The Chugiak High School Mustangs came close to making it to the football state championship finals this season, being edged in the semi-finals by Bartlett in a high-scoring contest.
They did win back-to-back championships in the Railbelt Conference where they were recently placed in an apparent effort to balance competition.
For the Mustangs it is a juxtaposition of their entry into the athletic arena a little over half a century ago. Built by the state as the result of a drive by parents, the school initially was designed for 400 students. Its senior class, given the choice of staying with East Anchorage, chose to graduate as the first-ever CHS Class of 1975. With an enrollment a tiny fraction of those at West, East and Dimond, athletic opportunities were limited. Basketball, track and hockey made up the field.
That experience was similar to the situation Eagle River High School’s Wolves have found themselves in since the community’s second secondary school opened a dozen years ago. Although starting out with twice the enrollment as had Chugiak, at about 800 students they also are at a disadvantage.
With the opening of the new high school, Chugiak’s student population dropped from 2,100 to about 1,200, so it still is smaller than the big city schools.
Kind of a David and Goliath thing, one might say.
When it opened, Chugiak High School had a multi-purpose room that served as lunchroom, auditorium and gymnasium. At the school’s dedication, Gov. William A. “Bill” Egan was keynote speaker. There was a full house. Loads of extra chairs were brought in to hold the 300 spectators there to celebrate. It was indeed a true celebration because Operation Chugiak High School, an effort sponsored by all 26 local civic organizations, had worked hard to end bussing of students to Anchorage.
Having our own school allowed aspiring young athletes to take part in something other than Little League. Lester Stephens was one such and hitch-hiked 21 miles from his Peters Creek home to play American Legion Baseball with an Anchorage team. In those days, most local families were limited to one automobile. Until 1964, extra-curricular activities were simply out of the question.
The tiny gymnasium had bleachers on only one side. Players sat on chairs lined up against the opposite wall.
Stephens was a member of the first Chugiak basketball team. They went all season without coming close to winning a single game. Their first victory came in 1966 when they came out on top in a game against Seward, the alma-mater of Coach Don Sanders. Just as memorable was a double-overtime game with powerhouse the East Thunderbirds coached by Chuck White. The loss came only after most of the Mustang starting five had fouled out.
To say the early basketball players lacked experience would be putting it mildly.
Two events can illustrate their unfamiliarity with competition. In one, a member of the freshman class three years after the school opened, took the inbound pass after a goal was scored by the opposing team. Seeing that he and a teammate were alone except for the opponent in the vicinity of the basket, he quickly stepped under the unguarded goal and made the lay-up. The two points counted—for the other side. In the other situation, also embarrassing, a substitute was summoned from the few players available on the bench. He was so excited at the opportunity for game time that he snatched off the sweats he was wearing. Unfortunately, he also grabbed the top of everything under the sweatpants, baring all but the supporter.
In those days there were no indoor ice rinks. As a result, hockey enthusiasts were limited to those who ventured onto lake surfaces. Parents Bob Boehm and Stanley Vrem set up boards and flooded an area outside the school to provide an ice surface. Boehm served as coach. One of the more experienced skaters was a younger girl who practiced with the team, challenging them to outdo her. Title IX not then on the books, she could not be on the roster. At season’s end, however, she was awarded a stick as “most valuable player.”
Track and field events were conducted under Coach Andy Kirk’s supervision and inspiration.
He set up a cross-country running trail and encouraged a large turnout of both boys and girls. Among his projects was a steeplechase track consisting of an oval with hurdles and a pond. To inspire athletes, he placed a huge sign across one end of the gymnasium on which he posted fastest times and achievements.
Although not an official high school sport, Kirk initiated the Century Club, encouraging bicycle races. For those completing 100 miles, he presented a patch. He also organized bicycle treks, traveling along with groups of riders to provide repairs and assistance when needed, as well as insuring safety.
Football, wrestling and swimming were not added to the list of sports until several years after the school opened.
Coach Tom Huffer led the football program for two decades. As with the other sports, he started with mostly raw material–without a team of assistants to help teach fundamentals. As aggressive at hounding higher-ups to provide more and better facilities as he was in gridiron competition, he and his supporters were able to gain the stadium that has since been named for him.
Darrell White was the early coach who made Chugiak a school to be reckoned with on the mats. He tutored several athletes on the path to state championship wrestling titles. Initially it was not a sport popular enough to warrant much budgetary consideration. The school’s first mats were hand-me-downs cast off when other schools’ mats were replaced. White’s successes soon changed that.
The Chugiak swimming pool was added as part of one of the many additions to a campus that “grew like Topsy.”
It was made possible by a federal grant obtained by Sen. Ernest Gruening, one of the trio added to Congress after Alaska became the 49th state in 1959. Gruening championed the addition of pools in secondary schools because of the high number of drowning deaths occurring in our state. He argued that teaching young people to swim might lead to a reduction in the loss of life.
Soccer is a sport that is highly participated in and has won accolades, including three state titles and several region titles. Coach Ed Blahous is credited with advancing the sport in his 20 years at Chugiak. He has been initiated into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame.
Although the first organized sport to be played by youngsters in Chugiak-Eagle River, baseball did not become a high school sport until much later than the others.
Local players age 18 and under were active in the American Legion Baseball program, the first Chugiak-Eagle River team forming in 1968. Because of the short season, it was not deemed appropriate, but for the past couple of decades has been adopted by the educational system. Because Legion teams come from specific high school enrollment areas, the teams are generally interchangeable.
Softball teams have been highly successful, with the Eagle River Wolves winning the girls’ state title in their very first year, 2006.
Chugiak teams are constantly at the top in standings, with several championship trophies in their cabinet.
From starts that were inconspicuous to all but parents and fans, Chugiak and Eagle River high schools have become major players. They have produced state championships in nearly all categories. Athletes from the schools have distinguished themselves in various fields.
CHS graduates Brian Swanson and Scott Parker have gone on to play professional hockey while Kelsey Griffin won a spot on a team in the National Women’s Basketball Association.
Many alumni are or have themselves been coaches of note, including football coach Tom Huffer, Jr., Chugiak High School hockey coach Rodney Wild and Reid McDonald, manager of the arena named for his father, acclaimed hockey coach Harry McDonald.
While this effort deals primarily with high school athletics, it must be noted that both Chugiak and Eagle River have achieved distinction in various other areas.
Chugiak’s debate team consistently scores highly in state and national competition. Former members are now attorneys and the legal profession has a group informally known as the “Mustang Bar Association.” Many alumni have gained recognition in public service, notably Randy Phillips, Sam Cotten, Bill Stoltze and Amy Demboski.
Not only have there been distinctions in sports, but Chugiak and Eagle River students have always and continue now to score highly in academics.
All of which is even more reason to call this the “Center of the Universe.” Of an independent and do-it-yourself nature, we don’t back down. After all, the bigger they are, the harder they fall–as did the giant Goliath when felled by a young shepherd named David.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: email@example.com.