollier Field at Kenai Central High School in Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

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