Even with just 27 students in the high school, the Ninilchik basketball team has managed to reload, and not rebuild.
That’s why the Wolverines (21-5) are the top seed in the Class 2A state tournament. Ninilchik opens against No. 8 Unalakleet at 9:30 a.m. at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.
The Wolverines had a dream season one year ago, finishing as the Class 2A state champions with a 26-0 record. Ninilchik then lost starters Landon Colburn, Lukah Kalugin and Justin Trail to graduation, as well as key reserve Blake Lemons.
“People were saying, ‘They’re losing their big three, they’re going to be down next year,’” Ninilchik boys coach Nick Finley said. “It’s funny how we had these two role players in Colvin (Moore) and Jaylin (Scott) progress to averaging over 20 points a game and 10 rebounds a game.”
Finley, who is in his eighth season as head coach and already has three state titles to his credit, plans to keep that cycle going.
“Guys just step up and fill roles,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s about the time we put in during the offseason.”
Finley said Ninilchik played 45 games this offseason, many against varsity teams from the state’s biggest schools. That involved a lot of travel to Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna valleys.
“It’s a huge commitment from coaches, players and parents,” Finley said. “That’s what has made us successful.”
Of course, that guarantees nothing at state. Finley said Class 2A is a small division and many of the same schools play at state each season. He said the schools are well-coached and play with a lot of pride.
Finley said he is hoping two things set his team apart from the competition. The first is defense. Ninilchik allowed just 51 points in winning two games to take the Interior Conference title for the second straight season. The second is shot selection.
“On offense, we’re being patient and looking for certain shots,” Finley said. “A lot of teams take the first look they get.”
In addition to seniors Scott and Moore, Finley is counting on big things from senior Peyton Edens, who had offseason surgery and has worked himself back to full strength.
Then there are role players in junior Rowan Mahoney and freshman Kade McCorison, who Finley expects to blossom and lead the team next season.
The coach also expects the final three seniors on the roster to play a role, Wyatt McCloskey as the sixth man, and Cody Blossom and Cooper Adams as players adding a physical presence.
“We’re a little more proud of our team this year than last year,” Finley said. “Basically, it was ours to take last year. Most games, we had the best two players on the floor.
“This year is a little different. We actually have to reach out and take it. We have to work our tails off on defense and play under control on offense. If we do that, I think we can make another run.”