Preseason prognostication at the Class 1A level can either be really easy or really hard.
Easy is when there is a team so dominant that it is safe to assume no school with 60 students or less is going to match them. That was the case in the 2016-17 season, when a Ninilchik boys team coming off Peninsula Conference and 1A state titles returned with a solid group of seniors around University of Alaska Anchorage recruit Austin White.
Hard is years like this year, where there is no favorite. It’s not like these teams, based at places from Kodiak Island to Nanwalek to the Kenai Peninsula to Anchorage to the Matanuska-Susitna valleys, are getting together for a fall basketball league.
The balance of power in Class 1A is so wobbly that just one player or coach moving out of any of the small towns can have a major impact. Same with just one player transferring to a school.
“We’re all just going to have to have a chance to play each other and feel each other out,” Nanwalek boys coach Kevin Seville said.
Cook Inlet Academy boys coach Ryan McMilin said that before the conference tournament the past two years, he could have filled out a bracket before the play started and been 100 percent correct. This year when the tourney convenes at Cook Inlet Academy in March, McMilin expects a lot more parity.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of fireworks going on at regions,” CIA girls coach Josh Hawley said. “There will be upsets and heartthrobbing situations. It’s going to be a good time.”
One area that always looms as a mystery for coaches from the Kenai Peninsula is any team off of the Kenai Peninsula. Last season, that proved to be a big deal as the boys from Chugiak’s Birchwood Christian and the girls from Anchorage’s Lumen Christi made off with the conference titles. It was the first time two teams from off the Kenai Peninsula won since 2004, when the Lumen Christi boys and Bristol Bay girls wore crowns.
While Birchwood Christian lost a bunch of seniors off that title squad, Nikolaevsk girls coach Bea Klaich said Lumen Christi should have enough left from the title team to be a factor again. Nikolaevsk boys coach Steve Klaich also thinks the Lumen Christi boys could be a force to be reckoned with.
When it comes to favorites from the peninsula, Nikolaevsk is a good place to start. Steve Klaich is in his 30th year at the helm of the program. The Warriors have made five straight trips to state, all coming due to runner-up finishes at the conference tournament.
The Warriors won the season-opening Cook Inlet Classic despite missing three players due to academics.
“We could be one of the top teams if I have all my guys,” Klaich said. “If not, there will be a lot of people fighting for the two spots to state.”
Bea Klaich, entering her 13th year, had a string of six straight state appearances snapped last season. The Warriors, who have won four of the last six conference titles, return hungry.
“They know they won’t be able to just sit back and make state,” Bea Klaich said. “They know they’ll have to work for it, and so far they are.”
The Ninilchik girls snapped up the other state berth from the conference last season and went on to win a second consolation title in three years. The Wolverines won the conference in 2016 and also won eight state titles from 1996 to 2006.
Conference MVP DeeAnn White, a senior this season, has transferred out of state. Joshua Demlow has stepped down as girls coach and has been replaced by Tessa Lemons. Ninilchik also lost first-team all-conference player Olivia Delgado to graduation.
“I can tell the ballplayers here are nervous about them leaving,” Lemons said of White and Delgado. “They were such big players on the team, but the ones who are still here have really stepped it up. They’re very capable.”
Demlow also coached the boys team last year as Ninilchik saw a run of two straight conference and state titles come to an end. Dick Hawkins takes over this year.
“I’ve told other folks we stand a good chance of doing quite well in conference and possibly going to state,” Hawkins said.
The programs at Cook Inlet Academy both have state pedigree and are bursting with numbers after both the girls and boys had to take a year off recently.
The girls, the 2013 state champs, had a run of nine straight state berths snapped in 2015-16, then didn’t have a team in 2016-17, before returning last year under Hawley, who won conference coach of the year. The Eagles had just six players last season, but have 11 on the roster this season.
The boys, state champs in 1999, 2002 and 2005, had no team in 2015-16, but McMilin is now in his third year of building the program back up and has 12 on the roster.
The final squad from the Kenai Peninsula is the Nanwalek boys. The team started as a club and is now in its 11th season. This season, the squad also has players from Port Graham and Seldovia. After having seven players last season, Seville said he could have 13 or 14 this season.
“I don’t have enough uniforms,” he said. “I may have to order some at midseason.”
The following is a closer look at the Kenai Peninsula’s basketball teams:
Cook Inlet Academy girls
With five seniors and three juniors on the roster, the Eagles look experienced on paper. But looks can be deceiving.
“We have quite a few players that have never played basketball before,” Hawley said.
Seniors Adara Warren and Anna Cizek are not two of those players. Both were named second-team all-conference last season, with Warren also making all-Peninsula Conference tournament.
“We’re going to really rely on them,” Hawley said. “They are our captains.”
Senior Brianna Hammond and sophomore Emilee Cragg, in her second year of playing, also return as starters. Junior Anna Henderson also gives the team a threat in the middle after transferring from Soldotna High School. Sophomore Jamie Hyatt also is in her second year of playing basketball, while sophomore Genna Nelson, juniors Linnaea Dohse and Anika Castenholtz, and seniors Sophia Nelson and Addie Nelson are playing for the first time.
“We have a lot of soccer players,” Hawley said. “I’m just telling them to rely on their instincts and I can coach them off of that.”
With so many players, Hawley said the assistance of his wife, Kara, and Melissa Knuth becomes all the more important.
“I know things aren’t going to click right away,” Hawley said. “I’m not concerned with wins and losses right now. The goal is to peak at regions.”
Cook Inlet Academy boys
McMilin returns five starters and three other returners as those in the program, himself included, continue to gain valuable experience.
“I was pretty clueless. I had no idea what I was doing,” McMilin said of when he took over the program. “I’d watch NBA games and think, ‘I could do this.’
“Then practice started and I was like, ‘What’d we do in high school again?’”
Senior Hunter Moos and juniors Lucas Cragg, Robert Walsh and Josh Boyd, and sophomore Isaac Johnson return as starters. Jiabao Leaf, James Anderson and John Peterson also return.
Moos is the captain, but McMilin said Moos will have much more support this season.
“We have a lot more depth this year,” McMilin said. “Last year with eight players, if somebody got hurt, ineligible or in foul trouble, it became a problem really quickly.”
Alex Van De Grift came over from SoHi to join the team, which also added freshmen James Boyd, Mason Zeigler and Ethan Boyd. Zeigler is 6-foot-4.
“He loves playing basketball and he’s put in a lot of work since he started playing last year,” McMilin said of Zeigler.
With all the depth, McMilin said the Eagles want to push the tempo.
“We can just try and outrun teams,” he said. “If anyone looks tired, I tell them they’re coming out.”
Not only does this year’s squad have good numbers, but Seville said the middle school has classes of eight or nine kids as well. The coach would like to see Nanwalek field a girls team in the future.
“The future looks bright for Nanwalek basketball,” Seville said.
The present looks pretty promising, too.
It has been three years since Seville had a senior, but this season seniors Isaiah Bales and Uriah Huntsman return as starters. Huntsman was second-team all-conference last season.
Junior Marcus Wilson also returns as a starter, and Seville is hoping to have senior Johnathan Jimmy, who has started in the past, return to the team.
Another player that is coming back is Port Graham’s Malachi Joseph, a junior who last played for the team as a freshman. Two years ago in the conference tourney, Joseph scored 21 in a loss to the eventual champs Ninilchik, while Lumen Christi scored just 18 points total in a loss to the Wolverines. Joseph has spent the last two years playing in Anchorage.
Also flocking to the team are sophomore Ben Botero of Seldovia and junior Seth Tenape, who returned from Mt. Edgecumbe. Juniors Isaiah Moonin, Charlie Moonin and Evan Evans, and freshman Tikkon Kvasnikof round out the roster.
Seville said having so many players in practice is definitely a change, but it is worth it due to the style he likes to play.
“I like creating chaos on the floor,” he said.
The final exciting development for the program is, due to having a Seldovia player, Nanwalek can use that gym for home games. Nanwalek does not have a gym big enough for official games.
The Warriors proved they want to return to state by attending many individual camps, then getting the whole squad to show up for a team camp in June.
In effect, Nikolaevsk returns four starters. Juniors Elizabeth Fefelov and Markiana Yakunin, and sophomore Justina Fefelov, started full-time. Junior Sophia Klaich and sophomore Sarafima Mametieff started half of the time.
Elizabeth Fefelov made second-team all-conference and all-tournament, while Yakunin was all-tournament. Klaich said 5-foot-9 Elizabeth Fefelov’s game is ready to take on even more dimensions.
“We’re trying to utilize her not just inside, but she’s got a pretty good outside shot too,” Klaich said. “If she can draw out the bigs, that can help a lot.”
Returners Kerianna Lasiter, a sophomore, and Zoya Fefelov, a freshman, add crucial depth along with newcomer Krtstyana Kalugin, a freshman.
That depth will be crucial.
“Our goal is to be a fast team and pretty much play full-court defense 24/7,” Klaich said.
Although the Warriors lost conference tournament MVP Kalenik Molodih, three starters and two others return with the valuable experience of what it takes to make state.
“It helps in the area of confidence and what it takes to win tough games,” Steve Klaich said.
Seniors Michael Trail and JD Mumey, and junior Zachary Trail return as starters. Michael made second-team all-conference, while Mumey, who didn’t have enough practices for the season-opening Cook Inlet Classic, was all-tournament.
Zachary and Michael Trail are joined by brother and freshman, Justin, to form a potent trio.
“Inside, outside, defensive rebounding, everything, they’re going to be key,” Klaich said.
Freshman point guard Lukah Kalugin will start, and Klaich is looking forward to seeing what the crafty player will do. Finally, eighth-grader Josiah Brown provided key minutes in the run to the Cook Inlet Classic title.
“We’re strong inside,” Klaich said. “We’re not exactly tall, but we’re a physically strong team. Our inside game will be what we rely on.”
Lemons went to all of Ninilchik’s home games last season, but she said she never dreamed she would be coaching the team this year. She played high school basketball in Kentucky, so when the position opened up, her love of being a good role model and working with kids got her to apply.
“I was very nervous about taking this over,” Lemons said. “I do know what it means to everyone around here.
“Everyone around here has been so helpful.”
Senior Isabella Koch, junior Madi Cooper and sophomore Jade Robuck return as starters. Koch is the only senior on the team and made second-team all-conference and all-tournament last season.
Rounding out the team are juniors Lily Jasper, Jancee Corey and Samantha Calabrese, sophomore Rachael Okonek, and freshmen Autumn Calabrese, Rian Ofstad, Rebecca Okonek and Mia DenBoer.
“We don’t have a lot of height, but we have quite a few that are pretty fast and handle the basketball really well,” Lemons said.
Hawkins, a 1968 graduate of Ninilchik, has no coaching experience. But he has a lifelong love for basketball that started in Ninilchik, and he taught for 21 years in Anchorage, so all the pieces are in place to be a good coach.
“I heard the boys didn’t have a coach this year,” Hawkins said. “I wasn’t going to let the school go without a coach, so I stepped up and everything fell into place.”
Hawkins said senior Garrett Koch is the only one to have nailed down a starting spot. Koch was first-team all-conference last season and also made the all-tournament team.
“He can do everything,” Hawkins said. “He can drive to the basket, he can rebound and he can make his 10- or 15-foot jumper. He’s a very good 3-point shooter and a good leader on the court.”
Juniors Jake Clark and Jacob Mumey saw a lot of time last season, while senior Cameron Moore is new to the team. Sophomores Cole Hadro and Damon Davila also bring experience to the table.
Hawkins said Mumey, Clark and Koch have played together through high school and should have good chemistry.
“Jacob Mumey and Clark are big, not just tall, but big,” Hawkins said. “They take up a lot of space. They’re good rebounders underneath the basket and good post people.”