Jeff Helminiak / Peninsula Clarion file
                                Nikolaevsk coach Steve Klaich celebrates with his team after winning his first Peninsula Conference title in his 30th season at the helm March 1, 2019, at Cook Inlet Academy in Soldotna.

Jeff Helminiak / Peninsula Clarion file Nikolaevsk coach Steve Klaich celebrates with his team after winning his first Peninsula Conference title in his 30th season at the helm March 1, 2019, at Cook Inlet Academy in Soldotna.

Klaiches step away from Nikolaevsk basketball

Steve Klaich is retiring after teaching in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District for 32 years.

After building one of the best Class 1A girls and boys basketball programs in the state, Nikolaevsk’s Bea and Steve Klaich have stepped down from the girls and boys head coaching positions.

Steve is retiring after teaching and coaching at Nikolaevsk for 31 years, plus teaching in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District for 32 years and teaching in Alaska for 35 years. Primarily a secondary math and science teacher, he also is giving up his cross-country running coaching gig.

Bea, who has coached the girls for 14 seasons, will remain an upper elementary and junior high teacher for language arts and history at Chapman Elementary in Anchor Point. She also will continue as Mix Six volleyball coach for the Warriors.

Steve grew up in Colorado and attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks for the final two years of his undergraduate education. He spent his summers working for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Division of Commercial Fisheries out of the Bethel office.

This led to an interview with the Lower Kuskokwim School District and a three-year teaching stint at Tuntutuliak, just west of Bethel. During that time, Klaich in 1987 led Tuntutuliak boys basketball to the only state appearance in school history.

After one year at Tyonek, Klaich came to Nikolaevsk. Klaich was hired by principal Bob Moore. According to the Redoubt Reporter, in 1968, a group of Russian religious dissidents purchased land east of Anchor Point that would become Nikolaevsk. Moore was one of those who taught classes that led to 59 Old Believers becoming U.S. citizens on June 19, 1975, in the gym of Chapman School.

“Before I got there, I didn’t know much about Nikolaevsk,” Klaich said. “I really wasn’t sure about it and that was about the time Nikiski and Skyview were opening up, so I thought there might be possibilities there.

“As soon as I hit Nikolaevsk and got to know the school and the families I thought it was the greatest school on the peninsula. I’ve thought that the first day through today.”

Steve and Bea first met in Steve’s second year of teaching at Nikolaevsk and Bea’s first year at Nikolaevsk, where she would teach full-time from 1990 to 1995, then work as a substitute before moving to Chapman in 2017.

Growing a basketball powerhouse

When Steve first arrived at the Russian Old Believer community that presently has about 300 people, the middle school girls basketball team would still play in dresses for three seasons.

“In the early days, it was primarily Russian Old Believers, but now the school is down to 50% or a little less,” Klaich said.

Steve and Bea raised their kids Blake, Kilina, Kristin and Sophia, a 2020 graduate, in the inclusive environment.

The basketball had a long way to go before it would be considered one of the best small schools in the state.

“It was growing in popularity,” Klaich said of basketball. “The kids played really hard during the season but there was not a culture in the offseason of practicing or going to camps.”

Gradually, Klaich said some players brought a different attitude. In the mid-1990s, Nick Fefelov came back to Nikolaevsk after two years in Houston, Alaska, and was a key leader. Stepan Nikitenko, a 2005 graduate, moved to Nikolaevsk from Russia and fell in love with the game, often staying to shoot at the outdoor hoop when the Warriors came back from road trips about midnight.

“He was the hardest working player I ever had,” said Klaich of Nikitenko, who would play at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana.

Klaich said eventually he got players who grew up playing basketball on the playground like 2017 graduate Nikit Fefelov and his brother Isaak, who just completed his sophomore year.

In addition, Bea began teaching basketball basics to elementary school players, with high school players helping out. Steve coached the junior high team, taking the girls some years and the boys other years.

“Our high school program has been the beneficiary of early skill development and the teaching of basics,” Klaich wrote in a follow-up email.

The Klaiches eventually established a culture of success. After a state trip in 1997, the Warriors boys have earned state trips the last seven years, including earning a Peninsula Conference title in 2019. That was the first for Klaich after trying since the 1989-90 season.

The Nikolaevsk girls have earned eight state berths in the last nine seasons. The school’s first Peninsula Conference title in 2013 led to titles in 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2020. The girls program also has sent players to play in college, with 2020 grad Elizabeth Fefelov set to play at Skagit Valley College in Mount Vernon, Washington, next season.

The one thing that has eluded the Klaiches is a state title, with both Steve and Bea losing in title games. This season, Steve said the girls were ranked No. 2 and the boys No. 5 going into a Class 1A state tourney that never happened due to the new coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s disappointing because that’s the goal you’re always striving for,” Klaich said of the state title. “At the same time, the primary reason we coach is to build relationships with kids and be a good influence in their lives.”

Building life experiences through hoops

Klaich said basketball was a great opportunity to introduce students to places in Alaska that most have never seen, including Fort Yukon, Unalaska, Unalakleet, Yakutat and Prince of Wales Island.

The massive time commitment to basketball also proved to be a good family activity.

“It took a lot of time commitment, but it was worth making because we were able to do it as a family,” Klaich said. “All four kids were able to play basketball for us and that made it a family activity. It was a fun opportunity to grow as a family and see kids and teams develop.”

Klaich said all those years were crystallized on March 7 during the awards ceremony after the Peninsula Conference tourney at Cook Inlet Academy. Ron Gherman, CIA principal, and Michael Cruz, CIA athletic director, thanked Klaich during the awards ceremony and honored him for all of his years of coaching.

“They thanked me for all I’d done in a public setting and never in my entire career did I feel as I did that day,” said Klaich, who along with Bea swept conference coach of the year honors that day.

The only bad part was that Bea was holding off announcing her plans to leave the team because she didn’t want her team to be distracted, so she didn’t get the same recognition.

Klaich said that once he decided to retire from teaching, IRS regulations said he must step down from coaching as well for this year. Klaich also gave up positions on the Alaska School Activities Association board, Region II board and Kenai Peninsula School Activities Association board.

‘A life-changing experience’

Klaich said he could return to coaching in the future, and he really would like to see everything he and his wife have built with Nikolaevsk basketball continue, but he said he’d cross that bridge when he gets there. No replacements have been hired, yet.

The Klaiches plan to stay in the Nikolaevsk area. Last summer, Kristin was helping a missionary family in Puerto Maldonado, Peru, and Steve and Bea went down at the end of Kristin’s trip and held a series of basketball camps for players, coaches and even some prisoners.

“It was a life-changing experience for us,” Klaich said. “Perhaps in the future we’ll do something like that.”

For now, Klaich said he’ll take six months to spend time with family, hunt and fish.

“To the students and parents of Nikolaevsk, I’d like to thank them with all of my heart for 31 wonderful years,” he said. “The community is great. My family and kids loved their time there and I want them to know how much I appreciated it.”

Here is a roundup of other high school head coaching changes on the Kenai Peninsula, according to athletic directors at each of the schools:

Soldotna — Jenniffer Rosin will step down as cheer coach. Although not currently a head coach, Kent Peterson, an assistant and head coach for cross-country running and skiing over the years, will be retiring from coaching and teaching after 26 years with the district.

Kenai Central — Swimming head coach Winter Heaven and assistant Maddie Jamora are leaving after three seasons. In early November 2019, the duo led the Kardinals boys to their first Northern Lights Conference title in school history.

Nikiski — Linda Zimmerman is not returning as girls soccer coach. This past season, canceled due to the pandemic, would have been her fourth year at the helm.

Homer — Steve Nevak is not returning after two seasons heading up the hockey program. Nevak led the Mariners to the Division II state title in 2020, the first in school history. In 2019, Homer had been runner-up at state.

Alison O’Hara is stepping down after two seasons in charge of the cross-country skiing program.

Seward — Ronn Hemstock is leaving the wrestling program after 25 seasons, while City Beck will take over for Kelly Cinereski as head football coach.

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