Russian Old Believer football team disbanded after five years; schools will focus on other programs

After five seasons and just about as many wins, the varsity football program for students in three Russian Old Believer villages has come to an end.

The Head of the Bay Cougars rose up from eight-man football to a varsity team registered through Voznesenka School five years ago, and that was enough time for the administration to realize it was stretching itself too thin in terms of athletic programming, according to Voznesenka Principal Mike Wojciak.

“We just, as a school, decided that we want to focus our resources, whether that’s financial or human resources, on the wrestling (program),” he said.

Voznesenka’s wrestling program is long established, and its members placed in the top 10 teams in their division the last two years, Wojciak said.

The community’s football program, while not nearly as successful, seemed to be gaining traction, or at least attention. The Head of the Bay Cougars caught the eye of both the Alaska Dispatch News and the New York Times, both of which published extensive features on the team and the larger Russian Old Believer culture.

However, football requires more than Voznesenka and its staff can give currently, Wojciak said.

“It just takes a lot of effort and commitment from a lot of people to make it go,” he said of the program.

Cobbled together with students from all three schools at the head of Kachemak Bay — Voznesenka, Razdolna and Kachemak-Selo — the varsity team usually only had a player or two on the sidelines to relieve a tired or injured teammate. Most students played in both directions the entire game. The responsibilities of young men in those communities put significant restraints on practice time and even who could attend games at any given time during the season, so the team lacked a certain cohesiveness, which showed on the field.

Nonetheless, many of the players loved the sport, and coaches from other teams often praised their stamina and tenacity.

Wojciak said the school doesn’t regret the experience.

“For a team the size of ours to be … for several years competitive with the teams that we played, was really … to me, spectacular to do what we did,” he said.

The sunsetting of the football team doesn’t mean it won’t ever come back, but Wojciak said the school needs to build up its existing programs before expanding back into that realm. In addition to the wrestling program, Voznesenka hosts teams which students from all three schools can join for soccer and cross-country running.

Providing more athletic programs in communities with such small pupil numbers means potentially taking students away from other sports, Wojciak said. It also puts more of a strain on the faculty who run the programs, like wrestling coach Justin Zank, who also coached the football team.

“He has put his heart and soul into these programs and into these kids to give them opportunities that he had, and opportunities that he wants to provide for them,” Wojciak said. “Not only just for the experiences as an athlete, but there’s a lot of life skills that come along with athletics.”

Part of focusing resources on the existing athletic programs will include more focused fundraising. Without a large support base of parents and fans, like Homer High School sports have, Wojciak said it can be hard to financially support sport teams as well. Representatives of the school had a booth reserved at Homer High for a fundraiser, before the annual Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival Arts and Education Fair was moved there the same weekend. Wojciak said the fundraising effort went well and got good feedback from the community.

“We’re certainly looking to sustain what we have,” he said.

While the numbers at the three head of the bay schools are low compared to traditional schools, Wojciak said the enrollment at both Razdolna and Voznesenka is estimated to grow this coming school year. With that in mind, he said he feels it’s an attainable goal to keep soccer, wrestling and cross country around for the students who want it.

Starting this year, Wojciak will also be the principal of Kachemak-Selo.

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