Five Alaska schools to play 9-man football in 2023

Published: Dec. 9, 2022 at 11:33 AM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Five high school football programs have elected to separate from their conferences and compete against each other in nine-man football, the Alaska School Activities Association confirmed.

Nikiski, Seward, Valdez, Monroe Catholic and Eielson are the five former Division III programs that will now go independent and distance themselves from playing the traditional 11 players per side for the time being.

“About three years ago, we adopted a policy that applies to football that said by mutual consent, schools can play nine-man, as opposed to 11-man, so it’s been available,” ASAA Executive Director Billy Strickland said. “It was really designed for our smallest football-playing schools,”

Nine-man football plays very similar to 11-man in terms of rules — the obvious difference is two fewer players, where the offense removes each offensive tackle position, while the defense also must remove two players, but of their choice.

The change has been considered years in the making, as this handful of schools often field roster numbers in the teens, while Monroe and Valdez did not field teams at all in 2022 because of low participation.

“It is our understanding that they intend to play each other in nine-man, but they technically could still play each other 11-man as well,” Strickland added. “When you’re not assigned to a conference, you’re opting out of Division I, II, and III and a state championship, but for these schools, we feel like, based on their enrollment sizes and communities, them playing just amongst themselves makes probably a little more sense.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics 2020-21 enrollment numbers, Eielson Jr/Sr High School enrolls 303 students, Nikiski has 156, Valdez has 155, Seward High School has 145 and Monroe has an enrollment hovering around 100 students, according to ASAA.

The common thread between these schools is that they feature lower enrollment than most other schools, or are in an area with little to no youth football participation, meaning the high school athletes have less football experience.

”I think the aim of it is to (ensure) player safety, where we are not having to throw in freshman and sophomores,” Bulldogs head football coach Matt Trammell said. Trammell, a 2015 Soldotna High School graduate, just completed his first season at the helm.

“Especially where we are, most of the kids that we get (it is their) first year playing football, completely new to the game, never hit anybody, tackled anybody,” Trammell said. “And then we don’t get a lot of (junior varsity) games — we only had one scrimmage and one game (in 2021), so any freshman or new sophomores, they’re not getting that ton of playing time. And then asking them to play against a lot of juniors and seniors on a larger squad is quite the ask. Maybe this will entice other schools to come join football.”

The five schools are expected to play each other twice a season — one at home and one away — which may lead to more road trips than in a typical year.

“My biggest concern when I heard about it would be scheduling,” Trammell added. “... Just on my end, that is just a ton of travel for us. That means we would have to go Monroe, to Eielson, every single year, to Valdez every single year — that is just kind of a headache.

“The biggest thing is just logistics.”

None of the schools competing in nine-man football finished with a winning record in 2022 as Nikiski finished 3-4, Seward 1-6 and Eielson 0-5. Valdez and Monroe did not compete last fall. The school from this field to most recently win a Div. III state championship was Eielson in 2018.

While the game may look a bit different on the field, Nikiski is sticking to the same game plan and is intrigued by the innovation that comes with nine-man football.

”At the end of the day, we are still playing football, we are still going to go out, we’re going to win games, we are going to work our tails off for the summer and get in the weight room, like all that stuff is still there,” Trammell said. “It’s just two less people on the field ... Overall the outlook is ‘excitement.’ Part of the nine-man thing, it gives us room to be creative, put in new ideas, try new things. That part really excites me. I’m looking forward to it.”

The state activities association says a school can always submit a bid during the offseason to join a conference and return to 11-man football. Including the five schools playing nine-man in 2023, there are a total of 27 schools expected to play high school football in Alaska next fall, regardless of how many players are on the field at one time.

The question remains; how does this impact the rest of Alaska high school football?

Kodiak is moving down from Div. II to Div. III to join the remaining five schools and create a six-team conference — Houston, Redington, Barrow, Kenai and Homer.

That leaves eight teams remaining in Div. II, which will all compete in one conference with the top four teams making the state playoffs. Div. I remains untouched, as those eight schools will still compete in the same conference where all of the teams make the playoffs.

As for the future of nine-man football in Alaska, that remains unclear.

”Is this a thing of the future, is this a short-term thing?” Trammell asked. “I don’t know.”