School Spotlight: Barrow High School (Utqiagvik, AK)

The Barrow High School Whalers, located in Utqiagvik, Alaska, are a Division III (3A) Mid-Alaskan conference football team. The football program is more famous than the average high school’s, as the team was featured on an episode of Football Town on the NFL Network and an upcoming movie, Northern Lights. This team plays in the most unique location and functions a lot differently than the average high school football team, so I spoke to Barrow’s Head Coach, Chris Battle, to learn a little more about his background, the team’s history and on-the-field performance, and the logistics of how they travel.

Coach Battle isn’t a native of northern Alaska, but instead is originally from Texas. His earliest coaching experience comes from coaching middle school football in New Caney, Texas, while also helping out occasionally with New Caney’s high school team. He moved to Tampa, Florida, and coached as an assistant at Freedom High School for two seasons, 2007 and 2008. He moved to Utqiagvik soon after and worked as a bus driver, while also volunteering for the Whalers in his spare time. After leaving Utqiagvik and returning to Texas for a bit, Coach Battle returned to the town and joined the Whalers’ staff as an assistant, coaching the running backs and defensive backs.

UTQIAGVIK, ALASKA – Saturday, October 7, 2017: In the third quarter of the game against Nikiski, a small flurry of snow dusts the field. Photo courtesy of High Country News.

After two seasons as an assistant, Coach Battle was named the Whalers head coach and immediately led them to the school’s first state championship, beating Homer by a score of 20-14. The Whalers also won their first district title in 2017 (the Whalers won a co-district title in 2011). Coach Battle took Barrow back to the state championship game in 2018 and 2019, but the Whalers lost to Ben Eielson and Houston, respectively. The Whalers didn’t play a single game in 2020 due to COVID-19, and only appeared in 2 games in 2021, winning one and losing one. In 2022, the Whalers finished 4-3 but made the playoffs.

Before Coach Battle took over in 2017, Barrow had an overall record of 48-42 since the program’s inception in 2006. Since Coach Battle took over, Barrow has gone an impressive 25-12.

Photo courtesy of Stateside Sports Network.

Since the program’s founding, four former players have gone on to play college football. This list includes Sebastian Sias, an offensive tackle who played for Butte Junior College and currently plays for Portland State. Sione Tiafua is a tight end for Morningside University in Iowa; Sione has helped his team win three National Titles at the NAIA level, and five conference titles. Ben Fosi is another former Whaler who plays defensive end for Presentation College in South Dakota. Coach Battle is always looking for ways to get his players noticed by college coaches; he takes a group of players every year to the All-Alaska Football Camp every summer.

Coach Battle talked about the style of football his team plays with. The Whalers have run the Pistol Wing T offense since 2017, and ran the “Tony Franklin offense” beforehand, which is a no-huddle, spread offense. Coach Battle calls the offensive plays, and mentioned that the Whalers predominantly run the ball, and pass only 40% of the time or so. That is the style of football Coach Battle prefers, but the weather also factors into decision-making on offense. On defense, the Whalers line up in the 4-2-5 formation.

Photo courtesy of John Gleason

Coach Battle talked about some of the unique aspects of playing in Utqiagvik. He called the win “his team’s 12th man, as opponents aren’t used to playing in such conditions. The average temperature for a home game in the early and middle parts of the season is around 30°F, and by the Whalers’ last home game, temperatures drop to around 20°F. These temperatures, along with the wind mixed in, play to Barrow’s advantage. If conditions become too unbearable to play in, such as sleet, the team will postpone practices and games until the situation improves. Opposing players love playing in Utqiagvik for the experience, but hate playing there at the same time due to the harsh weather.

One of the disadvantages to playing in Utqiagvik is recruiting students to play; only around 225 students attend Barrow High School at one time, and the football roster only features between 20-25 players every season. Coach Battle can’t just walk down the halls and recruit students to join the program; he must wait for students to come out on their own every season.

Photo courtesy of Nik Kleinberg. This is the field Barrow played on in 2006, the program’s inaugural season.

Coach Battle told me that wildlife always poses a threat to the team. Once, the field had to be evacuated and the team loaded onto their bus because a polar bear swam up to the field. Speaking of, the field is located on the shore of Imikpuk Lake, and on the other side of the road adjacent to the field is the Arctic Ocean. The field is named Cathy Parker Field, after an unlikely donor: a mom from Jacksonville, FL. Cathy heard about Barrow’s program and how the team was practicing on a field made of dirt and gravel, and using flour in place of field paint. Parker led an expedition to raise around $800,000 in order to install a turf field in Utqiagvik. This helped elevate and raise awareness for the program. The turf, famously blue like Boise State’s, is still in use to this day. It was installed in 2007, for the teams second season.

Photo courtesy of KYHighFootball on Twitter.

Coach Battle talked about how the team prepares for games, and how they travel. Barrow High School has a locker room without lockers, so players dress out of clothing bags. Equipment is passed out before road games, and it is the players’ responsibility to look after it.

When traveling, the Whalers can’t drive to opponents, as there are no roads that lead more than two miles out of town. The Whalers have to catch the only plane out of town – a 5:00 flight to Anchorage. When playing a game in Anchorage or against Houston or Redington, both located in Wasilla, the team flies in the day before the game and flies home the day after. When playing further away in Homer or Kenai, the team flies into Anchorage two days before kickoff and stays in a hotel. The day before the game, the team charters a bus and after arriving in town, usually sets up camp in the gymnasium of the opposing school, since hotel rooms are few and far between. After a game, they charter a bus back to Anchorage and spend one more night in a hotel before flying back the following afternoon. Games often take place in Homer and Kenai on Saturdays, so the team departs Utqiagvik on Thursday and returns on Sunday.

The Alaska High School football season is another unique aspect of high school football in The Last Frontier. The Whalers start practicing around July 24th, and play their first game around three weeks later, in mid-August. The regular season ends in late September and the playoffs end in mid-October, which is around mid-season for high school football in the lower-48.

There are only three coaches on staff currently: Coach Battle; Andrew Downing, who coaches and calls plays on Defense; and Simon Aina, who coaches the quarterbacks. The Whalers rely on parents and volunteers to help out with the team.

When the team takes the field in 2023, there will only be one senior on the roster: Uatahouse Tu’ifua, a two-way player who Coach Battle believes can play at the next level. Uatahouse lines up on both lines and is the biggest impact player the Whalers have. He was awarded a spot on the 1st-team all-state roster on both sides of the ball and took home the Co-Lineman of the Year award for Alaska due to his play and commitment to the team.

Photo courtesy of Nik Kleinberg. This photo is from the teams inaugural season in 2006.

The Barrow High School Whalers are certainly a unique and interesting team to learn about and watch. The team consistently performs well and contends for state championships as of recently, and the location and distinction of being America’s most Northern and most isolated football program make the Whalers a must-watch team.