Two colleagues and friends will be heading into the Alaska High School Hall of Fame together this weekend, and the two names couldn’t make a better double induction.
Soldotna High School stalwarts Dan Gensel and Al Howard are part of a 2018 Hall of Fame class of 13 names that include former state champions, Gatorade players of the year and a Super Bowl champion. Both Gensel and Howard will go into the hall for the lifetime achievement award.
The hall is also inducting three Homer legends in the musical department — Andrew Vait, a musician that is going in as an activity participant; choral director Mark Robinson and band director William Searle. Robinson and Searle are going in as activity sponsors.
Gensel, now serving as the sports director at the KSRM radio station, owns a coaching resume that stands on its own merit, but his post-coaching career also played a significant role in his community impact and Hall of Fame nomination.
“I think it’s a composite of all of it,” Gensel said about his inclusion. “It’s a great honor to be inducted and recognized for all the work in the school with kids and the community.”
Although he is heading in as a lifetime achiever, Gensel noted that he’s the only inductee with criteria in all four categories — athlete, coach, administrator and activities director.
Howard, on the other hand, had only a brief coaching career, but made his indelible mark organizing and directing countless tournaments among various sports for over three decades on the peninsula, creating a welcome environment for visiting teams.
“That makes it even neater,” Howard said about the two friends being inducted on the same night. “Dan and I worked together, I was AD for 11 years. … In fact my own daughter worked with him when she was involved with activities, so I know what kind of job he does and the positive influence he is.”
“It’s really fun and really cool we’re going in at the same time,” Gensel added.
The Hall of Fame ceremony will be hosted today at 4 p.m. at the Lakefront Anchorage Hotel.
Gensel’s influence spans wide
Gensel saw the most success coaching the Soldotna girls basketball team from 1987 to 1999, winning a state title in 1993 and finishing as the winningest hoops coach in SoHi history with 202 wins. Gensel was also named the 1993 Girls Coach of the Year for Class 4A.
Gensel coached several powerhouse SoHi girls teams, including the 1993 state champs that consisted of All-State players Marissa Moock, Melissa Smith and Molly Tuter, a former Class 4A MVP and Gatorade Alaska Female Player of the Year.
“It was a combination of maybe not the most talented team we had, but the team that played the best together,” Gensel said. “We had a run there for six or seven years that sent over a dozen kids to college hoops.
“Those were golden years of girls basketball in Alaska and especially on the peninsula.”
To prove the point, Gensel’s Stars program combined with conference foes Kenai Central and Palmer to go 66-0 against the rest of the state in 1991, when the Kenai girls ended up as state champs. The three programs’ only losses came against each other.
The SoHi girls eventually won the state title in Class 4A with a 46-37 final against Kenai in 1993.
Gensel retired in 1999, the same year as coaching rivals Craig Jung of Kenai Central and Dave Cloud in Homer, two lifelong friends that Gensel sparred with on the court in memorable coaching battles.
“The camaraderie was great,” he said.
While he made his name at SoHi, Gensel began his athletic pursuits at KCHS, where he lettered in three sports — football, basketball and track — before his graduation in 1975. Gensel won Region III track titles in the 100-yard sprint and 180-yard hurdles for two straight years, and also was named KCHS Male Athlete of the Year his senior year.
After a year at the University of Alaska Anchorage and three more at Long Beach State, Gensel earned his journalism degree with a certificate in teaching.
He immediately found himself back home in Soldotna, where took an interim teaching job at the new Soldotna High School in 1980.
“The school grew fast enough and I never left,” Gensel said.
Gensel served as the school athletic director from 1981 to 1983, then as the activities director from 1995 to 1999.
Before his days as a hoops mastermind, Gensel provided support as an assistant coach on the football team. The program struggled initially, but with head coaching icon Bob Boudreaux manning the helm, the Stars got things turned around in short order and made it to the de facto state championship game, the “Anchorage Invitational,” against Dimond in 1983, where SoHi lost.
Boudreaux finished with 105 career wins at SoHi, currently the fourth-most in state football history, and Gensel said that kind of leadership provided significant guidance to him later on in his career.
“I learned not only the coaching aspect but the administrator aspect from Bob,” Gensel said.
Gensel’s coaching career also extended to track and field, a sport he still volunteers with today in his 34th season. As assistant coach, Gensel’s track teams won state championships in 1994 (boys) and 1996 and 1997 (girls).
After retiring from coaching in 1999, Gensel made the natural transition to the radio booth. As sports director at KSRM Radio, Gensel has produced over 4,500 live broadcasts of high school games in various sports, notably football, basketball and hockey, and in almost 20 years at KSRM, Gensel has earned an astonishing 17 “Goldie Awards,” a statewide accolade recognizing the best of each broadcast category.
“I’ve enjoyed this, it’s like a second phase of what I’ve done,” he said.
So why does Gensel keep the mic in hand? It’s a simple devotion to keeping the community updated on current news and local kids that make the grade.
“It’s crucial the community keeps in touch with what’s going on with their schools,” he said. “People say, ‘Hey, we’re listening’. People feel that connection. They love that.”
Gensel’s career helped him net several big awards, including the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District “Golden Apple” in 1999 and 2003, the ASAA Gold Lifetime Pass in 2008 for “significant service to high school students,” and the 2012 Soldotna Chamber of Commerce “Devoted Service to Youth” award.
Howard gains entrance into a tough club
Howard’s inclusion left him a bit surprised but also honored to receive the accolade.
“It’s kind of a tough club to get into, and a lot of people have to think pretty highly of me,” Howard said. “You think about it and think about a few of your friends that have been inducted and it’d be pretty neat to be in there along with a few of those people, but I always considered it a long shot.”
The 67-year-old Howard said his years spent in the Kenai and Soldotna communities taught him one important rule in succeeding at his job — always strive for the best experience.
“My basic philosophy is it should be the best absolute effort you can put forth,” he said. “It’s the same philosophy now. This is a special time for these kids, and we should make it the very best we can make it.
“It’s not just doing it at state tournaments, but any tournament should be a great event.”
Howard officially retired in 2009, but still works in the Kenai and Soldotna area directing tournaments and volunteering his time at numerous state championship events.
Howard’s journey started in rural Illinois, where he grew up on a farm. Upon his high school graduation, Howard spent four years in the military and after a four-year college stint, landed at Illini Junior High School in Jerseyville, Illinois, for his first teaching job, where he also coached, in 1975.
Howard then moved to Montana to coach football, track and wrestling in the small town of Valier.
After hauling up to Alaska with a close friend in 1983, Howard was tasked with a teaching position in Bethel, where he spent one year before moving again to Whittier.
Howard finally landed on the Kenai Peninsula in 1986, taking on the athletic director position in Seldovia for five years.
In 1991, Howard said he was lured to SoHi with an interesting twist. Soldotna principal Ken Meacham piqued Howard’s curiosity with a determined stand to corral the hard-working Illinois native into a job as athletic director and advanced math teacher.
“I walk into the office and there’s a SoHi jacket and a math textbook on the desk,” Howard recalled. “Ken asked, ‘Do you think you can wear this jacket, and can you teach math?’
“They were putting on ‘Phantom of the Opera’ that night, so he made sure I went to that. I ended up staying overnight.”
Howard spent the next 11 years keeping things running as smooth as possible.
“It’s the people I’ve worked with and the kids that I’ve taught and coached through the years,” he explained. “It’s been pretty special. The Lord puts you on this earth to do something, and I think this is it.”
Howard said his top priority was making sure every event ran smoothly and with as little delay as possible, although sometimes things got out of hand.
Howard recalls his first year at Seldovia, which was host of the region tournament. A late-season snowstorm marooned several teams in Homer, and after a day of playing just one game between the two teams that were there, Howard said the final two days resulted in a stacked schedule of nonstop basketball.
“Boy, we just played the tar out of basketball,” he recalled. “We were closing in on midnight for the championship game.
“I had to call ASAA and get a waiver for playing on Sunday if needed.”
Of course, Howard stressed that no one person accomplishes everything on their own, and gave thanks to the many names that have worked by him over the years.
He became involved in the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association, which awarded him the 2002 State Award for Merit.
“That was one of my prouder moments,” he said. “That’s recognition coming from the entire state, your colleagues from around the state, and that was presented to me by one of the national (NIAAA) leaders out of Indiana.”
Howard said his time spent in the NIAAA also helped open his eyes and cultivate new ideas for improved administration after seeing what other states were doing. The experience also helped him earn several professional certifications as an administrator and education instructor.
He noted that the culmination of his administrative career was being elected to be the Region III representative to ASAA, which he also served as Executive Board President.
Starting in 2010, Howard was honored with his name on the annual Al Howard/Powerade Tip-Off tournament, held every December at Soldotna.
Vait, Robinson, Searle bring the music in Homer
The three Homer representatives being inducted tonight all share a special connection with each other, and current Homer athletic director Chris Perk, a 1993 Homer High grad, can attest to that.
“What’s really special with these three guys is they have a history with each other,” Perk said. “Mark and Bill (Searle) built this powerhouse music program at Homer.”
Vait, a 2003 Homer graduate, was a musician who also doubled as an athlete, swimming all four years and earning MVP honors in 2002, and was a letterman in baseball.
But, Perk said, his real talent was in music.
“He could pick up any instrument and figure it out,” Perk said. “For him to go on and continue his pursuit of music, that’s brought him much success and happiness.”
Vait won awards in almost every aspect of the musical scene. He was part of the National Association for Music Education All-Northwest Symphonic Band in 2001, the All-Northwest Jazz Band in 2003, the Alaska All-State Band for four straight years and the Merit Award for Instrumental Music by the National Fine Arts Awards in 2003.
Robinson was the choral director at Homer for 23 years until his retirement in 2012, and served on numerous musical boards in the state. His honors include winning state Teacher of the Year in 2000, the KPBSD “Golden Apple” in 2001, the Homer Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year in 2002, the BP Teacher of Excellence in 2004 and the KPBSD Teacher of the Year in 2005.
Perk described Robinson as a “selfless, ego-less persona” that others thrived under.
“Every day after work, he’d come up to me and tell me how lucky he felt,” Perk recalled. “He’d tell me I can’t wait to see how our future is going to look, we have a great future!
“He didn’t have an ego, he just came in and served his students, and they felt the love.”
Searle spent nearly a quarter century teaching in Alaska, with 17 of those years in Homer from 1988 to 2005. Searle taught music at Homer High, Middle and Elementary schools, as well as McNeil Canyon Elementary.
Searle earned Homer High Teacher of the Year in 1996, the KPBSD “Golden Apple” in 1999 and the BP Teacher of Excellence in 2002, and his bands won two silvers and two bronzes over his career at the Honolulu International Music Festival.
But it was his personality that stuck with people.
“Bill was more of a firecracker,” Perk recalled. “He had a raging pep band. It’s been hard to replicate that for many years.”
Perk recalled a football game one year in which Searle forced an onfield penalty to the Mariners for playing his band during the course of game action, to which the referee took exception.
“Bill was just playing away and in the moment,” chuckled Perk.
Ultimately, Perk said the three Homer icons will always have a place in the hearts of Mariners students, and the Hall of Fame status is an extra point of pride.