Two peninsula programs travel to the Class 3A girls state championship tournament this weekend with dreams of cutting down the nets Saturday, but both enter with vastly different perspectives.
For the Nikiski Bulldogs, a lineup of experienced and savvy skills guide a team of veterans seeking to break a 13-year team title drought.
For the Kenai Central Kardinals, who haven’t danced on the big stage in 17 years, a long overdue moment will come to fruition today.
Kenai head coach Cary Calvert said the moment hasn’t been lost on the team, adding that his own daughter, senior guard Jaycie Calvert, has anticipated a state run for years.
“There won’t be a girl more excited to be there (than her),” Calvert said. “This is a dream come true for her, she’s been on cloud nine all week, and all these kids are proud to get there.”
The eight-team bracket tips off today at the luxurious Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage when top-seeded Anchorage Christian Schools plays eighth-seeded Kotzebue in pursuit of a third straight state crown. ACS has beaten Sitka in each of the last two state championship finals.
The No. 5 Kenai girls open their tournament with a 12:30 p.m. matchup with No. 4 Mt. Edgecumbe, while the No. 3 Nikiski girls face No. 6 Valdez in the late game at 8 p.m.
While Kenai Central owns just one girls state hoops title in its history (1991), the Nikiski girls have a large case full of championship trophies. From 1992 to 2006, the Bulldogs played in the state title game nine out of 15 years, winning eight of them. The only championship loss came to Valdez in 1994.
Now, 13 years removed from their last title-game appearance, the Bulldogs are primed for a return showing, and the 2018-19 squad is likely the best shot they have.
“They understand that it’s a survive-and-advance mentality,” said head coach Rustin Hitchcock.
If there’s any team that can push aside the nerves, it’s this Nikiski team. The senior class of Emma Wik, Bethany Carstens and Kelsey Clark are on their third trip to state, having earned finishes of fourth and fifth the last two years, and Carstens is the reigning Class 3A Alaska Player of the Year.
The top names in the junior class includes America Jeffreys, Kaycee Bostic, Kaitlyn Johnson and Angela Druesedow, who are also part of the experienced lineup.
Those seven players are also not strangers to the vast arena that houses the tournament. Just over four months ago, the group of friends and teammates came through to win the school’s first state volleyball championship in almost 20 years on the same court that will stage Saturday’s state basketball final.
On that November day, the Bulldogs summoned a gutsy performance to topple the defending state champion Valdez Buccaneers, the same team that will see the Bulldogs in tonight’s quarterfinal.
“Valdez probably hasn’t forgot that,” Hitchcock said. “But experience on that stage is huge.”
Hitchcock is also no stranger to the bright lights. Although coaching his first year with the Nikiski girls, Hitchcock spent a handful of seasons coaching the girls program at Cook Inlet Academy, which competed both at Class 1A and 2A during Hitchcock’s tenure.
Hitchcock helped CIA to the 2012 title game at the 2A level, losing to Point Hope, then hoisted the Class 1A state trophy with the Eagles in 2013 after a wild, triple-OT game over Nikolaevsk. Hitchcock said experiences like that for players and coaches alike serve a great purpose in staying within the game.
“If one thing goes difficult, it’s not this insurmountable panic,” he said. “It’s like, yeah, there’s ups and downs on this.”
The Bulldogs are 24-4 this year in all competitions, with two of those losses coming to ACS, including the Southcentral Conference title game March 9. Nikiski lost to ACS 86-56 in the first meeting of the year at home, but played the Lions closer in a 67-52 loss in the conference final.
With the Lions on the opposite side of the 3A bracket, Hitchcock and the Bulldogs are hoping for a third clash that could prove to be the undoing of the ACS dynasty.
“We want another shot at them for sure,” Hitchcock said. “Not only have we collected enough data to prepare ourselves for that, but the tools in the belt the girls have (include) that positive mentality to use it.”
Nikiski’s first opponent, Valdez, captured the Aurora Conference championship two weeks ago to cap a 16-10 season record. Hitchcock reviewed the game film on the Bucs and saw a group of “very defensive-minded” guards, including 6-footer Ally Seiber.
But Hitchcock said he believes the Bulldogs’ outside shooting, led by Wik and Bethany Carstens, combined with the inside presence of Bostic, Johnson and Lillian Carstens, can get the job done against Valdez.
Kenai’s quarterfinal date with Mt. Edgecumbe today will be the first state hoops contest for the Kardinals girls since 2002, so the community is celebrating it accordingly. Calvert said the team received a send-off from the KCHS drumline and student body Wednesday morning as the bus departed with an escort from the Kenai police and fire departments.
“I think we earned it,” Calvert said. “We belong there. We’ll find out.”
In their first season at the 3A level following years of trying to keep up with the biggest schools in the state, the Kardinals finished third in the Southcentral Conference tournament and had to rely on the one at-large berth awarded for the 3A state tournament.
Calvert said that because he wasn’t “100 percent” certain that Kenai would be awarded the spot, the team did not host a viewing party for the Alaska School Activities Association Selection Show that was streamed live March 10.
“I’m just proud that these kids made it,” he said.
Now that they have arrived, Calvert said the Kards are ready to make some noise.
“I keep telling them they belong,” he said. “They’re a resilient team. We’ll get after people.”
Mt. Edgecumbe is the team’s first opponent, the Southeast Conference champs that went 16-10 overall this season, and Calvert said he saw in game film a group that reminds him of his own squad — athletic, fast, a group of shooters that can defend with the zone and man schemes.
“They’re a four-seed for a reason,” he said.
Calvert said he will relay on his seniors — Jaycie Calvert, Hayley Maw, Maddie Galloway and Brooke Satathite — to maintain a consistent game tempo that he hopes will allow Kenai to flourish.
Over the recent spring break, Calvert said the Kardinals have found a renewed energy in practices, and if the team can get buckets to go their way, a surprise state run may be in the cards.
“If we hit shots, we’ll do OK,” he said.
Class 3A State Basketball Tournament
At Alaska Airlines Center
Game 1 — ACS (1) vs. Kotzebue (8), 11 a.m.
Game 2 — Mt. Edgecumbe (4) vs. Kenai Central (5), 12:30 p.m.
Game 3 — Galena (2) vs. Barrow (7), 6:30 p.m.
Game 4 — Nikiski (3) vs. Valdez (6), 8 p.m.
Game 5 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 11 a.m.
Game 6 — Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 12:30 p.m.
Game 7 — Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 6:30 p.m.
Game 8 — Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 8 p.m.
Game 9 — Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 9:30 a.m. (4th place)
Game 10 — Game 7 loser vs. Game 8 loser, 10 a.m. (3rd place)
Game 11 — Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 1 p.m. (Championship)