The hoops field is getting crowded in the Class 3A Southcentral Conference.
The addition of Kenai Central to the Class 3A level of high school basketball has injected the Southcentral with another dose of competition, and now with eight teams, the conference has also split into two divisions, a North and South division.
The eight-team SCC is now comprised of Kenai, Nikiski, Homer and Seward in the North division, and Anchorage Christian, Grace Christian, Houston and Redington in the South division. Each team will play the other three division opponents twice and the out of division opponents once, creating a schedule of 10 conference games.
The Southcentral Conference tournament will be held in Seward this year, making for a three-day bonanza of wild action, predicted Seward coach Al Plan.
“We’re really excited about it,” Plan said. “Adding Kenai, that will be a three-day slugfest, eight games a day, it’s going to be busy with a lot of folks in Seward.”
The Kenai and Nikiski boys have already opened the doors for a conference rivalry with a thrilling overtime battle at the season-opening Craig Jung Kenai River Challenge tournament last week. The Kardinals prevailed over the Bulldogs in that game.
Kenai also escaped with a tight, 48-47 conference win over Homer this weekend, once again giving fans hope that the Southcentral’s South division battle could be one for the ages.
Kenai boys coach Ken Felchle said he can’t wait to see his squad in action against the top 3A programs in the state, namely Grace and ACS, and is also excited at the prospect of building a tight rivalry with Nikiski.
“We just had a dogfight with Nikiski, and they in all honesty may have one of the top three players in the region in Jace Kornstad,” Felchle said. “We’re excited just for the atmosphere that this region brings. We loved the (NLC) but a lot of our games were farther away. Being down here we’ll have more home games, the fans and family members will travel to closer local gyms.
“It’s just an exciting atmosphere. Just a ton of stuff that’s super exciting.”
Still, it’s nearly unanimous that the road to state still runs through the two Anchorage programs, Grace and Anchorage Christian.
“They’re the teams to beat until further notice,” said Nikiski coach Reid Kornstad.
“It’s going to be brutal,” added Seward coach Curtis Berry.
The ACS girls are the two-time defending state champions and have won state titles in three of the last five years.
“Our conference is the state tournament,” said Nikiski coach Rustin Hitchcock. “Our conference is chock-full, and Kenai’s going to compete now. It makes your eyebrows go up like, you’ve got to be aware.”
If there is one team that can knock off one of the Anchorage powerhouses, it likely will be the Nikiski girls. The hopes of the Bulldogs lie in senior guard Bethany Carstens, the reigning Class 3A Girls Player of the Year and a near-lock for the MVP award at any tournament the Bulldogs compete at.
Carstens has dealt with injuries in the past, missing her entire freshman campaign to an ACL tear, then missing the 2017 state tournament as a sophomore after tearing the ACL in her other knee.
However, Carstens’ work ethic and dedication has fueled her to a remarkable recovery that has resulted in a Division I college commitment at Chicago State University, and she isn’t slowing down anytime soon.
“I feel like there’s a weight off my chest,” Carstens said at the recent Craig Jung Kenai River Challenge tournament. “I’m pretty excited to play without worrying about stats, and I think this is the strongest I’ve felt since sophomore year.”
Conference action picks up shortly after the school year resumes in January, so don’t blink or it might be missed.
The following is a closer look at each peninsula team:
The Kenai boys are looking for their first state appearance since 2012, when Felchle coached the Kardinals to sixth place at the 4A state dance.
The Kards lost a chunk of senior talent from the 2017 squad, with only one true starter returning in senior point guard Connor Felchle. But Felchle’s presence is joined by three other senior starters in 6-foot-5 post Dominick Efta, forward Logan Baker and center Adam Trujillo. The fifth member of the starting cast is junior shooting guard Andrew Bezdecny.
The bench is impressive as well, starting with 6-4 junior Evan Stockton, who will be joined by junior forward Braedon Pitcsch, senior forward Kaden McKibben and senior Tyrone McEnerney.
The Kenai girls return with head coach Cary Calvert back at the helm, and feature a loaded senior lineup led by point guard Jaycie Calvert and forward Brooke Satathite, both of whom are three-year starters. Both earned Second-Team All-Conference honors in the Northern Lights Conference in 2017, and both exhibit stacked athleticism as evidenced by a state cross-country running championship in late September.
Joining Calvert and Satathite on the starting roster is senior guard Hayley Maw and junior post Liz Hanson, both of whom are second-year starters. Calvert said the fifth spot isn’t set in stone yet, but will be shared by juniors Jaiden Streiff, Kailey Hamilton and Damaris Severson.
Calvert also said incoming freshman Logan Satathite could see a lot of time off the bench, and sophomores Kaylee Lauritsen and Lexi Reis round out the roster.
Reigning Southcentral Conference MVP Bethany Carstens has averaged over 20 points per game in her high school career, and head coach Rustin Hitchcock said her presence on the court helps her teammates.
“Our starters are top of the line,” Hitchcock said. “But it’s unreal how deep our bench is. Nine players are going to do it for us.”
Hitchcock made his debut as Nikiski girls head coach at the Kenai tournament in mid-December and helped the Bulldogs secure the championship with a perfect 3-0 weekend.
Hitchcock spent the past year on the bench as an assistant coach for the Nikiski boys team, under Reid Kornstad, and already has the pedigree to go with his promotion. Hitchcock coached the Cook Inlet Academy girls to a Class 1A state title in 2013 with a triple overtime win over peninsula rival Nikolaevsk.
Hitchcock said being used to athletic teams is nothing new to him.
“We’re fast and we can run,” he said about the current Nikiski program. “I’m having flashbacks to CIA.”
The Nikiski girls have been to state two years in a row, but haven’t made it to the state final since 2006, when the Bulldogs last won it all.
First, they must make it through the conference tournament with a clean run. Nikiski lost last year’s final 76-54 to ACS, even as Carstens netted a game-high 21 points.
Hitchcock said while Carstens provides a strong court presence, the Bulldogs will be focused on playing team ball. With the amount of attention Carstens gets from opponents, it opens up the floor to others, such as seniors Emma Wik and Kelsey Clark and juniors America Jeffreys and Kaycee Bostic.
Wik has proven to be a stealthy shooter from the perimeter and Clark’s scrappiness grabbing rebounds under the rim has created nightmares for opposing teams.
Hitchcock said his first options off the bench include sophomore Lillian Carstens, junior Kaitlyn Johnson, junior Angela Druesedow and senior Carlee Rizzo.
The Nikiski boys are looking for their first state appearance since 2016, when the Bulldogs finished sixth. Nikiski last won the state title in 1996.
Kornstad enters his 19th season with the boys program, and hopes to follow up last year’s close miss at the conference tournament with a return to the big dance. Nikiski finished third at the SC tournament and finished one spot short of nabbing an “at-large” bid to state via the Winning Percentage Index (WPI).
“That was pretty successful for us,” Kornstad said. “They’re a good group of guys, a close-knit group of friends, and I really like the culture we’re building on the team. I’m really looking forward to the next few months and see if we can make a run at the end of the season.”
The 2018 senior-laden team includes a starting lineup of Jace Kornstad, Cody Handley, Seth DeSiena and Shane Weathers, as well as junior Noah Litke. Kornstad was a First-Team All-Conference player in 2017, and Handley made the Second-Team list.
At 6-4, Handley will be heavily relied on as a post presence, controlling the glass and dominating the low space, while Kornstad and Litke patrol the perimeter with deadly shooting.
Coach Kornstad’s first option off the bench is junior Michael Mysing, who Kornstad said provides the team a spark on the defensive end and can shoot and attack space on the offense.
Back for his fourth season with the Homer girls is head coach Chad Felice, who is eyeing a first return trip to the 3A state tournament since his debut season, when the Homer girls made the state final and finished second.
The last player remaining from that state team? Senior Rylyn Todd, who watched as a freshman bench player in March 2016 as her team came close to winning it all. Homer’s last state championship came in 1991.
Felice said Todd was named a captain this year in hopes of having her knowledge rub off on the others.
“It helps her with having played varsity all four years,” Felice said. “Having that experience playing at the state tournament, it’s huge and fun and she gets to tell all the girls about that experience, and maybe it puts their goals up a little higher.”
Todd will be joined by junior post Marina Carroll, junior shooting guard Kelli Bishop, junior point guard Rylee Doughty and senior post Alia Bales.
Felice said his bench will include sophomore Laura Inama and senior Briana Hetrick.
The Homer boys get head coach Weston Carroll back for a fourth year.
The Mariners came close to making state last March with a loss to Grace Christian in the conference semifinals before losing out to Nikiski for third-place honors.
Three of Homer’s starters last year graduated, leaving seniors Seth Adkins and Joseph McGhee as the returners. Other players that got significant time include sophomore Clayton Beachy, junior Daniel Reutov, both of whom have played integral roles in early season tournaments this season.
Curtis Berry returns for another go-round as head coach of the Seward girls, and said his girls program will be a work in progress in 2018-19.
“It’s going to be a mishmash,” Berry said. “We’re going to gain momentum as we go, up our tempo. Right now we’re still getting our legs under us.
“One thing we’ll be is scrappy.”
Berry pointed to four-year seniors Riley Von Borstel and Ashley Jackson as key components to this year’s group.
“They kind of know what’s going on,” he said.
Von Borstel and Jackson will be joined by sophomores Kaitlyn Lemme, Sequoia Sieverts and Anevay Ambrosiani.
Berry said his bench consists of freshman guard Hannah Schilling, junior Sophia Dow and Shelly Sewell.
Al Plan returns as head coach of the boys and heads up a young team, with just three seniors to his roster.
Plan said at the recent Service tournament, his starting lineup varied each day as he experiments with what will make the Seahawks a serious contender.
“This year, we’re more of an outside perimeter team with a little inside presence,” Plan said. “We’ll depend on speed and shooting for whatever advantage we have.”
Returning to the starting lineup is junior post Connor Spanos and senior Josh Jarvis. Both veterans have a post presence that Plan said will be complemented by sophomore guard Max Pfeiffenberger.
Junior guard John Moriarty and sophomore guard Sam Koster round out the starting lineup.
Plan said his bench will be led by 6-3 junior post Bjorn Nilsson, sophomore guard Trey Ingalls, senior Nathaniel Basalo and Tommy Cronin.