Husband and wife team Steve and Bea Klaich have built a basketball juggernaut in Nikolaevsk, and now just one man at rival Ninilchik will be charged with stopping them — Josh Demlow.
Steve enters his 29th year at the helm of the Warriors boys with four straight trips to the state tournament, with one runner-up finish. Bea is in her 12th season running the girls. She has six straight trips to state — highlighted by a runner-up finish — plus four Peninsula Conference titles in five years.
Ninilchik hasn’t done too bad itself. The boys team has won 37 straight games against Class 1A competition, with the last two Class 1A state titles and Peninsula Conference titles included in that bunch.
The Wolverines girls are on a run of two straight state appearances, including a conference crown in 2016.
But Ninilchik boys coach Nick Finley left after last season. After another coach could not be found, Demlow agreed to step in and lead both squads. Demlow had just finished his first season leading the girls.
“It’s going to be a busy year for me with an increased workload, but I think I’m ready for it,” Demlow said. “I was hoping somebody else would step in and take over the boys, but I was more than happy to step in and make sure they had a season.”
Demlow gets to school at 6:15 a.m. and practices with one of the teams from 6:45 to 8:30 a.m. The other team gets a 3:45 to 5:30 p.m. time slot, and Demlow is out of the school by 6 p.m.
On the boys side, he will have to deal with the loss of graduates Austin White, Tyler Presley, Dalton Geppert and Matt Bartolowits. White was the Class 1A player of the year last season, while Finley was coach of the year.
“The boys is up for grabs,” Demlow said. “I think Nikolaevsk has an edge because they’ve got a solid team, although Steve probably won’t admit that.”
Indeed, Klaich dodges a favorite’s tag, while acknowledging a conference title would be nice after a string of four runner-ups.
“I think we’ll be in the mix with everybody else,” he said. “A lot of teams have the potential. I’ve told my kids if they buy in and play tough defense, they’ll be right in the mix with the rest of them.”
Klaich also mentioned Birchwood Christian as a threat, and Nanwalek coach Kevin Seville agrees, putting Nikolaevsk and Birchwood Christian in the thick of the hunt for the conference’s two state berths.
“Nikolaevsk is pretty set,” Cook Inlet Academy coach Ryan McMilin said. “I think they’ll be the ones to beat from down here.”
On the girls side, other conference foes will try and stop Ninilchik and Nikolaevsk from battling for the title for a third straight season.
“I think we’re going to be really solid, and I think Nikolaevsk is solid as well,” Demlow said. “I’m not counting anybody out. You never know who’s going to show up who has put in the work in the offseason.”
Bea Klaich said a loss at Lumen Christi last season proves that the Archangels are a team that can’t be counted out.
“Ninilchik has a huge, formidable girl in Deeann White, and Lumen was coming on strong last year as well,” Klaich said.
The Cook Inlet Academy girls also are back after taking last season off. The Eagles, the 2013 state champs, had a run of nine straight state appearances snapped in the 2015-16 season, then didn’t have enough players for a team last season.
Josh Hawley takes over the program. He was actually an assistant when the Eagles finished fourth at state 10 years ago. Hawley then went overseas to play for a year, and came back to play for the Alaska Dream in Anchorage.
After that, Hawley and his wife and assistant coach, Kara Hawley, came back to the peninsula. The Hawleys were finally able to get into coaching when they opened a business with Kara serving as a licensed massage therapist and Josh doing Rolfing.
“I was asked a number of times to do this but I didn’t have the time,” Hawley said. “I believe God opened up the door with the business.”
The following is a closer look at the peninsula’s basketball teams:
Cook Inlet Academy girls
The Eagles have six players out for the team, and three of them played two years ago — juniors Anna Cizek, Brianna Hammond and Adara Warren.
Also on the team for the Eagles are senior Breona Delon and freshmen Emilee Cragg and Jamie Hyatt.
Hawley knows that with the limited numbers, staying healthy is paramount.
“It is what it is,” he said. “We’re rebuilding, rebuilding the wall. We’re just going to take it one step at a time.”
Conditioning has become important at practice and the Eagles showed little fatigue in their early games.
“I tell them they’ll be the most conditioned team when it comes to region time,” Hawley said.
Warren has handled the bulk of the scoring early in the season, but the coach said he would definitely like to see that change.
“We need to get everyone else involved and by doing that we can build them up,” Hawley said. “We don’t want anyone touching the ball for the first time at the region tournament.”
Hawley has seen enough early that he is intrigued as to just how far the rebuilding project will have advanced by the conference tournament.
“Ultimately, what I want them to learn is to compete and use that as a life skill,” he said.
Cook Inlet Academy boys
In his second year at the helm, McMilin continues to build up the Eagles after the program did not field a team for the 2015-16 season.
“We’ve got a little more experience, but at the same time we lost two seniors,” McMilin said.
The Eagles lost Brady Hammond and Noah Leaf, with Leaf claiming first-team all-conference and first-team all-conference tournament honors before he left.
“I’ve got a year under my belt but these guys are still young,” McMilin said.
McMilin said pretty much all the players on his team can be classified as wings.
“It’s going to be a big motion offense,” McMilin said. “We’re going to swing it around and look for an opportunity to draw one of their big guys out and take advantage.”
Returning starters for the Eagles are juniors Hunter Moos and Jiabao Leaf, and sophomore Robert Walsh.
McMilin said the other starters are sophomores Josh Boyd and Lucas Cragg.
“I picked the starters for a reason,” McMilin said. “They put in the work during the offseason.
“We’re not graduating anyone. My aim is to be competitive this year and I’m really aiming to next year to hit our peak.”
Junior James Anderson will be sixth man, while junior John Peterson and freshman Isaac Johnson will also be key parts of the eight-man roster.
For Seville, the key is getting his team experience.
“We are still young, in my opinion, based on the group of young men and the number of games they have been able to play in the two to three seasons they have played,” Seville wrote. “Most schools on the road system play as many as 20 games per season, our program has played that many in two years.
“Our current schedule allows for 14 games this season through the regional tournament.”
That’s why, even though Nanwalek entered the conference tournament with the No. 8 seed last season and went two-and-out, Seville said the experience was very valuable for his team.
Returners for the Eagles are juniors Isaiah Bales, Uriah Huntsman and Johnathan Jimmy, sophomores Marcus Wilson and Evan Evans, and freshmen Severan Demas and Charlie Moonin. Eighth-grader Alexander Jimmy joins the mix.
“I anticipate the Nanwalek program to compete throughout the season and by the time regions rolls around we will be fine-tuned and able to compete with all the teams and bring excitement to the games,” Seville wrote.
After being, as Bea Klaich put it, young with a capital “Y” last season, the Warriors are still made up of an eighth-grader, two freshmen, six sophomores, a junior and a senior this season.
But that doesn’t mean the team is content to wait for success.
“Every girl on my team went to camp with me this year — the entire roster of 11,” Klaich said. “Half also did a second camp with me. It’s the most dedicated to working in the offseason of any group of girls I’ve had.”
The Warriors lost Vera Fefelov, who was first-team all-conference and all-conference tournament, and Chelsea Johnson, who was first-team all-conference tournament, off of last year’s team.
But Johnson was actually the first person off the bench, so senior post player Kristin Klaich, sophomore post player Elizabeth Fefelov, sophomore point guard Markiana Yakunin and sophomore shooting guard Justina Fefelov all return as starters.
Klaich was second-team all-conference and second-team all-conference tournament. Fefelov was second-team all-conference, while Yakunin was second-team all-conference tournament.
“We’ve got a lot of other young girls coming up through the ranks,” Klaich said. “They’ll definitely help out the team and make the team deeper.”
Klaich said her team does not have a ton of height, but she hopes to make up for that with speed.
“I think my girls believe in defense, and defense is always something we need to keep working at,” Klaich said. “Offensively, I really like our balance a lot. There’s not just one or two girls you can stop on the team. At least six deep, we can score.”
Steve Klaich said the success of his team will come down to how hard the players work.
“I’m not concerned about offense, we have a lot of kids that can score,” Klaich said. “Defense will be our key. If they buy in and play aggressive team defense, I think we’ll do well. But that’s something that takes a lot of hard work to develop.”
The Warriors lost first-team all-conference and first-team all-conference tournament player Nikit Fefelov to graduation, and fellow starter Anfim Kalugin won’t be joining the team this year.
The returning starters are senior guard Kalenik Molodih, junior post-forward Michael Trail and sophomore small forward Zachary Trail. Molodih made the second-team all-conference tournament last season.
The Warriors also get a big pickup in Sage Stanish, a Seldovia student who will join the Warriors via joint participation. Klaich said Seldovia does not have enough players for a team, so Stanish can choose to play for another team. Weather permitting, he will try and make all of Nikolaevsk’s games. Stanish helped the Sea Otters to a 1A state title as a freshman and was a regular contributor as a sophomore before Seldovia was unable to field a team last season.
Klaich has not decided if freshman Kosta Nikitenko or senior shooting guard Sergey Yakunin will be the final starter. He said additional depth will come from junior post player Randy Boquecosa.
The coach likes the team’s experience coming into the season, and he said playing in four tournaments during the regular season will only get the team more primed.
“We’ll have a lot of tournament experience,” Klaich said. “Hopefully, late in the season, it will pay off.”
The program that won eight state titles from 1996 to 2006 has been trending in that direction and Demlow expects that to continue this season.
The Wolverines had been to state the past two seasons, winning the Peninsula Conference tournament in 2016.
First-team all-conference and all-conference tournament players Deeann White, a junior, and Olivia Delgado, a senior, return to lead the team.
Delgado is 5-foot-10 and has developed an outside shot to go with her post moves. With White, the Wolverines have an imposing duo.
“I think she’ll pick back up right where she left off, and that’s being in control of pretty much every game she plays in,” Demlow said of White. “She’s such a versatile player at 6-feet tall.
“She can shoot outside, handle the basketball and play inside.”
Demlow said two freshmen should allow Delgado and White to flourish. Point guard Jade Robuck will take a lot of the ballhandling load from White. The coach also called freshman shooting guard Rachael Okonek one of the most athletic girls in Class 1A basketball, saying her speed will make her invaluable on defense.
Junior Isabella Koch will play shooting guard and forward, while sophomore power forward Madi Cooper put in a lot of work in the offseason and will provide valuable minutes.
“What we added was what we were missing last year, and that was a little athleticism at the guard level,” Demlow said. “The younger girls put in a lot of work in the offseason and I’m really excited about that being incorporated with the skill level of our leaders.”
Even with all the firepower and all five starters lost, Demlow still is excited about pairing junior guard Garrett Koch with some solid height and seeing what happens.
“Garrett Koch put in a ton of time this offseason,” Demlow said. “From where he was last year to where he is this year is night and day, and he was a good ballplayer last year.”
Demlow said Koch, at 5-foot-10, will play point guard. He went to a pair of camps this summer and was begging Demlow to get into the gym even before Demlow was coach.
Height will come from 6-foot-3 freshman Tristan White, who is Austin’s brother, and 6-foot-3 sophomore Jake Clark. Demlow said White is a bit stouter than his brother, but plays a similar style. Clark has put in work developing post moves in the offseason.
Freshman Jeremiah Adams, who checks in a 6-foot-2, is a small forward that scored 27 points in a game as an eighth-grader.
“We have height,” Demlow said. “Jake and Tristan are thicker guys inside. Jeremiah is an athletic 3. He can handle the ball decent, get to the rim and finish high.”
Freshman Cole Hadrow is a shooting guard that will do some of the ballhandling, while senior Robert McGinnis got minute at small forward last season and will do so again this year.
“It’ll be a growing year but I think they all want it,” Demlow said. “They’ve seen the success of the past few years and they understand what Austin, Tyler, Dalton and Matt put into it.
“They know if they want to be there, they have to start putting in the work now.”