When high school football players report to training camp July 31 for the 2000 season, they will find themselves preparing for a slightly different goal when the playoffs roll around.
Sure, they'll still be playing for a shot at the playoffs, but the chance to play in the postseason will be a distinct possibility rather than a wild dream for every team.
The Alaska School Activities Association has adopted a new playoff format for the 2000 season, creating a Northern Lights South football conference consisting of the four Class 4A peninsula schools -- Homer, Kenai, Skyview and Soldotna -- and Ketchikan.
The NLC South will square off with an expanded Greatland Conference -- Anchorage Christian Schools and Sitka will join Glennallen, Houston, Nikiski and Seward for the 2000 season -- in a sanctioned, small-schools state championship.
In the new playoff format, the top two teams from each conference will advance to the postseason. The top two teams will be determined by a conference schedule in which all the teams play each other once.
The regular season for small schools has been shortened from eight to seven games, so the first week of the small-schools playoffs will be held in what was previously the last week of the regular season.
The top seed from each conference will play the No. 2 seed from the other conference for a berth in a small-schools championship game the following week.
"I think it's great. I think it will work out well," said Wade Marcuson, football coach at Skyview High School. "It really puts things in perspective for the smaller schools."
ASAA's nine-member board of directors, consisting of a representative from each of the state's six regions, a representative from both the Alaska Association of School Administrators and the Alaska Association of School Boards, and a member of the Alaska Association of Student Governments with an advisory vote, adopted the plan after listening to discussion of three different plans during ASAA's December meeting.
According to ASAA Executive Director Gary Matthews, the only dissenting votes came from Region IV (Anchorage) and Region V (Southeast) representatives, as well as from the student member of the committee.
In previous seasons, the peninsula's 4A schools competed in the Northern Lights Conference along with Colony, Wasilla and Palmer. Enrollments at the Mat-Su schools continue to grow, though, while enrollment numbers at the peninsula schools have either plateaued or dropped off.
The Valley schools' average enrollment is about 1,000 students, while the average enrollment at Homer, Kenai, Skyview and Soldotna is about 570 students, according to enrollment numbers in the 1999-2000 ASAA handbook.
The three Mat-Su schools will join the Railbelt North, competing against similarly-sized Fairbanks schools in North Pole, West Valley and Lathrop.
At 339 students, Eielson will be the smallest school in the Railbelt North, but will stay with the Railbelt for economic and travel reasons.
"I definitely think it's a move in the right direction for Alaskan football," said Nikiski coach Scott Anderson. "Since we've done that, ACS, Ketchikan and Sitka have come on board. With 11 schools involved, that'll make it more of a meaningful season for everyone involved. I think you'll see a pretty competitive brand of football.
"From our standpoint, I don't see anything but positives. If there's any downside, it's with Sitka and Ketchikan as far as money for financing trips, so that'll have to be worked out. Hopefully, a couple more teams from Southeast will start up and they can have their own conference. The only other downside is that Eielson's not involved. Eventually, we need to find a way to include them."
Nikiski was one of the first schools to begin exploring the small-schools option, breaking away from the NLC four years ago to play in the Greatland Conference. The results have all been positive as the program has thrived, winning three straight titles.
"In the long run, this is going to be the best thing for kids," said Kenai Central football coach Jim Beeson. "Week in and week out, everybody's going to have a realistic chance to be playing for a state championship. Not that winning is that important, but it makes the season a little more enjoyable.
"Everyone questioned Nikiski when they pulled out, but I think the success they've had directly reflects that move."
Anderson agreed that the move benefited his program. Instead of playing a frustrating schedule with little hope of making the playoffs, the Bulldogs are matched against tough but even competition every week, and they have been able to call themselves a championship program.
"When Nikiski seceded from the NLC four years ago, everyone said it was crazy, it would never work, and they'd be back after a couple of seasons," Anderson said. "I'm glad things have worked out the way that they have."
Keeping the smaller schools together also has encouraged new programs to start up without having to face a beating every week.
"For schools like ACS, it's now much more feasible for them to start a football team," Beeson said. "You'll see Sitka and Ketchikan on our schedule."
The Mat-Su and Anchorage schools won't be forgotten. In fact, Skyview still has Palmer on its schedule, and Soldotna will open with back-to-back games against last season's state finalists, Wasilla and Service.
"I was hired at Soldotna to win the whole thing, but even a small-schools championship is going to be tough. It's going to be really interesting," said Soldotna coach Rob Dimick. "I know that I open with Wasilla and then we play Service the next week. I want to play those schools, and I want the kids to play those schools.
"If we're going to have a chance to win the first state small-schools championship, we need to play those teams."
In a related move, last week ASAA decided the new playoff format for the large schools.
The large schools will still play an eight-game regular season, and the playoffs will still take three weeks.
After the eight-week regular season, the top four teams from the Railbelt North and Cook Inlet conferences will make the playoffs. The Cook Inlet Conference is made up of the six Anchorage schools and Juneau-Douglas High School from the Southeast.
In the first week of the playoffs, Cook Inlet's Nos. 1 and 4 teams, and its Nos. 2 and 3 teams will face off to get to the semifinals. The same thing will happen in Railbelt North.
"They're going to have a kind of region tournament within the conference that first week," said John Andrews, the activities and athletic director at Skyview High School. "They did that so the weakest school from the Railbelt didn't have to get pounded on by the best Anchorage school in the first round."
The semifinals will then pit Cook Inlet's No. 1 against the Railbelt's No. 2, and vice versa.
Clarion reporter Jeff Helminiak contributed to this story.
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