NENANA – Today is a great day for the community of Nenana.
The high school football team is going to play its very first home football game in Nenana, on its own football field.
After 21 years, Nenana has a home soccer field, thanks to years of volunteer efforts and a final effort from Nenana City, Nenana School and others.
“I’m just in shock, actually,” said Chuck Hugny, who has been Nenana’s football coach for all these years. “It probably won’t hit me until it’s over.”
The Nenana football team plays its first home football game against Holy Rosary Academy in Anchorage at noon at the new field next to the Student Living Center.
This is a project that the whole community will celebrate.
“It was truly a community-wide effort and always has been,” said Nenana Mayor Josh Verhagan.
Football has been popular in Nenana since the formation of the first team in 2001, with 20-30 students enrolling each year since then. This first year, of course, there was no football field for training.
“No goals and footballs given away,” recalls Hugny. “All our matches were away.”
In 2022, the school purchased portable soccer goals and practice soccer balls. Football practice took place on the softball field.
Because there was so much interest in soccer, the town of Nenana agreed to designate an entire city block for the team to use as a soccer field. Most of this land was covered with spruce, birch and aspen. Parent volunteers, players and community members used chainsaws to clear a quarter of the area, carrying the wood.
In 2003, the co-ed soccer team finished third in the state tournament. In 2004, the team placed second.
The clearing of the new field continued, slowly. From 2006 to 2012, 35,000 yards of fill were donated, along with an additional 3,000 yards of fine gravel for drainage. It was loaded, hauled and spread using the city’s heavy equipment and hundreds of volunteer hours, according to Hugny. About 90% of the block has been cleared to make room for the soccer field, a track around it, and roadside parking.
In 2013, volunteers raised $3,000 for topsoil, which is far from enough for what was needed. Someone donated a small set of bleachers, for seniors.
From 2014 to 2020, volunteers tended the area, cutting down sprouting trees and brush. Local farmer David Poppe helped level the field.
The estate finally took shape over the past two years when the Nenana School was able to donate funds to the project and the City of Nenana contracted out the finishing touches.
“Building on something like that, you really don’t want to start all over again,” the mayor said. “If we want to do it, we have to do it the way we want to in the long term.”
Verhagan traveled to Fairbanks to measure football fields there. He thought that a football pitch in Nenana should be the same size as the pitches the team will be playing on.
“I just volunteered my time to oversee the management of the project,” the mayor said. “Training on an official sized pitch, I think, will help them a lot, allowing them to compete better with other teams.”
The field has been slightly widened.
Verhagan began collecting estimates from various companies for some more land clearing, fencing, and hydroseeding. The field widened and trees were thinned between the field and the Student Living Center.
The project had no money for topsoil, so the volunteers hauled loads of silt from the Nenana River.
“It was an effort,” Verhagan said. “It took several weeks.”
The city used heavy equipment to cap the ground and allow for good drainage.
The mayor then negotiated with companies for hydraulic seeding and the installation of fencing. Tundra Excavation and Dimond Fence Co. have been supportive and great to work with, Verhagan said.
“They could see what we were trying to do for our community,” the mayor said. “It was fun to see how excited these companies were to see this project come to fruition.”
Local farmer Steve Minnema suggested adding Kentucky bluegrass to the seed mix. So the Hydroseed company bought every bag of Kentucky bluegrass from Fairbanks and added it to their mix.
“He said it was very thick, like a rug and held up really well all winter,” Verhagan said.
During this time, volunteers continuously raked the ground and removed stones.
“The turf is pretty well established already,” he noted. “He’s going to be ready for us to play on.”
For the past 20 years, Nenana has played its “home” games in the community of Anderson, 20 miles south on Parks Highway.
“We are always grateful that our Anderson neighbors agreed to share their field,” Hugny said.
He thinks of all those people who helped clear the pitch 20 years ago, who are no longer in Nenana, and how grateful he is to everyone who gave of their time to make the home pitch exist.
He headed to a cheer rally on Friday,
“The machine is running now,” he said.