Among the four Kenai Peninsula schools that are headed to the Class 1A state basketball tournament this week, the biggest common denominator is the lack of familiarity with their first-round opponents.
None of the four opening day matchups are against teams that the Ninilchik and Nikolaevsk girls and boys squads have played this year. The only matchup that has seen relatively recent competition between the two sides is the Nikolaevsk and Newhalen girls, who played each other at last year’s state tournament.
The mixing of matchups between Peninsula schools and teams from northern and Western Alaska is expected to make an already wild March Madness Alaska even wilder.
All games will be held at the Alaska Airlines Center on the University of Alaska campus, and it will take four wins to claim the state title, culminating with Saturday’s championship finales for the boys and girls. A seeding committee put together by the Alaska School Activities Association determined the top four seeds at the 1A tournament, and the rest are thrown into the random hat, with the exception coming in the case of conference opponents, which can be separated from a first-round matchup.
The following is a closer look at each first-round matchup for the peninsula schools:
Ninilchik boys vs. St. Mary’s, 5:15 p.m. Wednesday
Among the 16 total teams playing in the boys tournament, Ninilchik was selected as the No. 1 seed in Sunday night’s March Madness Selection Show, which was broadcasted live online. Ninilchik boys coach Nick Finley said the team was crowded around his laptop at a local restaurant in town in anticipation of where the Wolverines would be seeded. Upon seeing the top seed, he said the team was excited, but now the real work begins.
“The bottom line is we have to play that first game at state like everyone else,” Finley said. “For us, knowing we have the No. 1 seed, there’s a target on our back, and everyone wants to beat us.”
St. Mary’s hails from the Yukon Delta Conference. Ninilchik has not played St. Mary’s in the time Finley has been with the basketball program, but he remembers watching them two years ago at a tournament in Unalakleet. Finley said after talking to rival coaches, it appears the team still likes to run hard and push the pace up and down the court.
“At this point in season, any team we come up against is going to play hard,” Finley said.
Ninilchik’s departing seniors that will finally be making an appearance on the big stage are Pat Brandt, Caleb Applehanz and Alex Koch.
It isn’t the first time Finley is headed to the big dance. Finley was an assistant under head coach Keith Presley with the most recent Ninilchik boys team to go to state in 2010. The Wolverines’ title hopes were dashed after being mercy-ruled by Point Hope on the first day.
Perhaps the clearest signal that Finley has made it as a head coach has come from one of Ninilchik’s legends, former girls coach Dan Leman, who has played a background role in helping Finley become a leader of the basketball program. This season, as the boys team rolled to an 18-5 record, including a perfect run through the Peninsula Conference, Finley said Leman backed away as an outside helper, feeling as if his suggestions and advice were no longer needed.
Monday night, as Finley was making last-minute preparations for the next day’s drive to Anchorage, he asked Leman on the phone if he was forgetting anything before they ended their conversation.
“He said nope, you’ve got everything you need,” Finley said. “I think he’s more excited than I am, because he thinks this year’s the year.
“Hearing that, I have confidence we can do it.”
The confidence of Leman has seemed to rub off not only on Finley, but the entire team. This year, the Wolverines have not only emerged as the top contender out of the Peninsula Conference, but have competed fiercely against higher competition as well. Ninilchik has compiled wins over much bigger schools like North Pole and Homer, and pushed one of the top teams in the state, the Class 4A Palmer Moose, to the edge at the Cordova tournament in late January, losing only by a score of 42-36.
“We watched them warm up and I thought, oh my God, they’re huge,” Finley recalls. “(Palmer) went up 17-4 and I called timeout and said, ‘Guys, don’t play scared.’”
The challenge with the Moose lies not only with their size — as several players are 6-foot-5 and above, topped out by 6-7 sophomore Clayton Southwick — but their 3-point shooting ability as well, so when Ninilchik’s tallest player, 6-8 junior Austin White, was told to guard the post and stay there, he began getting frustrated when Palmer began raining 3s.
Finley cajoled White into staying in the low post while the Moose threw up shots from long range.
Finally, the Palmer guard White was tasked with defending began to see his shooting go cold, and after making a late run in the game to close the gap to four points, Palmer frantically called timeout, and in the ensuing huddle, Finley encouraged his team by pointing out just how close it was.
“After that, I had big schools coaches like (Kenai Central coach) Ken Felchle calling in for game film of that,” Finley said.
In the Peninsula Conference title bout, Ninilchik held off a frantic late charge by the two-time defending tournament champions and reigning 1A state champs Seldovia to win 57-55. Finley said he sees a few similarities between his current squad and the 2015 Sea Otters that captured the state crown, most notably the depth of the two teams.
“A lot of teams in 1A basketball have one or two good players, and we have a full five players and a couple guys off the bench, like Seldovia last year,” he said. “Obviously last year, they had Aidan (Philpot) and Calem (Collier), but everyone else were really good role players.
“That’s the difference between the good teams and great teams.”
Nikolaevsk boys vs. Akiachak, 3:30 p.m. Wednesday
As the No. 3 seed at March Madness Alaska, the Nikolaevsk boys are entering as grizzled veterans of the big stage.
The previous two state tournaments have seen the Warriors improve each year. In 2014, Nikolaevsk finished as the consolation bracket runner-up, and last year, they claimed fourth place on the winners side of the bracket.
The Warriors racked up a 20-6 record this season en route to their third straight state tourney berth, and Nikolaevsk coach Steve Klaich said his squad is looking as healthy and confident as it has all season.
“The boys have been there before, and they’re motivated,” Klaich said. “They know what the tournament is all about.”
According to ASAA’s season records, the Huskies of the Greater Kuskokwim Conference in Western Alaska have dominated the season with a 15-2 overall mark. As a longtime coach at Nikolaevsk, Klaich said he cannot recall ever having played Akiachak, but added that Nikolaevsk’s biggest concern lies with Fritz Jackson, who led the Huskies with 30.9 points a game this year.
“He is a scoring machine,” Klaich said. “I’ve watched some film, and he scores from the 3-point line but can also penetrate and get inside.”
Like his fellow coach Nick Finley of Ninilchik, Klaich said he has taken notice of how reigning 1A state champions Seldovia handled the pressure. After watching the Sea Otters use a laser-focused approach to earn the big prize last March, the Warriors are buckling down and taking a disciplined mentality to Anchorage.
“We’ve tried to duplicate the serious nature they had and how they were focused,” Klaich said. “We liked how they approached the game, they have some kids who play well, and when they hit the court, it’s all business.”
The Warriors had to go through the two-time defending region champions 61-46 in the Peninsula Conference tournament second-place game to punch their ticket to state. The journey to the big dance closely resembled what Nikolaevsk went through last year, as the Warriors lost to Cook Inlet Academy in the region semifinals and were tasked with winning twice on Saturday, eventually beating CIA in the win-or-go-home, second-place game.
“The difficult part there was playing the second game of the day, and I was pleased how they bounced back,” he said. “It was all very rewarding.”
Ninilchik girls vs Aniak,
3:30 p.m. Wednesday
The Wolverines pulled off a big win in the Peninsula Conference title game with a 45-35 victory over longtime rivals Nikolaevsk, giving them their first state appearance since 2010.
Ninilchik coach Rod Van Saun said the community response has been nothing short of terrific, and a fundraiser to finance the team’s trip to Anchorage proved to be a success.
“It’s been pretty exciting for the community,” Van Saun said. “Both teams are going to state, we had an awesome fundraiser, the whole town showed up.”
The coach of eight years said with a week and a half of practices leading up to today, the squad has not only maintained their level of competitiveness, but has elevated its game.
After qualifying to state in his first two seasons as head coach of the Wolverines — continuing a 19-year streak of March Madness trips begun by Leman — Van Saun has gotten Ninilchik back to the big dance with a 16-7 record this season.
As the No. 3 seed, Van Saun said his group of hungry players are excited, but the seeding number itself does not mean much to the Wolverines.
“All the teams up there are good,” Van Saun explained. “They’re good because they’ve won in conference tourneys, and you can’t overlook anyone.”
He also added that in his coaching career, Ninilchik has not played Aniak, a Western Alaska team that features the typical run-and-gun offense of the smaller village teams. Aniak, which hails from the Greater Kuskokwim Conference, rolled to a 20-4 overall record this year.
“We’re just thinking about how we approach it defensively, and building on how we play defense and transitioning that into offense,” Van Saun said. “Regardless of the big lights or how well you shoot, the one thing you know is you can go play defense.”
Since toppling Nikolaevsk for the region crown, Van Saun said the team is now playing every day like it is the last. With three seniors finally making the trip to the big dance — tournament MVP Krista Sinclair, Jordan Finney and Alanna Goins — all of which are four-year starters, Van Saun said every player is hoping to end the year on a high note.
“The only expectation we have is to go do our best, do it as a team, and have fun,” he said.
Nikolaevsk girls vs. Newhalen, 5:15 p.m.
The last time these two teams faced off, Nikolaevsk dominated in a 59-33 win on the final day of the 2015 state tournament to grab fourth-place honors.
One year later, the Warriors are ready to do it again.
“We’ve never overlooked teams, but sometimes when you go into a tournament without experience, the tendency is to be overconfident at times,” Klaich said. “We need to go into each game with a healthy respect.”
One of the keys to Nikolaevsk which could play a role in deciding whether the Warriors are ready to win a state title is experience. Two members of the team, seniors Serafima Kalugin and Megan Hickman, are preparing for a rare fifth straight state run, while two other seniors are headed into their fourth appearance.
“I’ve coached Serafima since her third-grade year,” Klaich said. “Some of these other girls have been with me for a long time, so these girls are like a family.”
As eighth-graders in 2012, Hickman and Kalugin were part of an extremely young Nikolaevsk girls squad that broke a 21-year state drought. That squad finished third at state. In 2013, the Warriors made it to the state final, only to lose a 43-39 heartbreaker in triple overtime to conference rivals CIA.
The last two state trips saw Nikolaevsk fall out of the running early with upsets, but Klaich said those experiences have bonded the team and strengthened the family feeling. With Kalugin and Hickman as co-captains of the Warriors, the leadership of the 15-8 Warriors has become apparent.
“Those two girls are the heart and soul of the team,” Klaich said. “The others have really embraced them.”
After last year’s rout of Newhalen on the final day of the 1A state tournament, Klaich said Nikolaevsk isn’t assuming another win is in the cards.
“I’ve talked to some other coaches that have played them, and it’s definitely a tough opening game,” Klaich said. “But we’re focused on one game at a time.
“I think there’s a lot of parity this year, I don’t see anyone as a powerhouse coming in … I mean, Wainwright is No. 2 seed, and we split with them this season.”
After making it out of the Peninsula Conference tournament with a convincing 58-27 victory over Birchwood Christian in the second-place game, which came a day after losing the championship tilt to Ninilchik, Klaich said her squad has rebounded well.
“Our mentality is we haven’t arrived, we can get better, and we have done that in the last week,” she said.