When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
The Nikiski girls basketball program is taking that old saying to heart this weekend as they begin their quest for their first state championship since 2006. The 23-5 Bulldogs enter the big dance as a real threat to make a championship run, but unfortunately, in their eyes, landed on the “wrong” side of the bracket.
Nikiski enters as the No. 5 seed in a field of eight, and opens today with a 5 p.m.quarterfinal matchup against Barrow. The winner plays either top-seeded Anchorage Christian or Kotzebue in Friday’s semifinal round.
Deeper analysis shows, however, that the Bulldogs have played better against the Class 3A field as a whole, this year, but a 17-3 record against all 3A competition left it with the fifth seed.
The second and third seeds, Sitka and Valdez, each have two 3A losses on their records. Sitka lost to ACS and Nikiski, while Valdez lost to ACS and Bethel, the latter of which is the sixth seed.
Nikiski’s only three losses? All to ACS, including the Southcentral Conference championship game on March 10.
“The path this year is a lot harder,” explained junior Kelsey Clark. “We’ve got to be a lot more prepared this time.”
This year has shown that the Bulldogs have been able to handle every 3A girls team they’ve met with the glaring exception of the ACS Lions, who went 3-0 against Nikiski this year with victory margins of 23, 23 and 22 points. A pretty consistent success rate.
Nikiski head coach Scott Anderson said while the Bulldogs are looking at a tough road ahead, starting today with Barrow, he believes the potential reward will be worth it.
“The nice thing about this is if you win the state title, you know you are the best team in the state,” Anderson said.
The general consensus on the team, Anderson said, is that Nikiski can handle any team in the state tournament, except perhaps ACS. Clark said ACS features the deepest team in the state with a cast of five-star players that extends to the Lions’ bench.
“They’re a little bigger, a little faster and they shoot the ball well all the time,” he said with emphasis.
Junior Bethany Carstens said if Nikiski should meet ACS in a state semifinal on Friday, the Bulldogs will need to catch any break they can.
“It has be the best game we’ve played all year,” Carstens said. “They try to steal every chance they get, and usually get one shot and they always make it.”
However, the Bulldogs cannot focus on ACS until they get through Barrow, and that is no sure thing. The Bulldogs met the Whalers earlier this year in a tourney semifinal at the Grace Hardwood Classic.
Nikiski prevailed 57-51 in that Feb. 16 meeting, giving the Bulldogs some hope of an opening-day win.
“They’re so stinking athletic,” Anderson said about Barrow. “It’s a 50-50 game for us.”
The Grace Hardwood Classic proved to be a key weekend in Nikiski’s season. The Bulldogs went 3-0 to win the tournament and did so by beating three quality teams in Mt. Edgecumbe, Barrow and Sitka (in the championship game). Two of those teams are playing this weekend at state, and both have played in the 3A girls state title game the past two years. Barrow won the state crown in 2016, while Sitka finished second last year.
“That weekend we showed our potential,” Anderson said. “We shot well, rebounded well, and if we can bring back some of that magic, we’ll be looking good.”
Part of that magic come from raw star power. Nikiski features the best player and coach in the state, according to the results of the Alaska Association of Basketball Coaches poll.
Carstens received the 2017-18 honors of 3A Girls Player of the Year, while Anderson received Coach of the Year. Anderson said he considers the award a validation of the entire Nikiski coaching staff, including Sari Anderson, Shannon Porter and Bill Thompson.
“I try to surround myself with the best people,” Anderson said. “I found out early in my career here that if you go it alone, it doesn’t work out.”
Carstens’ Player of the Year award was made exceptional in that she earned it after suffering two major knee injuries in her first two seasons of high school hoops. Prior to her freshman year, Carstens tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee in an open gym session, ending her season before it began. Last year at the region tournament, held in Nikiski’s home gym, Carstens tore her ACL and MCL in her left knee, which took her out of the state tournament.
Carstens said it took some time to get back up to speed. When the prep season opened in December, she felt noticeably slower and unable to make plays she had been accustomed to making. Plus, the brace that she adorns on her left leg gave her a mental barrier that she had to overcome.
Now, however, the speed of the game has returned to Carstens, who averaged 20.3 points per game in the regular season along with 5.1 rebounds, setting the junior forward up for what she hopes is a spectacular state tournament run.
“I’m happy that all the hard work has paid off,” she said.
While Carstens spent most of the season recovering from that injury, Clark had to deal with her own knee injury midway through the campaign. Clark hurt her knee in a conference game against Redington on Jan. 12 and sat out the remainder of the regular season with a bone bruise on her right knee.
Clark returned in time for the Southcentral Conference tournament, but admitted to being “kind of scared” as she wasn’t quite 100 percent yet.
“I was really nervous,” Clark said.
While her teammates had gotten two games against the powerful ACS girls, Clark hadn’t stepped foot on the same court against the Lions all year. When Nikiski lost to ACS in the championship game, Clark said she had to learn the Lions’ tendencies on the fly.
“The rest of my team had played them twice, but I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “But I just watched film on them and saw little stuff I hadn’t noticed before.”
Little stuff like the box-and-one style of defense, where a team will play a zone look with one defender on the other team’s “star” player. In this case, Carstens is that player that can seemingly score at will, but Clark said the system backfires on a team that has deep talent throughout its lineup.
“Coach said that should insult us,” Clark said with a laugh. “We should focus on scoring when she’s being guarded.”
Overall, Anderson said he believes his squad is prepared — more so than last year — to play its best basketball of the season at the big dance.
“We want to play together as long as we can,” he said. “We want to have fun, play hard and play together.”