The emotions flowed Friday night in the Nikiski High School gym as the Bulldogs basketball teams celebrated senior night, and the wins followed suit.
Nikiski swept Homer in Southcentral Conference play with the girls prevailing 61-31 and the boys edging by 53-48.
But the night hit a crescendo between the two games when the four girls and five boys seniors were honored in a heartfelt ceremony.
The Nikiski boys celebrated the senior class of Cody Handley, Jace Kornstad, Shane Weathers, Jacob Smith and Seth DeSiena, and did so in style.
The team pulled out the old uniforms that adorned the Nikiski squads more than 20 years ago. According to head coach Reid Kornstad, the silver uniforms date back to the 1990s and were the same ones worn by the 1996 boys state championship team.
Pretty big shoes to fill. And pretty small shorts.
“Feels great,” quipped Handley, looking at the smaller shorts of yesteryear.
The state title-winning threads must have inspired the current crew. Kornstad lit the scoreboard with four 3s for 20 points, while Handley pumped in 12 and Noah Litke notched 11.
“They kind of smell old and the shorts are a little too short,” added Jace Kornstad. “It was the seniors’ idea and we thought it’d put a good spin on things, and thought the crowd would like it.”
Reid Kornstad said the class of 2019 uniquely stood out to him due to his son Jace growing up with them.
“It’s my son’s friends that he grew up with and played with a lot,” Kornstad said. “So it has that special value because they’ve all spent a lot of time at our house.”
For the girls, Nikiski recognized Emma Wik, Bethany Carstens, Kelsey Clark and Carlee Rizzo. Carstens pumped in a game-high 25 points to lead the Bulldogs, while Wik hit three 3-pointers for nine points, Clark had four and Rizzo made a rare appearance off the bench to record a bucket for two.
Each senior enjoyed the moment in their own way, carrying with them the memories that go beyond and before high school.
“It means everything,” Wik said. “We’ve been playing basketball together since middle school.”
“We all care about each other so much,” Carstens added. “I think it’ll carry on to the next (senior) class.”
“It’s really emotional,” said Clark.
For Rizzo, who won’t be accompanying the team to the region and state tournaments, the night was truly a special one.
“This is my last time playing basketball with the whole team,” Rizzo said. “It’s been a real blessing to be part of a team that’s so positive and so involved and welcoming.”
Rizzo got significant time on court in the second half and got the crowd cheering in the fourth quarter when she darted past a Homer defender and laid in a bucket.
“That is not a common occurrence,” Rizzo said with a laugh.
In his first year working with the group, head coach Rustin Hitchcock inherited the talented group of players from longtime coach Scott Anderson, but said the years of experience the girls own have made his job easy.
“The growth that they’ve done in the season has really made this emotional connection,” Hitchcock said. “I’ve just been so happy with what they put aside. It’s so hard to have a new coach come in their senior year. They embraced the challenge pretty early on and it just shows who they are as people.”
The night also was filled with the memory of Rus Hitchcock, a longtime coaching presence who influenced countless youth players in the Nikiski hoops programs. Hitchcock, the father of current girls coach Rustin, passed away in October 2017 at age 54 to a heart attack.
Hitchcock’s memory was honored by the current senior class Friday night as several players paid tribute to Hitchcock by crediting him for their success, and the ceremony ended with the crowd giving a standing ovation in his memory.
“It just shows the love they had for him,” said Rustin Hitchcock. “To hear that echoed back, it means a lot.”
Reid Kornstad spent years with Rus Hitchcock as coaching accomplices and said the 2019 class of seniors knew what kind of impact he had on the program.
“This is one of the last (senior) classes that really grew in their formative years with Rus,” Kornstad added. “They saw what Rus poured into the boys ahead of them too, and then he came into their lives the same way.”
Friday’s win for the girls lifted Nikiski’s overall mark to 22-3 this season as they await the Southcentral Conference tournament next weekend with the top seed from the Southern Division clinched.
Carstens’ 25 points were the highlight of the night, but Homer had eight different players score, led by the seven points of Marina Carroll. Kelli Bishop and Rylyn Todd each added six.
The Bulldogs jumped out to a 21-6 lead in the first quarter with 10 points from Bethany Carstens, who hit a trey at the quarter buzzer. Nikiski then notched a 12-0 run in the second quarter to help pad the lead to 33-11 by halftime.
Carstens then scored seven unanswered points to begin the third quarter, effectively dousing any hopes of a Homer comeback.
In the boys contest, the Bulldogs rallied back from a slow start to notch the crucial win that stopped a seven-game losing streak.
Down 14-5 early, Nikiski closed the first half on a rapid 26-5 run to grab a halftime lead of 31-19, and never looked back.
Clayton Beachy and Ethan Anderson paced Homer with 10 points each, and Seth Adkins chipped in nine.
It wasn’t the first tight contest between the two schools. Earlier in the season, Nikiski escaped with a 46-44 win down in Homer, and the Mariners returned intent to avenge that loss. Homer knocked down a few early buckets courtesy of Beachy, Adkins and Anderson to build a 14-5 lead.
Kornstad drained a triple with 1:45 left in the first quarter to kick-start a Nikiski offense that had missed several easy opportunities before that. A drive to the hoop by Litke coupled with the point-after foul shot gave Nikiski a 15-14 lead, and Litke added to it early in the second with a triple.
After halftime, the roll continued as Litke and Michael Mysing answered each other with consecutive triples to push the lead to 40-22.
Kornstad iced the victory with 11 points in the fourth quarter.
Bulldogs 61, Mariners 31
Homer 6 5 6 14 —31
Nikiski 21 12 11 17 —61
HOMER (31) — Rhodes 2, Inama 4, Bishop 6, Smode 0, Morris 0, Doughty 2, Todd 6, Parish 2, Anderson 0, Carroll 7, Hatfield 0, Sonnen 0, Dawson 2.
NIKISKI (61) — Jeffreys 7, Wik 9, L. Carstens 10, Bostic 0, Johnson 2, B. Carstens 25, Epperheimer 0, Clark 4, Druesedow 2, Hooper 0, Reichert 0, Zimmerman 0, Rizzo 2.
3-point FG — Homer 1 (Todd); Nikiski 5 (Wik 3, B. Carstens 2).
Team fouls — Homer 11; Nikiski 10. Fouled out — none.
Bulldogs 53, Mariners 48
Homer 14 5 14 15 —48
Nikiski 15 16 11 11 —53
HOMER (48) — Munns 0, Beachy 10, Adkins 9, Reutov 7, Raymond 4, Anderson 10, Knapp 8.
NIKISKI (53) — Mysing 3, Weathers 2, Smith 0, Kornstad 20, Eiter 5, Handley 12, Litke 11, DeSiena 0.
3-point FG — Homer 4 (Beachy 2, Adkins 1, Anderson 1); Nikiski
Team fouls — Homer 16; Nikiski 10. Fouled out — none.