The Cook Inlet Academy girls and boys basketball teams open up play today at the Class 1A state tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.
The Eagles boys (22-2 overall) earned the No. 2 seed in the tournament and face Emmonak at 11 a.m. The boys are making their first state appearance since 2012 and are looking to add to Class 2A state titles won in 1999, 2002 and 2005.
The Eagles girls (16-6) are unseeded and play St. Mary’s at 8 a.m. The girls are back at state for the first time since 2019 and are looking to add to a Class 1A state title won in 2013.
Ben McGarry, in his first year as the head coach at Cook Inlet Academy, was able to watch a few Emmonak games that were streamed, but he’s not worried about detailed scouting reports.
“It’s one of those things that really doesn’t matter,” McGarry said. “We have to show up, lace up our shoes, play hard and get after it.”
The Eagles have won 19 straight by doing just that. The only losses this season came to Ninilchik and Homer JV.
“The guys are definitely feeling good about the games they’ve won,” McGarry said. “A good, long winning streak definitely builds confidence. There’s been some close games. They weren’t all easy battles.”
A particular boost to confidence came with winning the title at the Nenana Invitational Tournament. Still, McGarry knows there are surprises at this tournament.
“It’s sports, the right team at the right time can go right through,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like there’s anyone we’re scared of. We’re confident we have really good personnel that can handle a variety of styles. We play hard defense and pretty smart offense.”
The coach said it all starts with the captains in senior Abraham Henderson, sophomore Ian McGarry and junior Jeremiah Dillingham.
Coach McGarry said Henderson is a good barometer for the team.
“The games where we’ve maybe struggled, he hasn’t played as well,” McGarry said. “When he’s on top of his game, the whole team rises with him.”
Ian McGarry leads the team with 21 points per game. Dillingham is not a big scorer, but coach McGarry said he brings an energy that is vital.
“At the state level, there’s more competition and anxiety,” McGarry said. “You need a guy like that that gets after it.”
Coach McGarry said the final two starters — Alek McGarry and Owen Braband — have key roles to play as well.
McGarry said his squad got a taste of the state environment Tuesday night at the skills competitions. Alek McGarry won a game of bump, where the object is to knock players out of the game by making a shot before the person in front of you in a line at the free-throw stripe.
“We’re excited to be up here, and it’s fun to be here with the girls,” said McGarry, a 1999 graduate of now-closed Skyview High School. “I never got to experience this as a player.”
CIA girls coach Josh Hawley also is excited to be returning to state in his sixth year at the helm. After playing at state in 2019, the Eagles qualified in 2020 but the tournament was canceled. In 2021, the Eagles were second at the conference tournament, but only one team, instead of the usual two, went to state because of the pandemic.
Hawley said St. Mary’s has a really good point guard and likes to press and trap. The CIA coach said it looks like the Eagles will have the height advantage.
CIA beat Lumen Christi, the top seed at the tournament, 40-22 in late January when the Archangels were not at full strength. The Eagles have since lost to Lumen 37-32 and 52-32.
Hawley said it shows CIA has the ability to play with the tournament’s best, but that’s not what the focus should be.
“I hate to do the old Jim Valvano thing, but it’s survive and advance,” Hawley said. “We have to work on each game and then worry about the next one after that.”
Hawley said the Eagles are at their best when senior guard Tatum Rozak is limiting turnovers and getting the ball to sophomore post players Hope Hillyer and Ella Rollman.
The coach said his team also must get production and defensive stops from the other two starters — junior Katya Vitryachenko and senior Kaitlyn Liles — as well as the bench players.
“When those other players put in baskets, in relieves pressure on the main three,” Hawley said.