The last time the Nikiski boys high school basketball team appeared at the Class 3A state tournament, the class of 2016 was in preschool.
Hunter Holloway, one of those babbling little 4-year-olds, still has vague memories of older brother David, who was a leading senior on the region champion Bulldogs, playing at Nikiski High School en route to making a state run.
Today, the younger Holloway, now a senior himself, will join his Bulldogs teammates in pursuing a state crown that eluded his brother.
“We have nothing to lose,” he said Tuesday after hoops practice.
The Bulldogs will need that attitude in tonight’s opening matchup, as they look to topple the defending state champion Barrow Whalers at 7:15 p.m. at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.
Joining Holloway will be fellow seniors Luke Johnson, Javon Pamplin, Nathan Carstens, Sam Tauriainen and Cade Anderson. The crew of six have played together since sixth grade, and all but Pamplin go back further than that.
In their first appearance at the big dance, all members of the team agree on one thing — playing fearlessly.
“We’ve had some big games over our careers, so it’s helped us,” said Tauriainen. “It’s how we need to play.”
The most recent Nikiski boys team to play at the season-ending state tournament in 2002 were a bunch of hard-nosed, athletic, scrappy kids that have embodied the quality of athletes that Nikiski typically produces.
This year’s hoops squad, the first return to the big stage in 14 years, is nearly identical. Just ask newly annointed 3A Boys Coach of the Year Reid Kornstad.
“They’re a good group, they’re all good friends, most of them have played together since the Boys and Girls Club days,” Kornstad said.
A photo recently surfaced on the Nikiski Boys Basketball Facebook page that depicts many of the same players as sixth-graders on a youth association basketball team. Kornstad said the photo made him realize just how long ago he last coached the high school team to the big dance.
“It feels like it’s been awhile, but I remember it like yesterday,” he said.
The 2002 group, who Kornstad said is similar to this year’s squad, featured several impact seniors, including Hunter Holloway’s older brother David. Kornstad rehashed that year’s region tournament experience, which saw Nikiski emerge victorious in a sensational championship performance to topple ACS 69-45 on the Bulldogs home floor.
“We could see the ACS players bickering at each other and getting frustrated, and we just blew them out,” Kornstad recalled.
Kornstad said the 2002 3A boys state tournament a week later was a wild weekend that featured close games that came down to the final possession in all but one matchup. Nikiski went 1-2 over the three days.
Nikiski — which claimed its lone state boys crown in 1996, beating Valdez 67-64 in the final — has aged like a seasoned boxer, going through its share of ups and downs until this season, when it broke through to prove to other 3A competition that it can play with the best of them.
Nikiski’s first game of the year in December against 4A opponent Kenai resulted in an 88-85 overtime loss that the Bulldogs let slip through their fingers late. A 3-point shot by Carstens in the final seconds of regulation forced the extra period of play, which saw Nikiski burst out with a six-point lead.
Unfortunately, a turnover swung the momentum back in Kenai’s favor, and the Bulldogs couldn’t recover fast enough to stop it. Ultimately, Kornstad said that narrow loss helped propel Nikiski to a 12-2 start to the season, which was capped by a monster 58-57 victory at home over Monroe Catholic in late January.
Unfortunately, the early surge fell to the wayside when February rolled around. The Bulldogs lost a pair of conference games to Grace Christian and Anchorage Christian, and capped their season with a dud against Houston to finish 15-9 overall.
At the Southcentral Conference tournament, held two weeks ago at Grace Christian, the Bulldogs couldn’t pick up an automatic state bid by winning their semifinal against Grace, but a WPI spot still hung in the balance.
When the Alaska School Activities Association announced Nikiski as the final school to make it on Winning Percentage Index the night after the region tourney ended, the team breathed a massive sigh of relief.
“Getting over the hill was special,” Johnson said.
But the Bulldogs are not satisfied with where they’ve gotten so far. As an underdog on paper, No. 7 Nikiski is looking to spoil the party.
“The goal is to win of course,” Anderson said.
“We all feel we can beat the best of them,” Pamplin added. “We’re excited.”
Instead of facing a second-seeded Monroe Catholic team they have already beaten, the seventh-seeded Bulldogs will be taking on defending 3A state champs and No. 1 seed Barrow tonight.
The reason behind the seeding mismatches lies with the selection committee’s decision to separate conference opponents if the two teams’ WPI results are close enough. In the girls 3A tournament, for example, the Homer and Grace Christian teams face off in a first-round matchup, but the WPI results of the teams were too widespread to justify a split of the No. 2 and 7 seeds. In this case, Nikiski and eighth seed Bethel are within .01 points of each other in the WPI.
Against the other seven state squads, Nikiski holds a 2-6 record. Both wins came against Bethel and Monroe early in Nikiski’s 3A schedule in January.
Barrow, however, is one team Nikiski has not seen yet. The Whalers feature sophomore Kamaka Hepa, a talented 6-foot-7 power forward who is ranked on ESPN’s list of high school recruits. Hepa can kill opponents on the glass and can shoot from long range as well.
Several of Nikiski’s seniors believe Barrow presents a better matchup than, say, Grace Christian. Against the hot-shooting Grizzlies, the Bulldogs have lost all four meetings by an average of 28.5 points.
“No one blocks him out,” Holloway said about Hepa’s post presence. “We just need to block him out and stay aggressive in guarding him.”
The entire field of 3A contenders appear to be closer than in previous years as well. Monroe defeated Grace in two meetings this year, while the Grizzlies pushed Barrow to overtime before losing.
“I wouldn’t say we’re underdogs, because looking at the other teams, we’re all there,” Johnson said.
Coach Kornstad sees it slightly differently. The Whalers are undefeated against 3A opponents this season, which makes tonight’s quarterfinal matchup all the more daunting. However, Kornstad said his Bulldogs are approaching the matchup with the same optimism as, say, Middle Tennessee against Michigan State.
“We’ve got our eye on the NCAA tournament, and that’s how we’re looking at this,” Kornstad said. “We identify with some of those Cinderella teams.”