After a two-year hiatus, city league basketball returned to the Kenai Recreation Center with two championship games Friday night that closed the books on the inaugural season of the Twin City Athletic Association.
While the league, commissioned by Kenai resident Ryan Tunseth, is new, two long-standing recreation teams claimed their respective tournament finals.
Ellis Auto defeated the Flint Tropics 57-50 to win the A League championship. In the B League final, Frames and Things bested East Coast Kenai 41-34. Both games filled the stands with spectators at the Rec on a night that included the finals in a 3-point shooting contest.
Tropics player Evan Withrow, a 2012 Soldotna High alumni, made 17 out of 25 shots to win the individual competition. Seth Nelson from ECK made 12 shots and Zach Sauve, representing Royal Wolfpack, scored 11.
Tunseth was instrumental in forming the TCAA as a nonprofit after the Boys & Girls Club ended its contract with the City of Kenai in managing the Rec Center last year and with it the agreement to organize the adult basketball league. Tunseth said the city was looking for someone else to continue the rec league since the city wouldn’t be able to maintain it.
Kenai City Manager Paul Ostrander reached out to Kyle Kornelis, the Soldotna public works director and veteran of the Ellis Auto team. In turn Kornelis contacted Tunseth, both of whom are on the board for the Boys & Girls Club. Tunseth said he was the biggest critic of the club’s contract with the City of Kenai regarding the Rec Center, citing security concerns of running youth programs in a community building.
“The city didn’t want (the league) to disappear,” Tunseth said. “I felt a responsibility that if I was going to be the one to get us out of here, I’d be the one to run the association. Plus, I really like basketball.”
Tunseth, who refereed the final night and sponsored two teams, has been playing city league ball on and off for about 20 years. He said he was thankful to the City of Kenai for allowing the league to extend past its previous gym use agreement to end the season in March in order to have the season-ending tournament for all 11 teams in the league. Games for both A and B League brackets took place Monday through Friday in the evenings.
Crowds filled the gym not only for the final, but on most nights during the week since the season started in January. Having city league basketball back is a benefit to the community going forward, not only for the athletes playing, but also the families that come to watch, Tunseth said.
Kornelis said Tunseth deserves all the credit for the effort he’s put into forming the association.
“Big thanks to Ryan for doing everything to make it all happen,” he said. “I know it took a considerable amount of personal time and expense on his part.”
Ellis Auto caps off season dominance with championship win
Ellis Auto, which entered the tournament as the top seed, got off to a quick start off the jump and survived a second half rally against the Flint Tropics for a 57-50 win Friday.
Noah Litke led Ellis with 19 points. Forward Erik Lehmann scored 13 points, while guard Mike Miller scored 12 points on 4 of 6 shooting from the perimeter.
Timmy Smithwick scored 14 points to pace the Tropics, who also had three players score eight points each.
Litke, who was a first team all-Southcentral Conference guard for the 2019-20 Nikiski Bulldogs, said the game plan was to use size to win the battle in the post and close out shooters on defense. Ellis went 3-1 against Flint during the season and knew the team’s strengths and weaknesses.
“We figured if we closed out on their shooters and made them penetrate we would win the game on the inside,” he said. “I noticed before the game that nobody could match up well with our big men. That made getting them the ball our priority.”
After each team traded 3-pointers to open the scoring, Ellis went on a 16-2 run in the first 10 minutes highlighted by two consecutive 3-pointers by Miller and capped off by a Litke 3-pointer that pushed the lead to 19-5.
After a timeout, the Tropics were able to find some scoring from the perimeter by Smithwick and former University of Alaska Fairbanks player Sarah Herrin, who each hit a pair from behind the arc. Herrin’s first 3 cut the deficit to eight points. But Ellis answered back behind Litke, who nailed a 3-pointer just before the halftime buzzer to extend the Ellis lead to 38-24 at the break.
Flint finally got tropical and brought the deficit to within two points after a Smithwick 3-pointer and Withrow layup made the score 44-42 with about six minutes left in the game. Ellis once again answered with a two 3s from Miller, an offensive rebound and putback by Litke and baskets from Casey Ellis and Lehmann to close out the victory.
With the win, Ellis Auto finished 22-4 overall, including a 72-56 victory over Royal Parkers Wolfpack in the semifinal round 24 hours earlier. The team clad in red and blue jerseys has fielded a squad in city league for the last 10 years, made up primarily of Nikiski basketball alums. Kornelis, who graduated from Kenai Central, said he is the one exception.
Ellis finished runner-up to E-line in the 2019 A League final.
The Tropics, which entered the tournament with the third best record at 15-9, pulled off wins against The Mix last Tuesday and a 48-45 thriller against the Associates on Thursday. In that contest, a late 3-pointer by Tropics forward Lucas Herrin was the difference in beating the No. 2 team in the league.
Tunseth said overall the season was a great success, although the TCAA faced challenges getting enough referees to run games with players having to step in and grab a whistle at times. The high school referee association was also facing shortages, which forced the league to get creative. Fortunately the league was able to have three referees for the entire tournament week, which was a big help.
Going forward Tunseth is excited about the growth of basketball being provided in the community. The TCAA also organizes a Middle Ballers league that serves as an extension of the seventh and eighth grade season. A 3-on-3 tournament is also in the works at the outdoor courts at Soldotna Creek Park this summer, Tunseth said.
In addition to Tunseth and Kornelis, Justin Wik, Andrew Shook, Amber Rouswell and Tony Travers serve on the TCAA Board of Directors.
Tunseth gave special thanks to Tyler Best and Paul Ostrander with the City of Kenai, and also thanked sponsors Alaska Christian College, Tim’s Janitorial, Frames and Things, Ellis Auto, Jeff Dolifka and Associates, Edward Jones, East Coast Kenai, Royal Wolfpack, Flint Tropics and The Mix.
Dan Balmer is a player in the TCAA for the Royal Wolfpack.
A League Final: Ellis 57, Flint 50
Ellis: Noah Litke 19, Erik Lehmann 13, Mike Miller 12, Casey Ellis 5, Kyle Kornelis 5, Miles Jorgenson 3, Nate Gerke 0.
Flint: Timmy Smithwick 14, Evan Withrow 8, Cody Handley 8, Lucas Herrin 8, Sarah Herrin 6, David Reischach 3, Matt Moffis 3.
B League Final: Frames 41, ECK 34
Frames: Andrew Tuttle 21, Nathan Curren 11, Phil Smith 5, Becca Satathite 2, Garrett Feller 2, Jack Hester 0, Brian Erwin 0.
East Coast Kenai