Reclassification to change Alaska prep football landscape in 2015

The Alaska high school football landscape will sport a slightly different look next fall with a change in school population benchmarks.

A recent reclassification was instituted in order to even out competition levels in the state. After several matchups in the 2014 season resulted in lopsided blowouts, the Alaska School Activities Association decided to proceed with how schools are sorted.

The medium-schools division will now consist of schools ranging in student population from 450 to 900, up from the original size bracket of 350 to 800. The change means that former large-schools opponents Palmer and Eagle River will slip into the medium-schools category, joining Soldotna, Kenai Central and Kodiak in the now five-team Northern Lights Conference.

It also drops the Homer Mariners and Houston Hawks out of medium-schools play and into the small-schools division, which will now be comprised of two conferences — the five-team Aurora Conference (Houston, Eielson, Barrow, Monroe Catholic and Valdez) and the new four-team Peninsula Conference (Homer, Nikiski, Seward and Voznesenka). The small-schools division was originally comprised of only the Greatland Conference.

“I think it’s gonna be best for our program in the long term,” said Homer football coach Josh Fraley. “The short term will be a different change for us, adapting to small schools, but I think it’ll be a good thing.”

Fraley said the population of Homer High is under 400, in the area of about 370 students, and said that moving out of the Northern Lights Conference will be difficult from an alumni standpoint. Fraley said facing the Soldotna Stars — winners of three straight medium-schools state titles — was always a highlight of every season, mostly because it provided a solid measuring stick of where the Mariners program was at.

“Going further back, when I was a player, it was Soldotna and Kenai,” Fraley said. “I was kind of torn between the two, but we always measured ourselves against them.”

With both the Northern Lights and Southeast conferences getting two medium-schools state berths, it still allows for a four-team state playoff bracket. The Peninsula and Aurora conferences will each be getting two state berths as well in the small-schools division,

Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. said during discussions leading up to the change, it was originally agreed that North Pole — a medium-schools team from the Southeast Conference — would be joining the NLC, giving the conference three playoff berths to the Southeast’s one. But when teams from the Southeast objected to the move, North Pole changed its mind.

“There’s really three divisions of football in the state,” Brantley said. “There are three even splits, and this is the closest that ASAA has come to doing things the right way.”

Soldotna, a school of about 770 students, played both Eagle River and Palmer during the 2014 campaign and eased to two wins with a combined score of 86-6.

“It was a needed change,” Brantley said. “It certainly made our conference more competitive and provided relief to a few who were struggling.

“Palmer was in a situation where they were the smallest large school remaining. Eagle River was also in a pretty tough situation and looking for some relief, so I’m happy to have them.”

Kenai also faced Palmer in the 2014 regular season, notching a 44-20 win over the Moose. That kind of competition has Kenai coach John Marquez excited for the new season.

“I’m fired up, I like it,” Marquez said. “We’ve lost Houston, Homer and Skyview in the last year and a half, so what’s left?

Marquez said he was pleased to hear that Eagle River was joining the NLC, but was initially surprised to hear that Palmer would be moving with the Wolves.

“We’re trying to legitimatize our conference and bring in teams that are legit,” Marquez said. “Palmer is legit, and Eagle River will be. I think they have no business competing with Anchorage schools.”

Kenai Central’s school population has hovered around 500 students, according to Marquez, and is therefore one of the smallest teams in the conference. Marquez, however, just wanted to see three classifications remain, no matter where his team landed.

“Whatever happens, I just wanted to keep the medium division,” Marquez said. “SoHi can go up and compete with the Anchorage schools but can they do an eight-game schedule? That was important.”

As far as Brantley said getting the chance to play Palmer every year now as a conference matchup is something he is looking forward to the most, and not only because of his great respect for the coaching staff which includes longtime friend Rod Christiansen.

“I think they have one of the best coaching staff in the entire state,” Brantley said. “They are an old rivalry from the old NLC days, and we have so much respect for those guys. They’ve done it the right way for so many years.”

Fraley echoed Brantley’s remarks regarding the Mariners’ new conference foes.

“We’re excited to play schools like Nikiski,” Fraley said. “We probably haven’t played a varsity game (against Nikiski) in like eight years, but they’re a tough squad, and they had a great year last year. They’re a tough, hard-nosed squad.”

With teams entering the new year on a more even playing field, Brantley said there is no telling just how intense the action may be.

“Some one good is gonna be left out every year now,” Brantley said. “There will be added excitement because of that, because the regular season really means a lot now.”

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