Ninilchik boys coach Nick Finley is not worried about his team as the Wolverines get set to defend their Class 1A state basketball title at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.
Finley is worried about the other teams.
The sixth-year coach admitted this week that, headed into the Peninsula Conference Tournament in early March, he was worried his team was looking past the tournament.
“I don’t feel like we let our guard down at all,” Finley said. “The closest game was 21 points.
“These seniors are starting to figure this out. They only have a couple of games left, but I feel like they will come ready to play.”
The Class 1A tourney, which runs today through Saturday at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, also includes the Ninilchik girls, and the Nikolaevsk girls and boys.
But the Wolverines boys are the only Kenai Peninsula team to earn a seed. Ninilchik (17-8 overall) is the No. 1, just as they were for last year’s title run. The school’s first boys crown came in the program’s first state berth since 2010.
Finley stressed that seed and his confidence in his seniors guarantee nothing.
“I think this is a really deep tournament,” he said. “It’s going to be a great tournament. I’m super excited.”
For example, Nikolaevsk has narrowed the gap on Ninilchik this season, losing 98-46 on Jan. 17, 76-50 on Feb. 20 and 67-46 on March 3.
And the Warriors aren’t even a sure thing to win their first-round game, which comes today at 8 p.m. against No. 3 seed Noatak.
Finley also has his eye on Nunamiut, a team the Wolverines defeated 47-43 in last year’s semifinal. Two years ago, Nunamiut lost 56-55 in the semifinal to eventual state champ Seldovia.
Hydaburg, the No. 2 seed, handed Ninilchik its last 1A loss early last season. The Wolverines’ winning streak against 1A competition now stands at 33.
Then there is No. 4 seed King Cove led by senior guard Ian Samuelson. Finley said the guard put on an incredible shooting display at Ninilchik’s tournament two years ago.
But before the Wolverines can worry about any of those teams, they must top Aniak today at 12:30 p.m. Finley said he has heard the first-round opponent has some guards proficient at shooting 3-pointers.
Ninilchik is the clear tournament favorite. Seniors Austin White, Tyler Presley and Matt Bartolowits have started all four years. Senior Dalton Geppert has started three years. Sophomores JD Mumey and Garrett Koch provide more firepower.
“All four of them are just really hungry,” Finley said of his seniors. “It seems like they’ve been sitting back all year and waiting for this moment.”
White, in particular, is fast gaining a reputation for rising to the occasion. He was the Class 1A state tournament MVP last season.
As a University of Alaska Anchorage recruit, the 6-foot-8 forward would love nothing more than to dominate on his future home floor.
“After his performance in the Peninsula Conference championship game, people were saying, ‘I’ve never seen him play that hard inside,’” Finley said. “He did that at state last year.
“At state, I think he averaged 20 and 20. I think we’ll see that from him again this week.”
Finally, the Wolverines have the advantage of being toughened by a brutal schedule. Ninilchik has lost to 4A state teams Dimond, West Valley and Kodiak and 3A state team Delta Junction.
“We had a great talk this afternoon about enjoying the moment,” Finley said. “This is it for them, the last time they’ll play high school basketball together and hang out on a trip.
“We’re going to have some fun on this trip.”
One of the many teams itching for a shot to knock off the Wolverines is Nikolaevsk, making its fourth straight state appearance.
The Warriors lost the consolation final in 2014 before taking fourth place in 2015 and second place last season.
Senior Nikit Fefelov and junior Kalenik Molodih were starters last season, while sophomore Michael Trail and junior Anfim Kalugin saw a lot of time at state. Freshman Zachary Trail also starts for the Warriors.
In its last three appearances at state, Nikolaevsk has defeated Noatak twice. Those games, plus watching Noatak win the Mixed Six state volleyball title in December, have left boys head coach Steve Klaich with a lot of respect for the Lynx.
“My starting five all really have to step up and play a solid game,” Klaich said. “Noatak is a good team that is deep and well-coached.”
Nikolaevsk is on a good roll itself, finishing 15-9 this season, but winning 10 of its final 12 games.
“I’m thrilled the kids have been able to qualify for state for four consecutive years,” Klaich said. “A lot of times, I’m criticized for being an old-school coach.
“I take it as a compliment. I teach defense and fundamentals, and it seems to be working.”
That’s also working for Steve’s wife and Nikolaevsk girls coach Bea Klaich, who is leading the 13-8 Warriors to state for a sixth straight season.
Nikolaevsk has a second, two fourths, a fifth and a consolation crown during that run. The Warriors open with Nunamiut today at 5 p.m.
Klaich said the Warriors faced Nunamiut senior Kristen Morry when she was at Nenana and learned how deftly she shoots 3-pointers.
The coach said she will lean on returning starters Vera Fefelov, a senior, and Kristin Klaich, a junior, to provide leadership at the tournament.
Also starting are freshmen Markiana Yakunin, Justina Fefelov and Elizabeth Fefelov. Sophomore Chelsea Johnson also is healthy and will play a big role.
“The young ones are having fun and they don’t feel pressure, which I think is great,” Klaich said. “Today’s practice was great. They’re all wired and ready to go.”
The Ninilchik girls (18-7) play Kake at 9:30 a.m. The Wolverines have eight state titles, the last coming in 2006.
They are making a second straight appearance at state after winning the consolation title last season. All of today’s losers head to the consolation bracket, while winners go to the championship bracket. Josh Demlow took over the team this season and set the goal of improving over last year.
“Another goal we set at the beginning of the season is we need to win the first game at state,” Demlow said. “We’re capable of doing that.
“It’s a matter of coming out and playing our game.”
Demlow knows little about Kake, other than Kake lost twice to Klawock and Ninilchik beat Klawock.
“There’s so many teams out there, when you go in playing somebody you don’t know much about it really is about you,” Demlow said. “Are you prepared? Do you know the offense? Do you know the defensive rotations?
“I feel like we’re ready.”
Ninilchik is led by returning staters Olivia Delgado, a junior, and DeeAnn White, a sophomore. Demlow said the two have been very consistent in getting together for about 25 points and 20 rebounds a game.
The duo has been so consistent that Demlow said Ninilchik’s performance depends more upon senior Mikayla Clark, sophomore Jodie Kain and freshman Shelly Johnson.
The Wolverines have a tough draw if they want to last long in the winners’ bracket. A first-round victory would most likely match them with No. 1 seed Scammon Bay, which defeated Ninilchik 71-24 on Jan. 14.
But Demlow likes his team’s size and athleticism and remains confident.
“We’ve done everything we needed to do to get to state and I couldn’t be more proud of what the girls have done so far this year,” Demlow said. “I think we’re set up to make a deep run at state.”