Russian Old Believer football program forges ahead into fifth season
The Head of the Bay Cougars have five seasons and just about as many wins under their belt.
While these won’t look like compelling stats to some Kenai Peninsula football teams, they’re a sign of progress for the Head of the Bay Cougars, as these are the first five seasons of 11-man, conference-level football that players from the Russian Old Believer villages near Homer have ever had.
Made up of students from the Voznesenka, Razdolna and Kachemak-Selo schools, the team was formed as a varsity football program five years ago by Head Coach Justin Zank, a transplant from south Florida. He took over the previous eight-man program at Voznesenka from former coach Steve Wolfe. That program subsisted on scrimmages with junior varsity and C-teams where they could be conjured up, said Voznesenka Principal Michael Wojciak.
“There just isn’t much for competition, so it’s a lot more fun to be part of a conference where you’ve got something to win or lose,” he said.
Zank envisioned something more for the players.
“I did a school-wide poll, primarily at Voz, to gauge numbers to see if it was feasible, and we had guys coming out of the woodwork to play,” he said.
And so it begins
The very first year of the program, Zank had about 25 players.
“Then they all graduated on me,” he said with a laugh.
At first, there were maybe two players from Kachemak-Selo who joined Voznesenka.
“They just played with us and I think when we finally formed the co-op with all three schools, we realized that our numbers here at Voz wouldn’t sustain our program forever,” Zank said.
Since then, the Cougars have gone on to establish themselves as a small yet scrappy new program, though Zank said it can be surprising how many people in the Homer area are still unaware of their presence.
The Cougars are unique in more ways than their small size and their team’s youth. The idea of football as a priority in villages with strong cultural and religious traditions is very new. The team usually has a first-week bye to account for players still out helping their families during commercial fishing season. The day before the team’s Sept. 2 game against Nikiski High School, one student said he had just returned from fishing in Dutch Harbor and that it was his first practice of the season.
Hitting the field already behind, the Cougars also have more work to do than the average players. Having only one or two substitutes on the sidelines is the norm. Zank said that with a couple seniors and several juniors who have played every year they could, this year’s team is the most experienced he’s had to date.
With each member of the team playing in both directions for a game’s entirety, exhaustion and injuries are common. Senior David Sanarov is no stranger to this as a linebacker and a driving tackling force for the team. After the Cougars’ Sept. 15 game against Joe Redington Jr/Sr High School, which was also senior night for some players, Sanarov said he’s actually looking forward to the season’s end, as it will also mean an end to game-related injuries.
“It’s literally pain, after pain, after pain,” added Dimitry Kuzmin, another senior who has played for the last two years.
Introducing the concepts of year-round training, like weight lifting, has been one of the challenges for the new program, Zank said.
“Our boys aren’t lazy, if you will,” he said. “They’re working all summer so they’re not averse to hard work. … That also helps us when game time rolls around; they’ve already got a certain level of fitness just from the work they do at home.”
The program receives the same funding from the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District as other teams when it comes to money for the basics, Wojciak said. But the Cougars have farther to travel than any other team on the peninsula to most games, and have no organized fundraising for the players like a booster club, which ads up to financial constraints.
Weight lifting takes place in Zank’s garage at his home. Practices take place outdoors in a field behind McNeil Canyon Elementary School, and before one of the assistant coaches got certified to drive a bus, Wojciak said he was often the one transporting the team to away games.
“I’ve never seen a program as big as this is — as big as it is for us, anyway — have those conditions,” he said.
In addition to little money or infrastructure, the program works around the deep rooted traditions of the Russian Old Believer villages, where football culture has simply not existed to the extent it has in typical small town America. Games are scheduled around holy days, and players adhere to diet restrictions, Zank said.
At the same time, players can be heard discussing the latest National Football League game during practice warm ups. Many of the teammates also play other sports, like Kuzmin, a lifelong hockey player.
“We have fishermen and farmers and family men, and football is not the driving force in their lives, and they have lots of responsibilities outside of school … and football doesn’t lead the list of those responsibilities,” Zank said.
Both Zank and Wojciak said a side effect of the football program is making some of the players more likely to stay in school, as opposed to dropping out to work full time, which isn’t uncommon. Zank said there are certain students who he’s not sure would be in school without sports in their lives.
“To be part of the team I think helps keep them in this school setting just because they’re a part of something bigger than themselves,” Wojciak said.
After the Sept. 15 game against Redington, Sanarov and Kuzmin spoke about the bond they’ve come to share with their teammates and how far the program has come. For Kuzmin, it’s about “having people that count on you and people that you can count on.”
“For us to be so close to these big school teams, it’s pretty amazing,” Sanarov said.
Family is paramount for those in the Russian Old Believer community. After graduation, Sanarov said he’ll be staying close to home as there was recently a death in the family and now is the time to stick together.
For others, the growth of sports in the villages have led them to consider other paths. Kuzmin would like to play college hockey, and hopes to go to an out-of-state school. He’s been thinking about pursuing welding so that he can have a winter job to offset the fishing season, he said.
“All the Russians, they all fish. I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket,” Kuzmin said. “I’ve got to expand a little, you know?”
Right now, the football program is largely driven by Zank, the assistant coaches and the administration. Looking to the future, Wojciak said he’s hopeful for growth.
“I definitely think it’s something that we can sustain, but it will continue to take a lot of energy and a lot of … commitment because the students and the athletes are not yet at a point where they are the ones putting forth the effort saying, we want this team and we’re willing to do what it takes to keep everybody together,” Wojciak said.
Wojciak and Zank predict that, while family responsibilities still take precedence among current players and the athletes are still learning to own their program, the children of today’s team will more readily be football players.
“I hope that as they get older and recognize the benefits of what they were able to be a part of, that they say, ‘Hey, we need to be able to make sure this is sustainable for our kids,’” Wojciak said.
“I feel like we are growing every year, game to game,” Zank said.
Regardless of score and season stats, the Cougars are proving they know what it is to be a team.
“They got my back, I got their back,” Sanarov said.
Reach Megan Pacer at email@example.com.
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