Reduced winter ferry schedule puts a squeeze on Southeast Alaska basketball programs

Vehicles load onto the Alaska Marine Highway System ferry Malaspina on a 2019 run to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. (Photo by Eric Stone/KRBD)

Basketball has long been a popular high school sport in Southeast Alaska. But budget cuts to Alaska’s state ferry system have made it harder for teams to travel this season, school officials say.

“Pretty much every school in Southeast has a basketball program,” said Jaime Cabral, dean of students and athletic director at Petersburg’s high school and middle school.

It’s an indoor sport, so unlike baseball or football, basketball teams aren’t at the mercy of the weather. But to travel to games, they’re still at the mercy of Southeast’s geography.

“Everyone’s pretty used to the yellow bus where you can go on a Wednesday and come back, and you’re back home Wednesday evening,” Cabral said.

Those yellow school buses, however, don’t sail up and down the Inside Passage. So the teams usually had two choices: A ferry ride or a more expensive flight.

For years, they relied on the ferry service, Cabral said. The Alaska Marine Highway System made it easy and cheap to get to other towns.

“In years past, we were able to get to Ketchikan very simply, leaving, you know, on a Friday and then coming home on a Sunday and missing minimal school,” he said.

But last year, the state government cut more than $43 million from the ferry budget. That led to fewer winter sailings during basketball season.

Alaska Marine Highway reduces winter service as LeConte, Aurora ferries docked for repairs

“With the cutbacks, what we’re looking at is, we’re flying a lot more and taking a lot less participants just because of the increase in costs,” Cabral said.

Flying is more expensive, and that could take a toll on the number of games next year.

“I can definitely see us in the future scheduling fewer games,” Cabral said.

But even with plenty of games on the schedule this year, Cabral said taking fewer students isn’t ideal.

“It will have the trickle-down effect,” he said. “You get less games for younger kids.”

That could hurt the basketball program for years to come. In-game experience is critical, said Troy Thain, athletic director at Craig High School on Prince of Wales Island.

“You want to be able to send your freshmen and sophomores — the JV group — so they can get the competition they need, so you could have strong varsity programs,” he said.

So it’s bad news when a reduced ferry schedule means fewer students can get that real-game experience. But like his colleague in Petersburg, Thain said Craig hasn’t had to reduce its varsity schedule.

Folks in Angoon haven’t been as lucky.

“Already, we’ve lost a series of home games because the visiting school simply couldn’t afford to fly,” said Ron Gleason, Angoon High School’s principal and activities director.

“Losing home games is a significant blow to the community,” he said.

And when the team does get to play away games, Gleason said, they’re also taking fewer students.

But Gleason said that’s not his biggest concern. The community is feeling a cascade of other impacts from cuts to ferry service.

“The sports programs are a vital part,” he said. “But they pale in comparison to our inability to get food for our lunch programs, food for the community, for our only store, medical services.”

Meals for Angoon school children hinge on regular ferry service

The 500-person Admiralty Island community lost ferry service in November after the state balked at the ferry LeConte’s repair bill.

The ferry Tazlina has filled some of the service gaps this winter. But soon it will be out of service for modifications.

State transportation officials said there are five runs to Angoon scheduled in March to ensure there’s ferry transportation for two basketball tournaments in Juneau.

The cuts to state ferries also affect students’ cultural education. Cabral said it’s important for the students to know their neighbors.

“As part of their education, I think it’s huge,” he said. “Our kids rarely get out of their community.”

So when he’s in Ketchikan, Cabral said, he likes to take the kids to see the Coast Guard station or the shipyard. Seeing other towns, he said, helps tie the region together.

“Every chance we go somewhere, we try to find something that’s important to that community as well. So the connections that they create in Southeast is huge for Southeast as a cultural piece,” he said.

But these days, fewer students are getting that opportunity.

Correction: The Alaska Marine Highway System’s five March port calls in Angoon are intended to ensure adequate transportation for two basketball tournaments in Juneau, not one tournament.

Fewer ferry sailings means less work for many AMHS employees

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