With eight state championships and nine state players of the year in 18 seasons under seven-time state coach of the year Dan Leman, it would seem almost impossible for the Ninilchik boys program to do something the girls haven’t already done.
Well, Austin White has done it.
White, a 6-foot-8 senior, was named the Gatorade High School Player of the Year for boys basketball in Alaska on Monday, putting him in some rare territory.
No player — girls or boys — from Ninilchik has ever earned the honor. No boys player from the Kenai Peninsula has ever been so honored, but Kenai’s Sherrie Barlow (1986-87), Homer’s Jody Hensen (1990-91) and Soldotna’s Molly Tuter (1991-92 and 1992-93) have all represented the peninsula.
It is also extremely rare for a player from such a small school to win the honor. White plays at the Class 1A level, the smallest in the state. The only comparison is Northway’s Mike Cronk, who won the award in 1986-87 when Northway was a 2A school. Since then, reclassification has moved both Northway and Ninilchik from the 2A to the 1A level.
“It’s the ideal way for him to end his career here,” Ninilchik boys coach Nick Finley said.
Saturday, White and the Wolverines won their second straight Class 1A state title. While that still leaves them far behind the girls, Finley said the dominant run by that program has had a huge impact on the boys. After all, White signed to play with the University of Alaska Anchorage for his senior year. There’s a lot of places he could have played his senior season other than Ninilchik.
“One thing all those boys took to heart is the community pride here,” Finley said. “Part of it was looking up on the wall and seeing all those girls banners.
“They wanted to prove something. They’ve started that tradition and Austin is a part of that.”
Finley packed Ninilchik’s schedule with five 3A and five 4A schools, allowing White to prove to coaches at all levels that he could play. Heading into the state tournament, White was averaging 17.3 points per game, 13.7 rebounds per game, 4.1 blocks per game and 3.7 assists per game.
But the Gatorade award is about more than what happens on the floor. White, son of Wes and Kelly White, has a 3.99 grade-point average. He also volunteers with youth basketball.
“He’s a great kid and a smart kid,” Finley said. “He helps out a lot with the younger kids.
“If I ever need anything done for a fundraiser, he’s always the first guy I call. If somebody needs a refrigerator or a washer moved, Austin is always one of the first guys I call.”
Finley has helped mold White from an eighth-grader who could barely dribble into an NCAA Division II basketball player. That has taken countless hours of work, and White won’t forget that.
“When he received the email from Gatorade informing him that he had won, he called me up first thing in the morning and thanked me for all the time I’ve put in with him,” Finley said. “He thanked me for the time I spent away from my family he realizes I can never get back.
“He appreciates all that time, and told me he would not be where he is without me and his teammates.”
White and teammates Tyler Presley and Dalton Geppert also just found out they will be in the Alaska Association of Basketball Coaches All-Star Game on April 14 and 15. Fellow senior Matt Bartolowits will be an alternate.
True to form, the players all wanted to get back in the gym Monday to keep improving. Finley, his voice still hoarse from state, had other ideas.
“I told them I needed a day off,” he said. “A number of them are coming in tomorrow.”