When contacted for a season preview, Peninsula Conference coaches expected a fierce battle for the two girls and two boys state berths come tournament time.
With the conference tournament set to run today through Saturday at Cook Inlet Academy in Soldotna, witnessing a regular season has not changed those coaches’ minds.
On the boys side, Nikolaevsk enters with the top seed at 11-1. The Warriors have gone to state five straight seasons, courtesy of a runner-up finish each time. Steve Klaich, in his 30th season leading the team, is not resting easy.
“We’re in a tough conference with a lot of competitive teams,” Klaich said. “We had all our games against conference competition be very close games.”
On the girls side, Nikolaevsk took the top seed at 7-1. The Warriors, who have won four conference titles in six years, had a string of six straight state trips snapped last season.
Nikolaevsk looked ready to roll to state again — until Friday. That’s when a Warriors team that had blown out conference competition all season lost 31-27 to Cook Inlet Academy at Nikolaevsk. The Warriors had defeated the Eagles 52-25 on Dec. 14 at Cook Inlet Academy.
“I won’t say I was surprised because I knew CIA had a lot of athletic girls with not a lot of experience at the beginning of the year, and I knew they were coming on strong,” said Bea Klaich, in her 13th year at the helm. “I didn’t expect to lose, though.
“It was a good wakeup call for us.”
Cook Inlet Academy, the No. 2 seed at 5-3, also split its games with No. 3 seed Birchwood and No. 4 seed Lumen Christi. All of a sudden the tournament is looking a lot more interesting.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a few upsets in this tournament,” CIA coach Josh Hawley said. “Every team has to show up with their A game and bring the intensity or anything is possible.”
The following is a closer look at the boys and girls tournaments:
Steve Klaich said the Warriors have had to come from behind to claim victories against No. 2 seed Lumen Christi, No. 3 seed Ninilchik and No. 4 seed Birchwood Christian. Birchwood is the defending tournament champion.
Making things even tougher for the No. 1 seed is Zachary Trail and Randy Boquecosa, who were both starters at the beginning of the year, are out due to injury. The Warriors get Wednesday off due to a bye, then face the Birchwood-Nanwalek winner at 4 p.m. Thursday.
Klaich said Nikolaevsk’s biggest struggle right now is consistency, particularly with defensive intensity.
“It’s going to be a team effort,” Klaich said. “I think we have enough talent if they jell as a team and have that competitive fire I’m looking for.”
Nanwalek, the No. 5 seed at 2-10, take on Birchwood (8-4) at 7 p.m. today. Klaich said the Eagles are dangerous because they bring together players from three schools. This means they don’t get as much practice time, but can really blossom once they do get practice and games under their belts.
Friday, Nanwalek just dropped a 56-51 decision at Birchwood.
Eagles coach Kevin Seville, whose lone conference win came against Cook Inlet Academy, said his squad must minimize turnovers, protect the glass and rebound.
“I like our chances and think it will be an exciting tournament,” Seville wrote.
Ninilchik, which finished 8-4 in the league, plays CIA (2-10) at 4 p.m. today. Ninilchik, conference and 1A state champs in 2016 and 2017, beat CIA three times this season, with league losses coming to Nikolaevsk and Lumen Christi. Wolverines coach Dick Hawkins said the last game against the Eagles was close, so nothing can be taken for granted.
“If we get to state, it’s because we played three or four games and 32 minutes each game as a team,” Hawkins said. “We passed well, shot well and handled the ball the way we can.”
Hawkins said playing as a team means leading scorer Garrett Koch doesn’t feel like he must carry the whole load. Big men Jake Clark and Jacob Mumey provide support underneath, while George Nelson can open the floor with his 3-point shooting.
CIA boys coach Ryan McMilin said his team has improved this year, particularly as freshmen Mason Zeigler, who stands 6-foot-4, and James Boyd have gained experience. Senior captain Hunter Moos also is providing great leadership.
“They’re figuring out what we want to do as a team and executing it, especially defensively,” McMilin said. “We’re peaking at the right time.”
McMilin said his team won’t be the favorite in many games, but he thinks the Eagles can match up well with any team, except for Lumen Christi.
The coach said the other two big keys for the Eagles will be rebounding and protecting the ball. CIA has averaged over 20 turnovers per game. The reason the Eagles were able to be within two points of Ninilchik in the fourth quarter in mid-February is CIA had just 16 turnovers in that game.
The final boys first-round game pits Lumen Christi (9-3) against No. 7 Kodiak ESS (2-10) at 1 p.m. today.
Bea Klaich is eager to see how her team responds to the loss to CIA. Nikolaevsk gets a bye Wednesday, then gets the winner of No. 4 seed Lumen — the defending conference champion — and No. 5 seed Ninichik — tournament runner-up last season — Thursday at 5:30 p.m.
“Not that it was on purpose, but I think the girls let their guard down,” Klaich said. “Now this week, I think they’re ready to take care of business.”
The coach said her team shot poorly against CIA, which happens, but also didn’t hustle on the boards. The Warriors have a team goal of 40 rebounds per game and got just 26 against CIA, a number Klaich called unacceptable.
Klaich said the team needs to be balanced to be successful, but said Elizabeth Fefelov sets the tone scoring and rebounding, while Markiana Yakunin sets the tone for hustling.
The Eagles open with Birchwood today at 5:30 p.m. and a victory there moves them into the championship game. Hawley said the contest with Birchwood is like most contests in the tournament — not playing hard, shooting well and hustling on defense will result in a loss.
“The biggest thing for us is to keep the intensity up on the defensive side and be patient on offense,” Hawley said.
He said intensity on defense keyed the victory over Nikolaevsk, especially getting hands in passing lanes and getting deflections. Hawley said if the Eagles manage to make it past Birchwood, a showdown with Nikolaevsk would be welcomed.
“I know coach Bea would like to play us one more time and take it to us and make it seem like that game was a fluke, although I know that’s not how she’d put it,” Hawley said. “She won’t hold back, and her players won’t hold back.”
The final girls game today is Lumen Christi (3-5) against Ninilchik (0-8). The Wolverines have been to state three straight years but were hit this season with losing Olivia Delgado to graduation and DeeAnn White to transfer. That has led to a string of close losses.
“They’ve had to adjust to not having DeeAnn and Olivia, strong players like they are used to,” Ninilchik coach Tessa Lemons said. “Their focus and drive has come a long way.
“They are definitely underdogs, but they can do this if they get out and push themselves.”
Lemons said key players will be Madi Cooper, Isabella Koch and Jade Robuck, as well as the continued improvement and maturation of freshmen Rebecca Okonek and Rian Osstad.
Peninsula Conference tournament
at Cook Inlet Academy
Game 1 — Lumen vs. Ninilchik, 2:30 p.m.
Game 2 — Birchwood vs. CIA, 5:30 p.m.
Game 3 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 2:30 p.m.
Game 4 — Game 1 winner vs. Nikolaevsk, 5:30 p.m.
Game 5 — Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 loser, 2:30 p.m.
Game 6 (championship) — Game 4 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 7:30 p.m.
Game 7 (2nd place) — Game 6 loser vs. Game 5 winner, 2:30 p.m.
Game 1 — Birchwood vs. Nanwalek, 7 p.m.
Game 2 — Ninilchik vs. CIA, 4 p.m.
Game 3 — Lumen vs. Kodiak ESS, 1 p.m.
Game 4 — Game 2 loser vs. Game 3 loser, 1 p.m.
Game 5 — Nikolaevsk vs. Game 1 winner, 4 p.m.
Game 6 — Game 2 winner vs. Game 3 winner, 7 p.m.
Game 7 — Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 loser, 1 p.m.
Game 8 — Game 6 loser vs. Game 1 loser, 4 p.m.
Game 9 (Championship) — Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 6 p.m.
Game 10 — Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, noon
Game 11 (2nd place) — Game 10 winner vs. Game 9 loser, 4 p.m.