Cook Inlet Academy’s Anna Cizek (24) takes a shot in front of Birchwood Christian defender Kailyn Kaas Feb. 27, 2019, at the 2019 Peninsula Conference championship tournament at Cook Inlet Academy in Soldotna. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

Cook Inlet Academy’s Anna Cizek (24) takes a shot in front of Birchwood Christian defender Kailyn Kaas Feb. 27, 2019, at the 2019 Peninsula Conference championship tournament at Cook Inlet Academy in Soldotna. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

CIA girls look to keep riding defense at state

Today’s Class 1A state tournament first-round game is one the Cook Inlet Academy girls have waited five years to play.

The Eagles qualified to the big dance for the first time since 2014 and will get it started with an 8 a.m. matchup with the Kake Thunderbirds at the Alaska Airlines Center.

The morning game will require an early wakeup call but no one on the team is complaining.

“The only way to (play early) is hold practice in the mornings all season long,” said head coach Josh Hawley. “We’ve practiced at 6 a.m. all season long, and I think that plays a factor in the girls’ mentality.”

The 16-team tournament covers four days at the swanky arena located in midtown Anchorage, with Saturday crowning four separate state basketball champions — the 1A girls and boys and the 2A girls and boys champs.

A win today by CIA advances the Eagles to the championship bracket with a Thursday quarterfinal meeting against the winner of Newtok and top-seeded King Cove. A loss drops the Eagles into the consolation bracket against the loser of that same matchup. Win or lose, CIA will play a game Thursday at 5 p.m.

The Eagles got here by virtue of a 32-21 victory over Nikolaevsk in the Peninsula Conference championship game on March 1. The Eagles locked down the Warriors in a defensive showdown that slowed Nikolaevsk to 13 percent shooting from the floor, something that had Nikolaevsk head coach Bea Klaich scratching her head.

“I’ve never coached in a game before where we shot 13 percent,” Klaich said after that game.

Hawley said the defense was the first aspect of the game to develop, and the offense has slowly been catching up since then.

“That’s what our team mentality is at this point,” he said. “We understand we’re not a light-you-up, Golden State Warrior team that’ll light you up from the outside.”

With a defense-first mind-set, the Eagles have made quite the rebound. CIA made it to consecutive state finals in 2012 and 2013 — winning the latter championship with an epic, triple-OT showdown over Nikolaevsk — before steadily falling into a rut.

The program’s darkest days included a lost 2016-17 season that saw CIA unable to field a team due to low numbers.

Hawley helped bring the program back to life in 2017, but immediate success did not follow as the Eagles won just three games all season.

But a determined group of players that never gave up on improving have returned CIA to its glory days with 14 season wins and a state tournament berth, the first for the Eagles in five years.

“It’s hard to put into words,” Hawley said. “I could sit here and say it’s a miracle, but it really doesn’t describe what happened. The girls are strong in their faith, they were going out and speaking life to each other and others in the community, and that’s helped what has transpired on the court.”

The team strung together a six-game win streak midway through this year, and are currently riding a five-game tear, including the Peninsula Conference championship, heading into state.

The team that got the Eagles back to the big dance is led by senior guard Adara Warren, who received the Peninsula Conference MVP award, and all-tournament players Anna Cizek and Sophia Nelson, both seniors on the team, and all-conference member Anika Castenholtz, a junior.

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