Juneau football team jumps conferences

Crimson Bears will leave Cook Inlet to join Railbelt

Posted: Thursday, January 27, 2005

The Juneau-Douglas High School football team is changing conferences.

In a move to keep its junior varsity program alive and to save money, the Crimson Bears will join the Railbelt Conference for the 2005 season. An agreement signed Wednesday will allow Juneau to leave the Anchorage-based Cook Inlet Football Conference for the Railbelt, which includes teams from Fairbanks and the Mat-Su valleys.

"Other than the JV, the biggest reason is money," said Juneau head football coach Reilly Richey, who spent Monday's lunch hour ordering hats embroidered with Railbelt Conference. "It'll cost more than last year, but it still will be cheaper than staying in the Cook Inlet. ... The biggest thing is it is absolutely good for football in the state."

"There will be a lot more stability, and it'll be nice to have that stability," said Karen Lawfer, president of the Juneau Youth Football League, which funds the high school team.

JDHS athletic director Sandi Wagner and athletic directors from the Railbelt Conference schools signed the agreement Wednesday morning at the statewide scheduling meeting in Anchorage.

"Our position was that it will add prestige to the conference," said North Pole football coach Buck Nystrom, whose Railbelt Conference champs became just the third non-Anchorage team to win a state title this season. "It will help with scheduling. It was a mess dealing with Anchorage, and this will be one less game for us to have to find."

Juneau on the move

Crimson Bear football team changes conferences:

New conference: Railbelt, which includes six teams from Fairbanks and the Mat-Su valleys.

Old conference: Cook Inlet, which in fall 2005 will include eight teams from Anchorage.

New terms: Juneau will buy 38 tickets total for varsity and JV when it hosts conference teams.

Old terms: The CIFC wanted Juneau to buy 30 varsity tickets, with no JV games.

The conference switch is a direct result of a Cook Inlet meeting in December where the CIFC wrote into its by-laws that Juneau would be required to buy 30 airline tickets whenever it hosted conference games, and there would be no JV games. Last year, Juneau bought 20 varsity and 15 JV tickets for visiting teams.

Under the new agreement, Juneau will buy 38 tickets total for the visiting Railbelt varsity and JV teams (20 tickets if only a varsity team comes to town). Some of the tickets will cost more because of the added expense of flying to Fairbanks, but overall the conference switch is considered a better deal. Also, Juneau will have at least one road trip to Fairbanks scheduled before school starts, so there's the possibility the Crimson Bears could rent a bus and drive north.

"They helped us with the JV," Lawfer said of the Railbelt. "The underlying reason (for the switch) was the simple fact that the Cook Inlet said 'Don't even think about the JV.' We could have done a Band-Aid to find a JV schedule, but we couldn't do that to our JV. This is our feeder program. We have to have the JV."

"They (the Railbelt) guaranteed to house us, and that never happened with the Cook Inlet," Richey said. "It's 38 tickets vs. 35, but they guaranteed they'd play our JV. It costs more, but it's still less than what the Cook Inlet wants. The other increase is we'll buy 30 tickets instead of 20 if we get to host a first-round game in the playoffs."

The JDHS/JYFL program has one of the biggest budgets in the country for a high school football team, if not the largest, and the main reason is the extreme travel costs in Alaska. The JYFL spent $235,000 in 2003 on the Crimson Bear varsity and JV teams, with almost all of that money going toward travel.

Every Juneau player has to pay $250 for league fees, then he has to sell $600 in advertising for the team program, sell $400 in raffle tickets and do about a dozen hours of Chorebusters, the team's rent-a-player-for-cheap-labor program. Fund-raising has become a year-round venture for Crimson Bears.

The Crimson Bears were an independent team when they started playing football, and they joined the CIFC in 1996 so they'd have a way to make the state playoffs. In order to join the then-six-team league, Juneau agreed to pay its own way to games in Anchorage, and it agreed to buy 27 tickets for varsity teams to come to Juneau for league games. The airline ticket requirement changed to 20 varsity and 15 JV tickets five years ago when Juneau started its junior varsity program.

Lawfer and Richey both said they had no hard feelings toward the Cook Inlet, which took Juneau in when it was launching its program. But next year there will be eight Anchorage schools in the Cook Inlet and Juneau's move to the six-team Railbelt will help balance out the conferences. They said they expected the switch to come eventually, but the December CIFC meeting pushed it forward.

"A lot of people said it couldn't be done when we said we needed it to be done for this year," Richey said, adding that Wagner played a big role in getting the move made. "Sandi is incredible. She really worked miracles for us. The Railbelt had to go unanimously on this, and she pulled it off."

"Sandi did talk to every athletic director in the conference," Lawfer said. "You look at the coaches and, yeah, they thought adding Juneau would definitely help the Railbelt. But there were some athletic directors who needed some persuading. The bottom line is it comes down to dollars."

Wagner said West Valley athletic director Mike Hubbard spearheaded the move in Fairbanks and the Mat-Su valleys. Wagner was scheduled to be in Anchorage on Tuesday for a Railbelt meeting, where the final agreement was to be signed, but her plane was delayed by fog and the signing took place at Wednesday's scheduling meeting.

Wagner said athletic directors won't do any football scheduling until the Alaska School Activities Association decides in February if the season will be expanded from eight to nine games.

"I just did my job, making phone calls," Wagner said. "I think this is important for us, and I don't think it's as much (that) Anchorage doesn't want us. At this point teams can't play everyone in the league and they've got parents asking why they have to pay to send the team to Juneau when they can't play the team that's five miles away. It's a legitimate complaint."

The Railbelt Conference schools are smaller than the Cook Inlet schools, so it may be easier for Juneau to qualify for the state playoffs with the switch. The Crimson Bears won two CIFC titles (2001 and 2003) and have been to the state playoffs four times since 1999, reaching the championship game in 2003 and the semifinals last season. North Pole is the first Railbelt team to win a state title since Palmer won in 1995. The switch will protect the current playoff berth split, where the Railbelt and Cook Inlet conferences each get four teams in the playoffs.

"Personally, I think the Railbelt is coming up," Richey said. "North Pole won the state championship, and they beat us and (then-undefeated) West (Anchorage) pretty handily last year. Colony always seems to make the state semifinals, and they lost in triple-overtime to (2003 state champ) East (Anchorage)."

• Charles Bingham can be reached at charles.bingham@juneauempire.com.

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