Five schools, including Seward and Nikiski, will change from 11- to nine-man football next season, sending ripples across the Alaska football landscape.
How those ripples will leave football across the state remains to be seen. What is certain is that Nikiski, Seward, Valdez, Monroe Catholic and Eielson will have their own nine-man conference.
“It’s already been done,” Nikiski athletic director Dylan Hooper said. “All five schools have notified (the Alaska School Activities Association) of their intent. The request not to be assigned to a conference has already happened.”
Hooper emphasized that the schools are not breaking away from ASAA.
“We’re not leaving ASAA,” Hooper said. “We’re working within the system. Billy Strickland, the executive director, suggested this process. He’s been very supportive of this. He’s thought we needed to do this.”
The five schools are using an ASAA bylaw that says schools can agree to play nine-man football by mutual consent.
Hooper said the Bulldogs put a lot of thought into the move. He said the conversation about a nine-man league has been going on for about eight years, and Seward and Valdez have even played some nine-man games during that time. This fall, Valdez and Monroe were not able to field 11-man teams and had to cancel their seasons.
“This fall, Monroe, Eielson and Valdez said, ‘We’re doing this. You guys can join us or not,’” Hooper said.
ASAA enrollment figures have Eielson at 198 students, Valdez at 172 and Monroe at 100. Hooper said the decision was obvious for Seward, which has 137.
ASAA has Nikiski at 182 students, though Hooper said there are currently 163 students walking the halls.
In the interest of student-athlete safety, Hooper said the decision to play nine-man and not in the Mid Alaska Conference was easy.
That Division III conference is made up of Barrow (298), Redington (291), Houston (369), Homer (374) and Kenai Central (439).
Hooper said there would be too many times the Bulldogs would have to throw freshmen on the line to battle with seniors if the Bulldogs did not play in the nine-man conference. Hooper told a story of a freshman at Nikiski who was 6-foot, 200 pounds, and had to play on the line as a freshman due to injuries to other players.
“He sustained an injury as a freshman and he never stepped on a football field again,” Hooper said.
As another example, Hooper used Valdez canceling its season this year. Hooper said the Buccaneers had enough players for a team, but a lot of the players were freshmen.
“They made the decision to cancel the season for the safety of the student-athletes,” Hooper said.
The move by the five schools creates uncertainty in the short term for Alaska football. There are currently 27 schools with football programs, ranging from West at 1,784 students all the way to Monroe at 100.
ASAA has had a hard time coming up with a stable way to group the schools, because size disadvantages lead to more than competitive disadvantages. As Hooper said, size disparities also lead to injury risk in a way they don’t in other sports.
Hooper and Phil Leck, the athletic director at Soldotna, both said they expect the ASAA Board to vote on the new football landscape at a Dec. 5 and 6 meeting in Anchorage.
Region 3 discussed proposals at a Monday meeting in Kenai.
Leck said one proposal is to allow Kodiak, at 621 students, to move from Division II to Division III and join the Mid Alaska Conference.
That leaves eight teams at Division II and eight at Division I. The eight Division I teams are in the Cook Inlet Conference, ranging from current Division I champ Colony at 1,165 students to West. Hooper and Leck said there is little reason to mess with that conference.
That leaves the question of what to do with the eight teams at Division II, ranging from North Pole at 602 students to two-time defending Division II champ Lathrop at 901. Soldotna, runner-up to Lathrop the past two seasons, is the second smallest at Division II with 714 students.
Leck said Region 3 will propose that the eight Division II schools be thrown into one conference, with seven conference games per season, and a conference bye on a week when a Division I team will be scheduled.
Leck said it would hurt to lose the ability to schedule a couple Division I schools every year. At the same time, Leck said Soldotna does not want to be in a conference with just the three Fairbanks area schools — Lathrop, West Valley and North Pole — and have the disadvantage of all the travel. In that scenario, Palmer, Wasilla, Chugiak and Eagle River would make up the other Division II conference.
Another down side of having an eight-team Division I and eight-team Division II conference, Leck said, would be the six Division III schools would have a very tough time getting a game with teams from another division.
Leck said it could only happen if a Division I or II school played a game out of state. Hooper also said Nikiski would tell ASAA it would play a Division III school at 11-man football on a Nikiski bye week.
Hooper said the five eight-man teams will schedule themselves and each team will have one or two byes per season. The Nikiski athletic director said the five will have a postseason, though that format and the conference bylaws have yet to be determined. Hooper said ASAA is not ready to sanction a fourth division of football and host another state championship, but Hooper is hopeful ASAA will do that in the future.
“I hope people can understand student safety is the primary driver, though I know people might be sad to lose 11-man football,” Hooper said. “Nine-man football is not a completely different game. The schemes are similar. It’s not like watching something completely different, like six- or eight-man football.”
Nine-man football takes place on a regulation-size football field.
Hooper is hoping nine-man football will build numbers at the schools. There’s also a hope it might coax another school to start football.
“Maybe somebody will come out of the woodwork, but our plan is not predicated on that needing to happen,” Hooper said. “I think we can be sustainable just the way it is. If somebody else wants to play, great.”