Russian Old Believer football program forges ahead into fifth season

  • Foma Reutov, a freshman, ties up his shoes before a Cougars football practice Friday, Sept. 1, 2017 at McNeil Canyon Elementary in Fritz Creek, Alaska. The team, usually made up of a mix of students from the Russian Old Believer Villages Voznesenka, Razdolna and Kachemak-Selo, is in its fifth year as a varsity, 11-man program. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
  • Kalinik Reutov, a junior, catches a ball during a Cougars team practice Friday, Sept. 1, 2017 at McNeil Canyon Elementary in Fritz Creek, Alaska. The team made up of players from three Russian Old Believe schools outside Homer is in its fifth year as an 11-man program. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
  • Justin Zank, head coach of the Cougars football team, looks on during a practice Friday, Sept. 1, 2017 at McNeil Canyon Elementary in Fritz Creek, Alaska. Zank, with help from the school district and administration, brought the players from Russian Old Believer schools Voznesenka, Razdolna and Kachemak-Selo from an eight-man team to a varsity 11-man program five years ago. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
  • Members of the Cougars football team, made up of players from three Russian Old Believer schools, practice in a field Friday, Sept. 1, 2017 in a field behind McNeil Canyon Elementary in Fritz Creek, Alaska. The axe stuck in the stump in the foreground is a new tradition started this year by Head Coach Justin Zank. He tells his players to “be the axe.” (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
  • Players on the Cougars football team, made up of students from the Russian Old Believer schools Voznesenka, Razdolna and Kachemak-Selo, goof around during an exercise at a team practice Friday, Sept. 1, 2017 at McNeil Canyon Elementary in Fritz Creek, Alaska. With two seniors and several juniors who have been with the team since they entered high school, Head Coach Justin Zank said this year’s is the most experienced group of players he’s had since the 11-man program started five years ago. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
  • Cougar football players senior David Sanarov, left, sophomore Anthony Kalugin, center, and senior Nikit Anufriev shake hands with captains of the team from Nikiski before their game Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 in Homer, Alaska. The Cougars lost 18-40 in their second game of the season. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
  • Cougars Head Coach Justin Zank helps hold up a sign to communicate plays to his team during their game against Nikiski High School on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 in Homer, Alaska. Zank uses pictures to represent the names of plays. One sign Saturday contained a play written in Cyrillic. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
  • Prokophy Konev, a junior, chases down senior Ian Johnson, quarterback and linebacker for Nikiski High School, during their game Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 in Homer, Alaska. The Bulldogs defeated the Cougars 18-40. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
  • Sophomore Antonin Murachev takes a breather during half time at the Cougar football team’s game against Nikiski High School on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 in Homer, Alaska. The Cougars lost 18-40 in their second game of the season. Their first scheduled game was forfeited due to not having enough players at that point in the season. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
  • Senior offensive lineman and linebacker David Sanarov raises his hands in frustration watching his team from the sideline while taking a rest during the Cougar football game against Nikiski High School on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 in Homer, Alaska. The Cougars were defeated 18-40 in their second game of the season. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
  • Offensive and defensive lineman Nikit Anufriev, one of two seniors on this year’s Cougar football team, runs with the ball during the Cougars’ game against Nikiski High School on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 in Homer, Alaska. The Cougars lost 18-40. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
  • Voznesenka senior David Sanarov gives flowers to his mother during the senior night celebration before the Cougars football game against Joe Redington Jr/Sr High School on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 at Homer High School in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
  • Head Coach Justin Zank counsels the Cougar football team, including junior Kalinik Reutov, left, sophomore Zasima Martushev, center and junior Nikola Reutov, after their 18-40 loss to Nikiski High School on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 in Homer, Alaska. With 14 players at the game, Zank said he had the largest group that’s been assembled so far this season. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
  • Cougars quarterback Anthony Kalugin (center) and junior Kalinik Reutov (#25), face off against players from Joe Redington Jr/Sr High School on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 at Homer High School in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)

The Head of the Bay Cougars have five seasons and just about as many wins under their belt.

While these won’t look like compelling stats to some Kenai Peninsula football teams, they’re a sign of progress for the Head of the Bay Cougars, as these are the first five seasons of 11-man, conference-level football that players from the Russian Old Believer villages near Homer have ever had.

Made up of students from the Voznesenka, Razdolna and Kachemak-Selo schools, the team was formed as a varsity football program five years ago by Head Coach Justin Zank, a transplant from south Florida. He took over the previous eight-man program at Voznesenka from former coach Steve Wolfe. That program subsisted on scrimmages with junior varsity and C-teams where they could be conjured up, said Voznesenka Principal Michael Wojciak.

“There just isn’t much for competition, so it’s a lot more fun to be part of a conference where you’ve got something to win or lose,” he said.

Zank envisioned something more for the players.

“I did a school-wide poll, primarily at Voz, to gauge numbers to see if it was feasible, and we had guys coming out of the woodwork to play,” he said.

And so it begins

The very first year of the program, Zank had about 25 players.

“Then they all graduated on me,” he said with a laugh.

At first, there were maybe two players from Kachemak-Selo who joined Voznesenka.

“They just played with us and I think when we finally formed the co-op with all three schools, we realized that our numbers here at Voz wouldn’t sustain our program forever,” Zank said.

Since then, the Cougars have gone on to establish themselves as a small yet scrappy new program, though Zank said it can be surprising how many people in the Homer area are still unaware of their presence.

The Cougars are unique in more ways than their small size and their team’s youth. The idea of football as a priority in villages with strong cultural and religious traditions is very new. The team usually has a first-week bye to account for players still out helping their families during commercial fishing season. The day before the team’s Sept. 2 game against Nikiski High School, one student said he had just returned from fishing in Dutch Harbor and that it was his first practice of the season.

Hitting the field already behind, the Cougars also have more work to do than the average players. Having only one or two substitutes on the sidelines is the norm. Zank said that with a couple seniors and several juniors who have played every year they could, this year’s team is the most experienced he’s had to date.

With each member of the team playing in both directions for a game’s entirety, exhaustion and injuries are common. Senior David Sanarov is no stranger to this as a linebacker and a driving tackling force for the team. After the Cougars’ Sept. 15 game against Joe Redington Jr/Sr High School, which was also senior night for some players, Sanarov said he’s actually looking forward to the season’s end, as it will also mean an end to game-related injuries.

“It’s literally pain, after pain, after pain,” added Dimitry Kuzmin, another senior who has played for the last two years.

Overcoming obstacles

Introducing the concepts of year-round training, like weight lifting, has been one of the challenges for the new program, Zank said.

“Our boys aren’t lazy, if you will,” he said. “They’re working all summer so they’re not averse to hard work. … That also helps us when game time rolls around; they’ve already got a certain level of fitness just from the work they do at home.”

The program receives the same funding from the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District as other teams when it comes to money for the basics, Wojciak said. But the Cougars have farther to travel than any other team on the peninsula to most games, and have no organized fundraising for the players like a booster club, which ads up to financial constraints.

Weight lifting takes place in Zank’s garage at his home. Practices take place outdoors in a field behind McNeil Canyon Elementary School, and before one of the assistant coaches got certified to drive a bus, Wojciak said he was often the one transporting the team to away games.

“I’ve never seen a program as big as this is — as big as it is for us, anyway — have those conditions,” he said.

In addition to little money or infrastructure, the program works around the deep rooted traditions of the Russian Old Believer villages, where football culture has simply not existed to the extent it has in typical small town America. Games are scheduled around holy days, and players adhere to diet restrictions, Zank said.

At the same time, players can be heard discussing the latest National Football League game during practice warm ups. Many of the teammates also play other sports, like Kuzmin, a lifelong hockey player.

“We have fishermen and farmers and family men, and football is not the driving force in their lives, and they have lots of responsibilities outside of school … and football doesn’t lead the list of those responsibilities,” Zank said.

Football’s future

Both Zank and Wojciak said a side effect of the football program is making some of the players more likely to stay in school, as opposed to dropping out to work full time, which isn’t uncommon. Zank said there are certain students who he’s not sure would be in school without sports in their lives.

“To be part of the team I think helps keep them in this school setting just because they’re a part of something bigger than themselves,” Wojciak said.

After the Sept. 15 game against Redington, Sanarov and Kuzmin spoke about the bond they’ve come to share with their teammates and how far the program has come. For Kuzmin, it’s about “having people that count on you and people that you can count on.”

“For us to be so close to these big school teams, it’s pretty amazing,” Sanarov said.

Family is paramount for those in the Russian Old Believer community. After graduation, Sanarov said he’ll be staying close to home as there was recently a death in the family and now is the time to stick together.

For others, the growth of sports in the villages have led them to consider other paths. Kuzmin would like to play college hockey, and hopes to go to an out-of-state school. He’s been thinking about pursuing welding so that he can have a winter job to offset the fishing season, he said.

“All the Russians, they all fish. I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket,” Kuzmin said. “I’ve got to expand a little, you know?”

Right now, the football program is largely driven by Zank, the assistant coaches and the administration. Looking to the future, Wojciak said he’s hopeful for growth.

“I definitely think it’s something that we can sustain, but it will continue to take a lot of energy and a lot of … commitment because the students and the athletes are not yet at a point where they are the ones putting forth the effort saying, we want this team and we’re willing to do what it takes to keep everybody together,” Wojciak said.

Wojciak and Zank predict that, while family responsibilities still take precedence among current players and the athletes are still learning to own their program, the children of today’s team will more readily be football players.

“I hope that as they get older and recognize the benefits of what they were able to be a part of, that they say, ‘Hey, we need to be able to make sure this is sustainable for our kids,’” Wojciak said.

“I feel like we are growing every year, game to game,” Zank said.

Regardless of score and season stats, the Cougars are proving they know what it is to be a team.

“They got my back, I got their back,” Sanarov said.

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@homernews.com.

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