Soldotna to gain AFL franchise

The Panthers name and colors are making a return to the central Kenai Peninsula.

The Alaska Football League, a semi-pro developmental league based out of Anchorage, recently announced the formation of a new franchise that will call Soldotna home this fall. The Peninsula Panthers will become the seventh team to play in the AFL and will host three home games at the football field at Skyview Middle School.

The field previously hosted home games for the Skyview High School football team before the school closed in spring 2014 and reopened as a middle school. The Panthers team name can still be seen on banners hanging on the fence surrounding the field and grandstands.

As the burgeoning AFL enters its 10th season, it became time to expand into areas of the state beyond Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna valleys. Bob Lee, commissioner and executive director of the AFL, said the formation of a peninsula team was the next logical step.

“Our goal was always to allow this opportunity for athletes everywhere in the state, not just Anchorage,” Lee said.

An unveiling of the team logo and colors is scheduled for today at 1 p.m. at the Porterhouse Grill, which stands at the former location of Sal’s Klondike Diner in Soldotna. Lee said the colors will feature a similar combination of purple and black like that of the defunct Skyview High School Panthers.

Home games will be played Saturday evenings, Lee said, in a season that runs from August to the end of October. The timing of the games took into account the high school schedule, which typically hosts games for the Soldotna Stars, Kenai Central Kardinals and Nikiski Bulldogs on Saturdays around 2 p.m., and the efforts to get players back home in a speedy manner. Lee said the hope is that football fans could attend the high school game of the day, then slide over to Skyview for the evening AFL clash.

The AFL was born to bring exposure to Alaska athletes and to provide them the development needed for professional football. Originally, the AFL was a developmental league to prepare players for the Alaska Wild, an Indoor Football League franchise that folded in 2010. When that team folded, the AFL remained with nothing above it.

That’s where AFL owner Abe Hernandez and Lee came in to rescue it.

“We’re pretty excited where we’ve come in 10 years,” Lee said. “We started as a rag-tag, three-team league that played games at the AT&T Center, and now we’re adding new teams.”

After conquering the Anchorage market with five teams — the Anchorage Cowboys, the Greatland Packers, the Frontier 49ers, the Arctic Seahawks and the Eagle River Broncos — Lee and Hernandez opened up shop in Wasilla with the Valley Steelers.

“The next logical step was the Kenai Peninsula,” Lee said. “But the big stumbling block was transportation.”

With a schedule that allows the Anchorage and Valley teams to travel back Saturday night, the stage was set for Kenai and Soldotna to join the league.

Colton Goracke will take the reigns as the first head coach of the Panthers, and Goracke’s wife, Ashley, will be the general manager. Lee said the Gorackes have made big strides in readying the team to avoid any unforeseen delays.

Lee said that many former members of high school teams in Alaska are part of the league. With the five-time reigning state medium-schools champions Soldotna Stars, Kenai Kardinals and Nikiski Bulldogs in close proximity to the Panthers facility, Lee said the opportunity to develop home grown talents has increased.

“In Alaska, it’s hard to get kids recognized up here,” he said. “What we’ve found is there’s a lot more exposure now.”

Lee said team tryouts will be held in May, and players must be 18 or older to try out.

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