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By SPENCER GLEASON
Daily News Sports Editor
The term “rebuilding” isn’t in Ryan Varela’s vocabulary. Instead, the first year head coach uses “reloading” as a way to describe the Ketchikan High School football team.
Granted, every year in high school a group of players exit the program.
But just as last year’s senior core graduated — after helping lead the Kings to the state semifinals — a new set of leaders have stepped into their roles.
And along with them comes the experience of last year’s success.
“Each team, year after year, is its own thing,” Varela said. “I look at this group of seniors we have now, they’re just as athletic. They’re just as focused; they’re just as together. We didn’t lose anything (there). We lost some great players, don’t give me wrong. We lost some great guys.
“But when it comes to what we have now, I don’t look at rebuilding. I just look at reloading,” he continued.
Nearly half of the 22 Kings on roster on returnees from last season’s 6-2 football team.
Players like AJ Malouf, Kristian Pihl, Kylar Charles, Brendan Roof and Carter Thomas are returning, along with linemen Dylan O’Bryan and Jackson Kaye.
And mixed in are first-year players like junior quarterback Patrick Garcia.
“Over the two weeks (of practices since July 31), we’ve had a lot of guys surprise us in positive ways,” Varela said. “It’s been really fun watching the younger guys.”
The Kings will have their first test on Friday, when the 2017 state champion Barrow High School Whalers enter the gridiron at Esther Shea Field.
The Kings and Whalers will kick off the 2019 season at 6 p.m.
“Barrow is big,” Varela said. “They’re very well coached, and they just pursue the ball like crazy. So making sure we hold our blocks, and stay consistent with that. That’s been something we’ve been preaching since day one. But especially looking at Barrow.
“They’re a quick running team,” he continued. “They rely on a lot of misdirection and confusion. So making sure our defense is disciplined. It started last year, and it’s carried over to this year.”
Ketchikan traveled to Barrow last season, beating the Whalers 8-6.
The Whalers finished last year 5-5, falling 36-0 to Ben Eielson High School in the ASAA Division III state championship game. Ketchikan lost 55-0 to Ben Eielson in its semifinal game, ending the Kings’ season.
“Now it’s not ‘Let’s make the playoffs; that’ll be cool,’” Varela said. “We have something to prove. We’ve been there; we know what it looks like. We want it all.”
And Ketchikan will depend on its athletic ability.
“Obviously, we’re playing with about 20 to 22 guys,” Varela said. “But I think the quality of the depth has improved by the success last year. We have athletes coming around who are coachable, who are fiercely competitive and just physical. They want to get after it.”
One of those guys is Garcia.
“He has a physical build that fits what we need, and allows us to put different players at different positions, and be more flexible,” Varela said.
“He’s done everything the right way, and done everything we’ve asked,” he continued. “And the way he handles himself off the field, as well — as a teammate and a person — he’s really somebody we can look to. And he’s somebody who has accepted that leadership role, being so new, himself.”
Garcia’s counterpart also will be a handful.
“I know they graduated a couple guys (last year), but their quarterback is coming back,” Varela said. “He’s a senior this year. He gave us some fits because he’s a big guy, and he’s tough to take down. He’s mobile for a big guy.”
Varela knows a thing or two about defense, however. He steps into the head coaching role after being Jim Byron’s defensive coordinator and lineman coach last season.
He played for the Kings and continued to play Division III football at North Central College, and has surrounded himself with a coaching staff that has the same goal set this season.
“The four of us, there’s one collective mindset, and there’s zero ego,” Varela said.
It will be their first game along the sidelines together, too.
“It gets you excited because it’s going to be a great test,” Varela said.
The Kings will have a bye week following their home opener against Barrow. They will travel to Ben Eielson in Fairbanks in week three.
“I kind of feel like we’re playing with house money, a little bit,” Varela said. “Where we can just go out and just let it fly — let it rip — for two games. And figure out what doesn’t work, and have a little bit more creative fun with it. And let these guys’ personalities kind of shine on the field.”
Game of the week
The Kings and Whalers will be KTUU-TV’s game of the week on Friday. KTUU is the NBC affiliate based in Anchorage.
Hitting the road
Following Ketchikan’s home opener, the Kings will have a bye week before traveling to Ben Eielson Air Force Base to square off against the defending state champions on Aug. 31.
Ketchikan will travel to Seward High School in week four before returning home on Sept. 13, when Kayhi hosts Nikiski High School.