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First And Tundra

Little is ordinary on Alaska football fields. Day is night. Cold is colder. And polar bears?

August 21, 2006|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

ANCHORAGE — A light drizzle coated the synthetic turf and a chill wind blew up against the nearby Chugach Mountains, but there was no need for the Friday night lights when the Chugiak High Mustangs took the field against the Wolverines of South Anchorage High.

There was daylight until nearly 10 p.m. on opening day of the high school football season in Alaska this month. But that certainly won't be the case when the state title game is played -- in late October.

Here in the Last Frontier, football marches to decidedly different rhythms from those in the lower 48, or 49, for that matter. Two-a-day practices start in July, regular competition kicks off in early August, and Alaska almost always crowns a state champion before major league baseball has a World Series winner.

For as the sun drops earlier and earlier and fall arrives, often with a vengeance, a near-universal truth dawns on players here.

"You really don't want to be playing football in Alaska in November," explained Mike Melendez, 17, a star-of-the-week receiver for the Dimond High Lynx.

Or, as Gil Lulay put it: "It can be absolutely brutal out here." And he's only the bus driver, watching from the sidelines.

"Frozen tundra," a term perhaps too loosely thrown around NFL broadcasts, is no hyperbole here. Lulay, 70, let out a shudder when asked about the toughest conditions he'd seen.

That would probably be the third week of October nine years ago, when Anchorage city workers, led by the mayor, chopped, shoveled, chipped, picked and spread airport-quality de-icer on the field to get it ready for the state championship.

"It was really more suitable for ice hockey than football," Lulay recalled.

Still, bothersome as single-digit temperatures, snow or rock-hard fields can be, many players echo a much deeper lament about football in Alaska.

"It's really tough to get noticed up here," said Austin Mallory, 17, a defensive end for the Lynx. "You play your butt off, but most colleges don't have us on the recruiting circuit."

The four-conference Alaska high school football program has at least three alumni active in the NFL and at least five others who formerly played in the league, according to Elmore Laws III, publisher of alaskapreps.com, a website that covers high school sports.

But, said Laws, who played high school football in Las Vegas, "when it comes right down to it, unless you are an exceptional stand-out athlete, it can be hard to generate a lot of national attention." A lot of the players receive traditional recruiting letters, but few end up with scholarships.

"We do have a lot of kids who wind up as walk-ons at D-2 schools," Laws said, referring to Division II colleges, which rank below the powerhouses in the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.

This year, the Barrow High Whalers are fielding a team believed to be the first U.S. high school football team north of the Arctic Circle.

Barrow, Alaska's northernmost village, is more than 500 miles away from its nearest gridiron foe.

On Saturday, the visiting Delta Junction High Huskies, from the Fairbanks area, played the Whalers just yards from the Arctic Ocean, amid snow flurries and temperatures in the 30s.

Barrow school officials had told the visitors the district would place a sentry in a wooden lookout tower to keep an eye out for wandering polar bears.

Pressed for details, Barrow High's assistant principal, Mike Wetherbee, let out a laugh over the phone, and conceded there may have been an intimidation factor behind that announcement.

"The truth is, polar bears at this point in the year really aren't all that much of a problem," Wetherbee said. Alas, Barrow lost, 34-0.

For the 40-player squad in Barrow, and indeed for the whole 4,500-person village, the game was a "huge deal," Wetherbee said, regardless of the outcome.

However, while Barrow High's basketball team shocked the world -- or Alaska, anyway -- by getting to the finals of the state championship two years ago (it lost an overtime heartbreaker to perennial powerhouse Valdez, 70-65), there will be no such "Hoosiers"-style miracle this year in football.

As an independent team unaligned with any official conference, and with only four games on its varsity schedule, the Whalers won't be eligible for the playoffs this year.

The "long-term goal" is to get there, Wetherbee said, but travel funds are a problem: There is no road to Barrow from the rest of the state, so any "road games" will, in fact, require an airline flight. The team will travel 1,150 miles Sept. 16 to play a game at Sitka, in the Alaska Panhandle.

The state's other unaligned team, in Ketchikan, at the southern tip of Alaska, also has to fly to its road games.

There are just four conferences in the state -- the Northern Lights, the Greatland, the Cook Inlet and the Railbelt -- most of them concentrated in the Anchorage or Fairbanks areas.

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