For the Soldotna High football team, the season is beginning with an unsettling, unwelcome sense of familiarity.
Soldotna was scheduled to host West Valley on Friday, but coach Galen Brantley Jr. learned Wednesday night that West Valley couldn’t make the trip because of a positive COVID-19 test.
“It’s kind of a bummer we’re starting off the way we left off last year. That’s what it feels like,” Brantley said. “… Here we go again.”
COVID-19 has managed to do something most Alaska football teams can’t — stop Soldotna. The Stars have steamrolled their way to eight straight Division II state championships, and they appeared primed for a ninth straight last season when the state playoffs were canceled because of the pandemic.
Now, with everyone ready to start anew, there’s a feeling of deja vu.
Alaska high school football was set to kick off with 13 games this weekend, but as of Thursday evening, four games had been canceled because of COVID-19:
— South High at Dimond High, due to a positive test result on the Dimond team and a subsequent loss of mandatory practice time for some of the Lynx, according to the Anchorage School District.
— West Valley at Soldotna, due to a positive test result on the West Valley team, Brantley said.
— Kenai Central at Barrow, due to a positive test result on the Kenai team, according to KSRM radio.
— Kodiak at Redington, “out of an abundance of caution and concern for our athlete’s safety and well-being and that of our opponents,” according to a Facebook post by Redington. Football practices and team events won’t resume until next Wednesday.
South and Dimond will meet Friday night at Dimond High anyway for a scrimmage game.
“All students who are no longer quarantined will be allowed to participate,” said Marty Lang, the Anchorage School District’s director of secondary education.
Dimond’s positive test result happened during the first week of practice, Lang said.
Students who were fully vaccinated did not need to quarantine but unvaccinated players did, and as a result a number of Dimond players couldn’t meet the eligibility requirement of 10 preseason practices.
“We just realized they didn’t have the number of eligible students to field a full team for a full game. It wasn’t a safe situation,” Lang said.
“But we didn’t want them to miss the opportunity to get some game-time reps in, so a scrimmage allows us to put both teams on the field and go through some of those reps and get some of that game-like experience.”
In Soldotna, the Stars will be idle on the first week of the season.
“The kids wanna play and we were hoping maybe we could pick up a game, but that’s not gonna happen,” Brantley said.
A year ago, cancellations and limitations because of COVID-19 shortened the football season for everyone. Soldotna played four games instead of the usual 10, and Brantley said the team was gearing up for something closer to normal this season.
“We had a pretty close-to-normal summer where we lifted four days a week and went to two camps,” he said. “Then we practiced for 11 days and had a scrimmage last weekend.”
Alaska’s season is set to kick off Thursday night in Fairbanks with a game between Monroe Catholic and Seward.
It will be the first game in the United States, a distinction the state of Hawaii was poised to claim earlier this month but didn’t because of COVID-19.
Hawaii’s high school season was supposed to begin Aug. 6, but two days before the season openers the state’s Department of Education ruled that all high school athletes, athletic staffs and volunteers must be vaccinated in order to participate in interscholastic sports.
To accommodate that requirement, fall sports won’t start in Hawaii until late September.
Billy Strickland, the executive director of the Alaska School Activities Association, said there is no plan right now to juggle sports seasons this school year.
ASAA, which runs state tournament events, will follow the testing and masking guidelines in place at the municipality or school district where championship events are held this fall. Depending on how things go, ASAA could adopt its own policies for winter and spring championship events, Strickland said.
“The biggest change now is the vaccine is out there and high school kids are able to get the vaccine, which we know won’t keep you from getting COVID but it makes it far less dangerous,” he said.
It also allows students to skip quarantining if they’ve been identified as a close contact to someone who tests positive.
“There’s an athletic advantage to being vaccinated, but as far as us telling them (to get vaccinated), we’re not going to jump into that hot water,” Brantley said.
East High coach Jeff Trotter, whose team was 7-0 and won the Anchorage School District championship last season, said he and his assistant coaches provided players with information about vaccines but not advice.
“We just gave them numbers on this stuff and said, ‘Here’s the data, you’re smart enough to decide by yourself.’ We told them about the infection rates at the time and the quarantine rule, which is if you’re vaccinated, there is no quarantine,” he said.
He said the team wore masks during the first week of practice when they were inside the school.
“Might as well get used to it,” he said. “We haven’t had an issue yet.”
Trotter said team members want to play football and are willing to deal with whatever it takes to make that happen.
“I wish the adults would adapt to the things as well as the kids have,” he said. “We had a saying last year — the teams that adapt and don’t complain and move on and deal with adversity are gonna be the most successful ones. And they pretty much were.”
This story was updated to include the cancellation of the Kodiak-Redington game.