When Nikiski senior Zach Womack found out the summer before his sixth grade year that he would be moving from Texas to Alaska, his thoughts did not turn to igloos, interminable darkness or stinging cold.
Rather, as soon as Zach's father, Art Womack, told Zach about the long move north, Zach became focused on one thing hockey.
"That's all I thought they had up here," Womack said. "When I came up here, a couple of my friends played it and I got really interested in it."
Hockey is just one of the reasons the move to Alaska worked out for Womack. He is on the verge of completing a solid academic and sporting career at Nikiski filled with numerous other extracurricular activities.
"It seems like he just thrives here," Zach's mother, Debbie Womack, said. "It seems like he likes everything he's done here. He's involved with everything he can get his hands on."
One of those things is hockey, where Womack has blossomed into a player who had 11 goals and 16 assists as a junior and already has a goal and two assists this season.
He has come a long way from the kid dreaming of playing hockey when he came to Alaska.
"I remember him asking me, 'When we go, can I play hockey?'" Debbie said. "I thought to myself, 'You've skated one time in your life for maybe an hour.' But I told him, 'Of course you can play hockey.'"
Nikiski hockey coach Bob Bird, who coached Womack all the way back in sixth grade, said it's not unusual for a player to start skating in sixth grade and catch up with his peers. What was unusual was how fast Womack caught up.
"In Zach's case, he had such a love for the game that he probably caught up faster than most kids," Bird said. "He was an exceptional skater by the time he was in eighth grade."
That same coachability came to the fore when Womack started playing football for the Bulldogs as a freshman.
This season, Womack passed for 307 yards and three touchdowns after he took over for injured starting quarterback Travis McGahan in Week 5. Womack ended up directing the Bulldogs to the playoffs, where they lost in the first round to Kenai Central.
"He's probably the most coachable kid I've ever coached," Nikiski football coach Ned Clooten said of Womack. "He's just so unselfish and so knowledgeable about what needs to be done.
"You really can't offend him or get him down. He'll bounce right back."
Clooten said the best example of that coachability came from Womack's work on defense this year. Even though he assumed the starting quarterback duties midway through the year, Womack still played seven different positions on defense for the Bulldogs.
"Wherever we needed someone, we'd put in Zach," Clooten said.
Womack also has successfully plugged himself into multiple roles away from the athletic fields at Nikiski.
In the classroom, he has a 3.68 grade point average and is working on his honors diploma. Next year, Womack plans to be in Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M University, where he will be in the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program with an eye on getting a degree in aerospace engineering and becoming a pilot.
"Since he was a little boy, he's always known he's wanted to be a pilot and he's stuck with it," Debbie Womack said.
Two years ago, Art Womack got a plane. Hunting and fishing trips to remote locations in Alaska have only increased Zach's appetite for flight.
"It lets you see a part of Alaska that you can't enjoy unless you have a plane," Womack said.
Womack also is the vice president of the student council, is involved with the National Honors Society and participated in a tutoring program at North Star Elementary as a junior.
Finally, Womack uses welding skills he picked up from his father to find work from time to time and to participate in Vocational Industrial Clubs of America, Inc. (VICA) competitions.
"He's a very intelligent kid," said Bird, who has taught Womack government, sociology and world history. "He never lets up on his class participation and he always shows an interest in what you're covering."
While Womack is quick to thank his parents for all that they have done for him, his parents are quick to credit the teaching Womack has received at Nikiski.
"We owe a lot to the teachers at Nikiski," Debbie Womack said. "We've always said he's had tremendous role models at that school. They've had such an impact."
In turn, Bird said Womack has served as a role model for fellow students.
"For better or worse, the jocks always lead the schools," Bird said. "I've been coaching since the '70s, and the citizenship from kids has gotten a lot better these days.
"Zach is an example of that improvement."
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