The Homer Mariners haven’t seen a girls basketball squad play in a state championship game since 1991, when the Mariners pulled off a three-year string of consecutive state crowns.
The lengthy streak finally ended Friday night at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, when the current group of girls from Homer pulled away in the second half to claim a 40-29 semifinal victory over Mt. Edgecumbe in the Class 3A state girls tournament.
And, within an hour, head coach Chad Felice saw his beloved Syracuse Orange men’s team claim an Elite Eight berth in the national college tournament.
Not a bad day all around.
“It’s just an awesome feeling,” Felice said about his own team’s win.
For the senior class, the quarter century wait was not one they had to suffer themselves — none of them were born yet.
But for a select few, the big prize is still a long time coming. For senior Aurora Waclawski, it is one she has been dreaming of since she and fellow seniors Kayla Stafford and Madison Akers were fifth-graders.
“We’ve been wanting this for so many years,” Waclawski said. “It’s a goal as little kids to win something big.”
Waclawski led Homer to the win by juking and jiving through the Mt. Edgecumbe defense to score a game-high 13 points and six rebounds and dished out three assists. Stafford also had 13 points and Akers had 10 and six boards. Uliana Reutov grabbed six rebounds as well.
The biggest task remains, however. Homer will take on top-seeded Barrow Saturday at 1 p.m. in the title clash. The Whalers entered the tournament with an 18-4 record and defeated Hutchison 49-30 in Friday’s other semifinal.
“We’ll be ready,” Felice predicted.
Felice, the 3A Girls Coach of the Year, took minimal credit for getting Homer to its first state final in 25 years in just his second season with the team, instead pointing to the chemistry of the group and the trust they have in each other.
“It’s the girls,” he said. “If they miss a shot or something, they go right back at it.
“They’ve bought into my defensive and offensive philosophies and they’re all in.”
A victory over Barrow would continue a big year for the small fishing town at the end of the spit. A victory would be the third state title for Homer this season, adding to the Class 1-2-3A state cross-country and wrestling crowns the Mariners won.
Waclawski was also a part of that cross-country championship team, as was Mariners bench player Haley Knott, and said
“In the past, we’ve had some tough losses, but this is our senior year, so of course we want to win,” she said.
Inpenetrable defense helped Homer to a 12-1 surge that was sparked by a corner 3 from Akers just seconds before the third-quarter buzzer sounded, putting the Mariners up 27-20.
In the fourth quarter, Sam Draves worked into some space to knock down a midrange jumpshot, and Akers continued the run with a jumper of her own to extend the lead to 11 points.
With desperation beginning to creep in, the Braves began stumbling with turnovers, and Homer made it worse by stiff rebounding on the glass.
“They played phenomenal defense, and it helped when we needed it,” Felice said. “They just don’t quit.”
The defensive lockdown showed up in the stat sheet as well, as Payton Weisz, one of Mt. Edgecumbe’s top players, was held scoreless on six shot attempts.
After draining the clock down to 2:49, it was Waclawski on the foul line hitting two shots that pushed the lead to 36-21. Additional free throws by Stafford and Akers put Homer up 15 points with two minutes left, essentially icing the win.
Waclawski attributed the team to finally getting back to its ideals and style of play, which is dominate on the glass and keep the ball moving.
“That was the difference between the region (championship game) against Grace and today,” she said. “We just played better as a team.”
A defensive first quarter saw Mt. Edgecumbe pull out a 5-4 lead, but Homer buckled down to hold the Braves to a meager 17 percent shooting rate from the floor and take a 14-10 lead into halftime.
A trey by Stafford in the corner early in the third quarter helped matters, but Edgecumbe continued to answer the charge. Paige Goodwin laid in consecutive buckets for the Braves to close the gap to to 24-20 with a minute left in the frame, but from there, Homer took charge.
Mariners 40, Braves 29
Homer 4 10 13 13 —40
Mt. Edgecumbe 5 5 10 9 —29
HOMER (40) — Todd 0 0-0 0, Reutov 0 0-0 0, Cleary 0 0-0 0, Kuhns 0 0-0 0, Draves 2 0-0 4, Akers 4 1-4 10, Cole 0 0-0 0, Waclawski 4 4-7 13, Stafford 3 5-9 13, Kann 0 0-0 0. Totals 13 10-20 40.
MT. EDGECUMBE (29) — Sunny 0 0-0 0, Coopchiak 0 0-0 0, Hunt 4 1-1 9, Saccheus 0 0-0 0, Amaktoolik 1 0-0 2, Charlie 0 0-0 0, Emanoff 4 1-5 9, Thomas 2 0-0 4, Hall 0 1-2 1, Weisz 0 0-0 0, Goodwin 2 0-0 4. Totals 13 3-8 29.
3-point goals — Homer 4 (Stafford 2, Waclawski 1, Akers 1); Mt. Edgecumbe 0.