Football among the old believers, in Alaska


The football players wore their black and yellow jerseys to class last Friday, a day before the home opener for Voznesenka School, the smallest high school in Alaska to field a team.

But a game required at least 11 players. And so far at practice this summer, the Cougars had fielded no more than 10.

The roster is customarily thin at the beginning of the season in this lush and remote community where sports for boys and girls have progressed carefully, with an evolving balance of contemporary life and the old ways of tradition and religion.

Players were still trickling into school after a summer on commercial fishing boats, drift-netting for salmon with their fathers, brothers, uncles and cousins. For some it had been a record haul for sockeye, a variety of wild salmon known here as reds, and a number of players had been on the water for two months.

Practice began in late July, but it was haphazard. Five players showed up one day, six or seven the next. It went on that way, week after week.

Each absence was acutely felt at a school of 109 students, in prekindergarten through 12th grade, with only 29 in high school. The first game, scheduled on the road for Aug. 17, was canceled. It was Voznesenka’s first forfeit in the five seasons it has played 11-man football, after brief participation in the unofficial, eight-man version.

“Heartbreaking,” said Justin Zank, 34, Voznesenka’s football and wrestling coach.

He laughed grimly.

“I think this season has taken years off my life.”

And it had yet to begin.

But Zank had learned patience in this unincorporated village of about 50 or 60 families on the Kenai Peninsula, more than 200 miles south of Anchorage.

He could not expect high school football to be consuming here, the way it could be in Texas and the Deep South. Voznesenka has no gym and shares a playing field 45 minutes away in the fishing hub of Homer.

Zank improvised by constructing a weight room in his garage, where he also placed a wrestling mat for training. The Cougars had won only four games in four seasons, and the coach took his satisfaction from small improvements, a player’s awakening.

“Here,” he said, “it’s life with football on the side, not football with life on the side.”

Voznesenka is a community of Old Believers, a secluded offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church that resisted reforms in the mid-17th century and still adheres to traditionalist worship, customs, dietary restrictions and styles of dress.

The local church, with its onionlike dome, sits next to the school. All students speak English and Russian. Depending on the strategy of a particular football game, placards are sometimes held aloft on the sideline, signaling plays in Cyrillic.

At the head of Kachemak Bay, the pavement ends. Gravel roads dip steeply through spruce forests and purple blossoms of fireweed to the Old Believer villages of Voznesenka, Razdolna and Kachemak Selo, which pool their athletes to sustain teams. Across the bay, glaciers sit atop mountains like alpine sand traps.

Isolation has been long pursued by Old Believers in places like Siberia, China, Brazil, Canada, Oregon and — beginning in the late 1960s — Alaska, as they sought to practice their faith, avoid persecution and escape unwanted influences from the outside world.

Voznesenka was established in 1985, and when the school got its first computer in the early 1990s, parents kept their children home for two weeks in protest, school officials said.

Gradually, as a younger generation had school-age children and technology became more vital to the fishing industry, many in the village began to welcome the internet, smartphones, television and sports — football, wrestling and hockey for boys and, most recently in a male-dominated society, soccer and cross-country for girls.

“The younger generation of parents want their kids to have the same opportunities as others and to be active,” said Efrocia Polushkin, a special-education aide who has worked at Voznesenka School for 29 years and has two sons who played football. “We have to grow with the times. We can’t keep our kids locked in drawers.”

———

The home opener was five days away, but only six players suited up for practice. Among the absent were those busy with home chores, butchering chickens or digging potatoes. Zank received a text message from Prokohpy Konev, 16, a junior wide receiver and defensive back: “Mom made me shovel out the chicken coop.”

It was drizzly with temperatures in the 50s. Practice was held at an elementary school 10 miles from Voznesenka. After two hours of drills, players ran around cones on an unmarked field, 25 to 30 seconds per lap, until they bent in exhaustion. Two players who had just returned from fishing, and were not yet in football shape, went into the bushes and threw up.

Nikit Anufriev, 18, a senior center and defensive end, was the biggest player on the field and the best conditioned. Once, he was so gangly that older boys shoved him into lockers. Now he had filled out to 6-feet-2, 190 pounds. While fishing over the summer, he jumped rope to stay fit and did pushups and situps on the boat. He ran effortlessly, opening a gap on his teammates with each lap.

He had attended a prestigious wrestling camp in the summer of 2016. Something had clicked in his head: Stop training to finish last. “It changed his life,” Zank said.

No one could seem to remember the last person — or any person — from Voznesenka who had gone to college on an athletic scholarship. Anufriev wanted to be that person.

“I’ve got goals,” he said.

Football and wrestling were viewed as reflections of the discipline and resilience needed to maintain Old Believer traditions. And the strength required for physically demanding jobs in fishing, construction and subsistence farming.

“It’s all about who’s the strongest,” said Maxim Kusnetsov, 16, a junior running back and defensive lineman who was the 2016 state wrestling champion in the 98-pound division.

Before television was widely viewed in Voznesenka, some residents drove 25 miles to Homer and rented hotel rooms to watch college games and the NFL. These days, traditional embroidered shirts worn by boys occasionally feature logos of the Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos and New England Patriots on the collar instead of typical floral designs.

At nearby Razdolna School, ceiling tiles in the science classroom were painted with logos of the New Orleans Saints, Arizona Cardinals, Pittsburgh Steelers, Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons. On Mondays during football season, the science teacher, Ryan Miller, an assistant coach at Voznesenka, showed NFL highlights for an hour.

Michael Wojciak, the principal at Voznesenka School who, like Zank, was not an Old Believer but wore a beard, in part, to respect local tradition, said: “There’s a fear by some that ‘We’re losing our culture, our identity.’ But the flip side is, if you don’t offer something, you’ll lose the kids.”

Still, football is of only secondary importance in these Old Believer villages. Sports are scheduled around more than 40 religious celebrations held each year. On Sundays, church begins as early as 2 a.m. and lasts four to six hours. And athletes have to adjust their diets according to certain restrictions.

Meat and dairy are prohibited on Wednesdays and Fridays. And the opening of the 2017 football season coincided in the Julian calendar with a two-week period of dietary restrictions, when fish was also mostly excluded, ahead of the Feast of the Assumption.

Work, too, was viewed by many as more urgent — and far more lucrative — than sports. Nikit Martushev, 17, a senior, had played tackle as a freshman, but he resisted entreaties to rejoin the team. He had been a boat captain since he was 14, and while football players expectantly awaited a game, he planned to go long-lining for cod. Soon, he would be moose hunting.

“I wanted time for myself,” Martushev said. “With football, I had no time to do anything else.”

While many in Voznesenka appreciated the value of teamwork in sports, some feared that football players risked serious injury, which could disrupt their livelihoods. Or that athletes would pursue empty hopes of college or professional careers.

“I don’t think it’s possible here. Who knows?” said Anisia White, a village elder and a bilingual tutor at Voznesenka School. “They could end up without anything.”

But Nikit Anufriev wanted to give it a shot. At times, he was the only player to lift weights at Zank’s house after practice. Sometimes he ran in a weighted vest in the morning before school.

“People say, ‘Don’t go to college; you’re not going to get anywhere, it’s a waste of time,'” Anufriev said. “But I want to try something new. To see the world is a big thing.”

At the wrestling camp, it felt electric to be around athletes who had the same passion he had. Months later, he had reached the 2016 Alaska state wrestling semifinals. A scholarship seemed newly possible. He had begun researching small colleges in the Midwest.

“I want to be in the spotlight,” he said.

———

As the football team practiced nearby, girls on the Voznesenka cross-country team ran three miles along a quiet road. One of them, Domna Basargin, 15, a 10th grader, had considered playing football, too.

“Knocking down people sounds really fun,” she said.

In such a conservative community, it perhaps seemed unlikely that girls would play football anytime soon. But, encouraged by their parents, and some teachers, they had begun in the last four or five years to ask a vital question: If boys can have opportunities for sport, why can’t we?

Girls and women in Voznesenka wear long, brightly colored dresses to their ankles, with sleeves to their wrists. Married women cover their uncut hair with scarves. High-school girls are given traditional chores at home — cleaning, sewing, cooking, baby-sitting. But more of them are also exploring sports.

“It’s fun to push yourself to the limit,” said Elena Basargin, 16, a junior on the soccer team. Her mother, Efimia, a Russian-language teacher, was the Voznesenka School chess champion in 1996, but had no opportunity to play varsity sports. She encouraged Elena to join a team to stay fit and active.

“There is value to working well with others,” Efimia Basargin said. “There has to be something fun besides reading and writing.”

Nikolaevsk, another Old Believer village on the Kenai Peninsula that is considered less conservative, has become a state basketball power. In 2014, Nianiella Dorvall became the first girl from Nikolaevsk to receive a college basketball scholarship, to a community college in Washington.

Dorvall, now 21, has stopped playing basketball to pursue her pre-med studies at Washington State, but said she encouraged Old Believers to pursue sports.

“You can maintain your customs, beliefs and traditions while going out into this Americanized world and doing something with your life that you can bring back to your village,” she said. “Or you can share your customs and beliefs with everyone else.”

Change in Voznesenka is inevitable, said White, the village elder. To preserve core beliefs, adults must help children “understand what is important and essential to hold onto.”

When it comes to sports, each family is left to decide what is considered acceptable. Some girls on the cross-country team run in tights. But Vasilisa Basargin, 15, a sophomore, trains in long dresses and said she was unlikely to compete in meets away from Old Believer communities.

“I don’t want to go outside,” she said. “I’m not comfortable.”

The Voznesenka soccer team satisfied concerns about modesty by outfitting players in shorts that extended just above the knee. A soccer ball could get lost in the hemline of a long dress, Frosia Polushkin, the coach, said with a laugh.

“It’s a new century,” Polushkin said. “We Old Believers want to be up with the times.”

———

A rumor began to spread that Voznesenka’s football team would cancel its home opener and forfeit the entire season. The Cougars’ first opponent, Monroe Catholic High School, faced an uncertain 11-hour drive from Fairbanks.

But Zank was confident that Voznesenka would scrape together a full team, if just barely. More players were returning from fishing. At practices, the mood felt relaxed, loose.

Kusnetsov, the running back and wrestling champion, was obsessed with ‘80s rock music. He arrived one day blasting Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” from his car.

“The greatest American singer ever,” Kusnetsov said of Springsteen. “It would be Kenny Loggins, but he doesn’t have enough patriotic songs.”

Regularly, players teased Anthony Kalugin, 15, the team’s starting quarterback, who did not bother with the trifling notion that a pre-practice snack should be light and nutritious. “He’s got a gravy dispenser hooked to his car battery,” Kusnetsov said.

Finally, last Friday afternoon, hours before the opening game, 11 players showed up at practice. Voznesenka had an official team. Zank grabbed an ax from an assistant coach’s truck and drove it into a stump. Then he told a story that, strictly speaking, was more designed for motivation than accuracy.

The ax had once belonged to an Old Believer who used it to fend off a bear attack on his family, Zank told the players. “Tomorrow, you guys be the ax,” he said, his voice growing low. “Be sharp, be solid. Slay that friggin’ bear.”

Early Saturday morning, players drove their cars 45 minutes to Homer High School, arriving at 8 a.m., three hours before kickoff. Two additional players joined them, one from vacation, another from a belated ferry ride, bringing the roster to 13. Now the Cougars had a couple of substitutes.

“I woke up on the right side of the bed,” Anufriev, the center and defensive end, told his teammates with a smile. “You guys should thank me. The key to being in beast mode is to be happy.”

Players gathered in a classroom and watched video of Monroe Catholic’s previous game. One player went into a home economics kitchen and cooked a pot of oatmeal for his teammates. He set out syrup, almonds and peanut butter for toppings. According to Old Believer custom, no outsiders could prepare food or handle plates or utensils.

The players began to dress in black helmets, black jerseys and black pants. Beneath the jerseys, each wore a thin woven belt of a type he had worn since baptism.

For Antonin Murachev, 14, a sophomore running back and defensive back, this first game of the season might also be his last. His father was fishing and his mother needed him to chop wood, clean the garage and work in the garden.

Wojciak, the principal, said he would speak to Murachev’s parents “to see if he can play at least the home games.”

Some players said they were nervous. This did not include Daniel Anufriev, 16, a junior lineman and Nikit’s brother. He sprayed himself with cologne in the locker room. “I want to smell good,” he said.

On a warm-up field, Zank gathered the Cougars and told them that no other team could be so competitive with so few players. “You’re tougher,” Zank said.

And he brought up the ax again.

“Slay that bear!”

At halftime, Voznesenka trailed only 10-0.

David Sanarov, 17, a senior linebacker, seemed to make every tackle. He was quiet and polite, not given to emotion. But he was ubiquitous, and had been named the 2016 defensive player of the year in the Peninsula Conference, in which Voznesenka played.

He often wore a black bandanna bearing the Stars and Stripes and taped a message to his helmet that said, “Hope.” He, too, was interested in college, but said his mother objected, telling him: “People who went off to college got further from the religion. It’s better if you stay here.”

“I’m fine with it,” Sanarov said.

Early in the second half, he returned a kickoff for an apparent touchdown, cutting through a warren of futile lunges. But the return was nullified by a penalty. Voznesenka began to deflate. The final score was 26-0.

“Pretty good for one practice together,” said Sam Buenting, an assistant coach and Zank’s brother.

The outcome was encouraging, but also frustrating. With two or three weeks of practice with a full team, Voznesenka could have probably won the game. But each season seemed to begin the same way: Could have ... What if ...

“It’ll get better,” a Monroe Catholic assistant coach told Zank before the game. “Stay with it.”

Zank smiled.

“I tell myself that every year,” he said.


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