Kenai, SoHi set for NLC tourney

Not surprisingly, the Soldotna girls basketball team would prefer not to use the Winning Percentage Index to get into the Class 4A state tournament.

As the Northern Lights Conference tournament gets set to tip off today in Colony, the Stars are third in the WPI.

Six girls teams qualify automatically out of their conference tournaments — including the top two finishers at the NLC tourneys.

The other two berths go to the schools with the highest WPI. Last year, SoHi thought it was one of those schools when the state brackets were announced only to learn later that a miscalculation kicked them out of state.

“We haven’t really talked about WPI and we’re not really counting on WPI after last year,” Soldotna girls coach Doug Blossom said. “That didn’t work out so good.

“We want to play Kodiak for the region championship.”

The Stars, at 17-5 overall and 7-3 in the conference, are the No. 2 seed. They have a bye today, then play the Kenai-Colony winner Friday at 5 p.m. for a spot in the title game and an automatic state berth.

If the Knights are able to get past the Kardinals, they will set up a big game in the semis.

Soldotna edged the Knights at Colony this year, but Colony came back for a 33-29 victory at Soldotna in late February.

Blossom said the problem in that game was shooting. He said his team was 19 percent from the floor in the game and missed 13 free throws.

“We just talked tonight coming out of a shootaround that the loudest game of the season so far was that Colony game a month and a half a ago,” Blossom said. “The gym was just shaking.

“If I was a player, I’d really look forward to playing in that environment. It was even louder than the state tournament.”

Keying SoHi’s run will be the post play of senior Katelynn Kerkvliet and the ballhandling of Kelci Benson and Julie Litchfield. Blossom said Makayla Wong’s ankle continues to get better, which makes her even more of a lockdown defender.

Unlike the SoHi girls, the other Peninsula teams in the tournament — the SoHi boys and Kenai girls and boys — need to finish in the top two to get to state because their WPI is not good enough.

The Soldotna boys, the No. 4 seed, play Palmer, the No. 5 seed, at 8:15 p.m. today. SoHi (11-10, 5-5) has beaten Palmer twice this season.

“We’ve played them tough a few times this year,” SoHi boys coach Matt Johnson said last weekend after beating Kenai. “It’ll be a dogfight.”

If SoHi wins, a date with host and top seed Colony awaits in Friday’s semifinal, which also serves as a contest for a state berth. The Stars lost to the Knights twice this season.

Both the Kenai girls and boys enter the tournament without a win in conference play, but both have reason to be confident that could change this weekend.

The Kenai girls, the No. 6 seed, play No. 3 seed Colony at 6:30 p.m. today.

The Kardinals (7-12 overall) played the Knights close the first two times the squads faced off last year, but Colony cruised to a victory in the third matchup.

“To be perfectly honest, I think it surprised them that we played them so closely in prior games,” Kenai coach Stacia Rustad said. “They made some adjustments and came out fired up with a different mindset.

“We came out flat and didn’t rise to their level of intensity.”

Rustad said the Kards have been focusing on Colony’s three-quarters court trapping press all week in practice and should be ready to challenge the Knights on their home floor.

“I don’t think it matters where we play a team,” Rustad said. “We’re prepared and we’ll just play the best we can and play hard, just like the kids always do.”

The coach said the main challenge in the tournament will be scoring points. Leading scorer and senior Justice English will have to come through, and will need help.

“Defensively, we feel very strong,” Rustad said. “But you’re not going to beat any Region III team scoring in the 20s, and that’s been our challenge all season.”

The Kenai boys, the No. 6 seed, open against Wasilla, the No. 3 seed. The Kardinals (2-20 overall) lost to the Warriors twice this season, but the last loss came in overtime.

“If you’re looking for a bright spot, we should have won that game in Kenai but we let it get away from us,” Kenai boys coach Ken Felchle said. “Our team is confident we can play with them.”

Felchle also said his team has fallen in a favorable side of the bracket. He said the Kardinals lack height, so teams with height like Soldotna and Colony are very hard to match up with.

“Wasilla isn’t that way,” Felchle said. “They are more our size. They are not as big of a team as other teams we’ve played.”

Felchle said the Kards have been getting closer and closer to a conference victory lately, and that has them confident heading into the tournament.

“For the kids, it’s hard because they look at wins and losses, but coaches that have been in it a long time look for improvement every day,” Felchle said. “We have a young team and a program headed in the right direction, but our seniors want to win now and I get that.

“We have a chance in the region tournament to give it our best go, and that’s because we’ve made substantial improvement throughout the season.”

Felchle said he will lean heavily on seniors Vlad Glushkov, Trevor Shirnberg and Miles Jones for leadership throughout the tournament, just as he has all year.

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