The same two basketball teams that met in the girls championship game at the Southcentral Conference tournament 12 days ago are ready to do battle once again.
Luckily, the two coaches like each other.
Immediately after the region title game on March 12, Grace Christian girls coach Ward Romans — who previously had led the Nikiski girls to eight state crowns in the 1990s and 2000s — heaped the praise on Homer girls coach Chad Felice, saying he would, “be honored to have him coach my daughter.”
“That means a lot coming from him,” Felice said on Tuesday. “He’s a Hall of Fame coach and it’s always a great chess match between us.
“The way his team responds to him and listens to him, we’re both making adjustments on the fly. It’s just fun to coach against him.”
The two peers will have to put their friendship aside for 32 minutes today, when Homer and Grace Christian clash at 3:30 p.m. in a quarterfinal matchup on the first day of the Class 3A state championship tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.
The last time the two sides met, the Grizzlies were walking off their home court with a 41-38 victory over the Mariners in the conference title game, the first for the Grace girls in school history, but certainly not the first for Romans.
Romans and Felice, both in their second year at their respective coaching positions, have guided their squads in battle on three occasions this season. Today will mark the fourth time Homer and Grace face off.
“It’s harder,” Felice said when asked what will be different the fourth time around. “You’re not really going to put in anything new in a week and a half. All we’re doing is finetuning.”
The Homer girls are 2-1 against Grace this season, with the sole loss coming in the Southcentral championship bout. In the three meetings so far, the two teams have played to a 119-110 combined score, with the Mariners holding the advantage.
Entering the region tournament, Homer had the conference by the neck with a clean 10-game sweep of the competition in the regular season and a 21-1 overall record, and was riding an 18-game win streak into the final against Grace.
But if there’s any reason for Felice to feel better after what happened 12 days ago, it’s the venue.
“It’s a neutral court,” he said, pointing out that Homer won the 2015 Southcentral tournament crown on its home floor.
Additionally, Homer can rely on its experience from last year’s state appearance, it’s first in nine years. The Mariners arrived at the March Madness spectacle last year as conference champions but fizzled on the big stage and dropped out with two losses.
“The state championship is bigger from regions, and we have the experience,” Felice said. “I think it’s enough to make the mental difference, but even though Grace hasn’t been there in a while, Ward has been there a ton of times and he’s a great coach.”
The winner today will advance to Friday’s semifinal round with a 5:15 p.m. matchup against the winner between Valdez and Mt. Edgecumbe. Valdez lost to Sitka in the state championship final last year, but the reigning state champs didn’t even make it to March Madness this year.
After years of living in New York state as a Syracuse fan (which he still remains loyal to), Felice has quickly built up the Homer hoops program into a rising success. In just his second season with the team, Felice was recognized as the 3A Girls Coach of the Year, an honor that he said “shocked” him.
Felice’s award was not the only accolade going out to the Mariners. Senior forward Madison Akers joined her coach in the season-ending awards and was named 3A Girls Player of the Year, averaging 19 points and 10 rebounds and five steals per game to earn the honor. Akers had 20 points against Grace in the Southcentral Conference title game.
“She’s a great player and great leader, she works well with younger girls at the JV and C-team level, and helps whenever she can,” explained Felice. “But you don’t have the 3A player and coach of the year without a great team.”
With a supporting cast that includes senior guards Aurora Waclawski and Kayla Stafford — the latter of which is making a fifth straight state appearance after three years with Nikolaevsk at the 1A level — Homer is revving its engine on the fumes of disappointment from the region tournament.
“We’re definitely bummed we didn’t win but we’re hoping it will motivate us at state,” Waclawski said after the Southcentral championship game March 12.
Against the other seven statebound teams in this year’s bracket, Homer sports a 5-2 record and have outscored the opposition 314-276.
Felice said in the seven practice days the team has had since the region letdown, the Mariners have returned with a renewed confidence and optimism. He said it’s the frenzy of the big dance that he believes will keep the team going with the attitude they bring.
“It’s the state tourney, it’s crazy,” he said. “It’s like March Madness in college.”