The Kenai Central and Homer girls basketball teams open play today at a Class 3A state basketball tournament unlike any other.
The tournament had to be moved from Anchorage due to coronavirus mitigation restrictions, so the state basketball tournaments are being held in the Matanuska-Susitna valleys instead.
Kenai and Homer are the only teams from the Kenai Peninsula to qualify for state this year. Both open up play at Palmer Middle School.
Kenai Central head coach Jeff Swick and Homer coach Chad Felice said they don’t even know much about the gym in which they’ll be playing.
“I think I was there for a seventh grade basketball camp,” said Swick, who grew up in Seldovia. “I can’t even remember.”
Felice has leaned on longtime Homer athletic director Chris Perk, who also has an extensive wrestling history in the state.
“I have no idea. I’ve never been there,” Felice said of the Palmer Middle School gym. “I asked our athletic director and he said it was a fairly big gym, from what he could remember, the last time he had a meet there.”
Swick doesn’t know a lot about his opponent, while Homer’s opponent is all to familiar.
The Kardinals play Southeast Conference champion Sitka at 3 p.m. Kenai (7-12 overall) earned its second state berth in three years by finishing second in the Southcentral Conference.
Swick is going to state for the first time as a coach. He went to Class 2A state as a player for the Sea Otters in 1999 and 2000.
The Kenai head coach said it’s hard to know much about Sitka because the Wolves have played Mt. Edgecumbe so much. Both schools are located on the same island in Southeast Alaska.
“When I watch the game film, I can’t tell too much,” Swick said. “I just see them playing the same team over and over again.”
Swick said his program ended the season with 15 players. He said qualifying for state hopefully will get numbers up.
“Going to state is going to help draw attention to the program,” he said. “We’ll have quite a send-off (Wednesday), as much as we can with COVID protocols, where we drive through the middle school parking lot. Those kids get to see something cool and see a developing program, and hopefully they want to be a part of that.”
Swick also said the program has been helped by getting to have a week and a half of practice before state. The basketball season got off to a late start due to the coronavirus pandemic, so games were jammed together not allowing for much practice time.
“I feel like we’ve had the time to tighten a few things up,” Swick said.
The Kardinals have two seniors — Taylor Pierce and Michal Keyes — so Swick said this will be a great way to cap their careers. Pierce actually missed the conference tournament because she was out of the state visiting colleges, so Swick said it is great to get her more time on the floor.
“For the younger kids, this will be a great experience,” Swick said. “It’s a chance to see state and give them something to shoot for as they get older.”
Freshman Emma Beck gives the Kards a scoring punch, while junior Logan Satathite provides defense and ballhandling, and sophomore Malerie Nunn has been key on defense.
Swick said team basketball is the reason the Kardinals made state, though.
“Right down the line, it’s been a team effort,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been preaching the last week and a half, ‘Remember how we got here — team basketball.’”
The Mariners open up with Anchorage Christian Schools at 8:15 p.m. The Lions are a juggernaut on the verge of moving up to Class 4A next season.
Homer (11-8 overall) was able to avoid the Lions at the Southcentral Conference tournament by earning the top seed from the Southern Division, but now meets ACS at state.
The Mariners lost to Kenai 45-30 in the Southcentral semifinals. Kenai then went on to lose to ACS 91-18 in the title game.
Homer became eligible for a lottery to get into state by defeating Redington 38-23 in the Southcentral third-place game, then won that lottery to get into state.
“It is what it is,” said Felice, who is making his third trip to state and first since taking second in 2016. “We’re going to try some things and see what we can do against them. Whatever happens, happens.
“The main thing is the girls get the experience of going to state.”
Like Swick, Felice said the extended practice time after the busy season has been nice.
In fall, the Alaska School Activities Association had to cancel the state volleyball tournament due to the coronavirus pandemic. Kenai and Homer both had strong volleyball teams.
For Kenai, Emma Beck and Erin Koziczkowski now get to play in state. Felice said Homer players Tonda Smude, Laura Inama, Hannah Hatfield and Mel Morris were all on the Homer volleyball team that won state two years ago. Bethany Engebretsen also played volleyball for Homer this year.
“Their season is going to end at the state tournament, and it’s not going to end because of COVID,” Felice said.
Inama, Hatfield and Smude are the team’s seniors. Felice said all three have been working hard four years to get to state.
“We also have a big junior class that has a lot of potential,” Felice said. “They could put in the work and possibly go back next year. It’s a very good experience for them.”
Each team is allowed 125 tickets. Both Swick and Felice said they are looking forward to having that big of a fan base in the stands after being allowed two fans per player through the whole season.
“We’re excited to have that fan base in the stands,” Swick said.
Class 3A girls state basketball tournament
Game 1 — Sitka vs. Kenai Central, 3 p.m. at Palmer Middle School
Game 2 — Monroe Catholic vs. Nome-Beltz, 4:45 p.m. at Palmer Middle School
Game 3 — Kotzebue vs. Hutchison, 6:30 p.m. at Palmer Middle School
Game 4 — Anchorage Christian vs. Homer, 8:15 p.m. at Palmer Middle School
Game 5 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 2 p.m. at Colony High School
Game 6 — Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 4 p.m. at Colony High School
Game 7 — Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 2 p.m. at Wasilla High School
Game 8 — Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 4 p.m. at Wasilla High School
Championship — Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 1 p.m. at Palmer High School