The rain held off, the fans cheered and there was action on the Homer High School football field Saturday in a scrimmage between the HHS Mariners and the Voznesenka Cougars. Four quarters later, the Mariners claimed a 48-6 victory and both teams had a better understanding of strengths and weaknesses before conference games begin this weekend.
“We didn’t want to go into a conference game without getting some football under our belt,” said Mariner Head Coach Josh Fraley.
The Mariners were scheduled to play their first game in the medium schools Northern Lights Conference against Monroe Catholic High School in Fairbanks on Saturday; however, that game was canceled. With Voznesenka’s 11-man team officially making its debut in the small schools Great Land Conference this season, Fraley said, “Coach Justin Zank was nice enough to bring the guys down and scrimmage against us. I think both of our clubs got a lot out of it.”
For Fraley, his coaching staff — Rick Alexander, Scott Cardoza and Sean Pearson — and his team, the scrimmage, considered a practice rather than an official game, was an opportunity “to see where we have some holes. It really helps when building a practice schedule, knowing what we have to focus on. Being able to do that without putting a win or loss on your record is invaluable.”
For Zank, his coaches — Ryan Miller and Andy Rothenberger — and team, it provided the benefit of playing on an actual football field, something Voznesenka lacks.
“A lot of these guys haven’t even seen a full football field,” said Zank. “What we play on is like 20-by-40 feet. It was kind of an eye-opener for these kids.”
From Indiana, this is Zank’s third year at Voznesenka where he is the Title I migrant and preschool teacher. He played football in high school and has coached both middle and high school football and wrestling. He also coaches wrestling for Voznesenka.
Saturday’s scrimmage “showed where our weaknesses were and showed our lack of practice time and lack of conditioning. It was a good starting place,” said Zank.
Fraley is a 2003 Homer High graduate. While it’s his first year as the school’s head coach, he’s been the assistant head coach and defensive coordinator for the last four years. Prior to that he coached junior varsity.
“When it comes to teaching football, not that much is different than what I’ve done before,” he said. “I make the final decisions, but with the coaches I have, it’s collaborative.”
This year’s Mariner team has only four seniors.
“We’re a very young team, but have a lot of guys passionate about the game,” said Fraley. “We have a new offense that I’ve put in this year and you could see the difference Saturday.”
Playing to the team’s strengths, Fraley said fans will see a throwing game, thanks to Sheldon Hutt, a junior.
“He has a really good arm and is a really good leader, with more confidence this year than last,” said Fraley. “I’m definitely building our offense around a lot of his skill sets.”
Returning player Drew Brown, also a junior, “is kind of a natural at kicking the football. That adds another dimension,” said Fraley. Of senior Joey Cardoza, Fraley said, “He’s a great kid, probably the best leader on our team. I’m glad to have him on the football team.” Another returning varsity player and a senior, Gabriel Selbig “gives everything he’s got on the field and the guys look up to him a lot. He’s the first one to pat you on the back and the first one to get in your ear when you screw up and he does it in a good way,” said Fraley.
Rounding out the team’s leaders are Ian Lowe, Hunter Harris and Patrick Rainwater. Two transfer students also are making a place for themselves on the Mariner team: Josh Fisk, who moved to Homer from Wisconsin, and Michael Swoboda, formerly of Texas.
Fraley also is being assisted by “Coach Gary,” a summer visitor to Homer from Minnesota.
“He’s a former teacher, recently retired, and likes to look up football coaches wherever he goes,” said Fraley. “He’s been a pretty big help to our boys.”
In addition to Voznesenka, Zank’s team includes students from Kachemak Selo and Razdolna. With many of the young men involved in commercial fishing, he is still rounding out the team.
“Our numbers are pretty low and we only had 13 at the scrimmage, with quite a few freshman and first-year guys. A lot of the experienced players are out captaining their own boats. We need them back,” said Zank.
Zank and Fraley are working out a practice schedule so both teams can use the Homer field, which also is used by the Pop Warner teams. The heavy use will put a strain on the field.
“I hope with these different programs using the field, we can get a plug in for getting turf like some of the other peninsula fields,” said Fraley. “Then we wouldn’t have to worry about the maintenance.”
The Oct. 1 ballot includes a proposition asking voters if the Kenai Peninsula Borough shall borrow up to $22,987,000 through the issuance of general obligation bonds to be used, in part, for a Homer High School turf field.
“If we get it passed, we can get it in there in the next two seasons,” said Fraley. “It would really help these two programs.”
For now, Fraley has his eyes set on bringing home a state championship.
“We’ve been to the state playoffs two years in a row. It’s great to make it that far, but after doing it twice, I want to take it the rest of the way,” he said. “The kids are ready. They want to prove something. I can see it in this group.”
Zank wants to establish the Voznesenka Cougars as a competitive force.
“That’s what we’re shooting for, to be competitive in this conference, to show that we can be an 11-man team and play in the Great Land,” he said.
Both coaches have the same request of the public.
“It’s going to be a tough season with some tough schools coming down here,” said Fraley. “Come out to the games, cheer them on, wear the blue and gold, pat them on the back when you see them in town. They’re all great kids.”
Zank also stressed the importance of community support.
“A lot of people in the Homer community don’t know we have a football team,” said Zank. “It would be nice to see them come out, fill up the stands. Even if you’re not a Russian Old Believer, come out and watch some football.”
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.