THE KENTUCKY DERBY opens with a bugle call. Championship boxing bouts boast Michael Buffer. All sporting events have the National Anthem.
The signal to the start every high school sporting season is Alaska football and it all breaks from the gates tonight in the nation’s largest, most vast and vacant state.
There are four games slated today and 10 more scheduled Saturday, when three-time defending small-school division state champion Soldotna goes after a state-record 29th consecutive win in a game against West at Anchorage Football Stadium.
Stand up for the kickoff America. It’s time to rumble, fumble and remain humble.
“It’s nice to lead the country in anything,” Service (Anchorage) football coach Jason Calderera, whose team won it’s first large-division state crown in nine years last season.
Most states have just begun training camps this week. Some haven’t even started.
But, of course, because of Alaska’s arctic conditions it begins (July 22) and ends early – the state championships take place the third week of October.
“It’s like it always this time of year, drizzly and in the 50s and 60s,” Calderera said Thursday. “It will stay this way to the end of September when the ground freezes over. By championship week it might get down to minus-10. We need slow plows to clear the field.”
Oh that wacky Alaska.
We’ve all heard the tales from moose at practice to jet skiers on the sidelines to game delays due to bear sightings.
It’s novelty to outsiders.
To Alaskans, it’s pedestrian.
“You have to understand we’re just five minutes from absolute wilderness,” Calderera said. “We’re all in harmony with wildlife.”
Beyond nature, weather and the isolation, the Alaskan kids strap on the proverbial pads, work out year-round and compete just like the boys from Texas, Florida and California.
Service, which won four state crowns in the 1990s, has had its share of Division I talent, including Brandon Drumm, who starred at the University of Colorado and was the No. 7 pick of the Detroit Lions in 2003.
This year they return all-state performers Joe Sokimi (5-foot-10, 225 pounds), a center, and linebacker Dalton Riggs (6-3, 240).
The Cougars – just like teams from warm-climate regions – run the spread offense with multiple sets to utilize their numerous good athletes.
And just like every high school in the land, Service has had its share of human drama and obstacles to overcome.
Like we’ve preached here time and time again – every one and every team has a story to tell.
The Cougars, however, have a doozy.
The man who implemented Service’s spread attack, assistant coach Fenumiai "Numi" Ilalio Jr. is also a full-time member of the Army National Guard.
Four games into last season, Ilalio was called away to Fort Riley in Kansas for training before deployment on a special assignment in Afghanistan.
Ilalio wasn’t just a coach or disciplinarian or mastermind, Calderera said. He was voted by Alaskan coaches as the state’s top assistant the last three seasons.
“He changed the culture and attitude of this team,” he said.
When South Anchorage High was built in 2004, Service went from 2,500 kids to 1,400. The talent base suffered greatly and so did the win-loss record.
Ilalio was a highly successful coach at East and Juno and led teams to state titles. Calderera brought him over to Service in 2006 and the tide turned.
“It was really tough those transition years but Numi really help turn that all around,” Calderera said.
With Ilalio away at training, that made last year’s state championship all the more unlikely and emotional.
“He was only away physically,” Calderera said. “Otherwise he was with us right to the last gun.”
In fact, Ilalio helped the Cougars fight back from a 14-2 halftime deficit to beat Juneau (Douglas) 22-14 in the state finals.
Ilalio’s wife Terry texted her husband every play of the first half. During Calderera’s halftime speech, Ilalio made a call to the locker room.
According to Calderera, Ilalio said: “What the hell is going on? Loosen the defense and throw the ball.”
After the Cougars scored 20 unanswered points in the second half to win their first state title since 1999, Ilalio and the 16 soldiers working under him that day in Kansas broke into cheers.
Ilalio broke into tears.
“You kinda have to understand where we’ve been and all we’ve gone through to understand the emotion,” Calderera said. “Plus football is very, very important to Numi. It’s one of the things to help him stay grounded and sane.”
Ilalio was deployed for combat in November. “Likely to the front lines,” Calderera said. “He can’t tell us much, but all we know that he’s on a special mission.”
He returned for a two week break in April, visited the team at camp, and returned to Afghanistan. He’s due back to Anchorage for good in the next two weeks.
Waiting, among others, is his son Matthew, an incoming freshman who will play on Service’s “C” team this year.
“The kids were ecstatic to see (Ilalio) in April,” Calderera said. “They’re incredibly anxious to get him back. We all are.”
Service (8-3 last year) opens Saturday against arch-rival South, a team it hasn’t beat since it opened in 2004.
“It’s a heck of a way to start,” said Calderera, a 1989 graduate of Service. “We’ll have 5,000 fans, standing-room-only. In many ways, this is our biggest game of the year.”
Both teams were depleted by graduation. South lost 32 seniors from last year’s 9-1 squad that won the Cook Inlet Conference. Lineman Dylon Short is the only returning offensive starter.
Besides Sokimi and Riggs, Service will also be largely new players. Xavier Jackson, a transfer from California, figures to be the team’s big playmaker.
SWINE ME NOT
The Swine flu has hit Anchorage hard, with 255 of the state's 322 reported cases. A Dimond High School volleyball player reportedly was one of the cases, this after a pair of local football players came down with the illness.
The second football player was from Barlett High School, which has been hit hard by illness according to coach John Jessen. Practices have been scaled back, he told the Anchorage Daily News.
Barlett’s season opener tonight against Wasilla is still on. For now.
Remember in the spring, the University Interscholastic League in Texas postponed all events for two weeks due to the Swine flu scare.
E-mail Mitch Stephens at firstname.lastname@example.org.