The lay of the land in the Northern Lights Conference is considerably red and green these days. Red for the Wasilla Warriors, green for the Colony Knights.
For peninsula teams Soldotna and Kenai Central, it makes for a tough basketball season when only two teams are awarded automatic bids to the season-ending state tournament in March.
The Wasilla girls had no trouble dusting the competition last year, going 10-0 against region foes and outscoring their opponents by an average of 36 points. Wasilla won the girls title in a defensive lockdown over Colony.
The Warriors lost NLC tournament MVP McKenna Dinkel and NLC first-team All-Tournament Catherine Baham to graduation, but return NLC first-team All-Tournament guard Olivia Davies. Plus, with head coach Jeannie Hebert-Truax in charge, Wasilla tends to reload with talent quickly.
Colony wasn’t far behind with an 8-2 record, but couldn’t figure the Warriors out in both losses, plus a third loss in the NLC tournament title game. The Knights return first-team All-Tournament players Alex Carlton and Amanda Smith.
“Colony’s quickness is formidable,” said Kenai head coach Cary Calvert. “They have everyone back from last year except one.”
Soldotna head coach Kyle McFall added that he believes that Colony, which dispatched SoHi in last year’s region semis, is catchable.
“We can match up with Colony, it’s just we got to stop making the little mistakes, the turnovers,” McFall said. “A team like Colony’s going to capitalize on that every time.”
Soldotna made it out of the 2016-17 regular season third with a 5-5 record against region opponents, while Kenai was fifth with a 3-7 mark against NLC teams.
Wasilla was also dominant on the boys side, taking the regular season conference crown at 9-1 before claiming the tournament championship over Kodiak, which sprung an upset with a semifinal win over Colony. The Warriors eventually lost to Dimond in the Class 4A state championship.
Kenai Central and Soldotna lagged at the bottom of the conference, Kenai fifth at 2-8 and Soldotna sixth at 1-9. For Kenai, the road back to the top will be tough after losing first-team All-Tournament star guard Josh Jackman, along with several other starting seniors.
Kenai boys head coach Ken Felchle, who enters his 13th season with the program, knows what it takes to keep a squad competitive after the loss of a crucial piece, and said the Warriors and Knights will be hard to keep up with.
“Wasilla’s going to be extremely good,” he said. “Those Valley teams are loaded.”
Wasilla will be without first-team All-Tournament star Isaac Houck, who graduated, while Colony returns first-team player Sullivan Menard. Felchle added that Soldotna, which returns all but one starter, could realistically compete for an automatic state bid.
At the recent Powerade/Al Howard tournament, Soldotna toppled Kenai 48-31 in a game the Kards led at halftime, leading Felchle to praise Kenai’s longtime rival.
“We made them work on defense, kept it low scoring, but in the second half, they stretched it out because of their ability.” Felchle said.
Second-year SoHi head coach Nolan Rose said the home tournament provided the Stars a good platform to launch a successful season-long campaign.
“We have a tight-knit bunch,” Rose said. “If we keep playing well, we have a chance to win some games.”
The following is a detailed look at the peninsula teams:
The Kenai boys ended the 2016-17 season on a high, a wild 60-59 double overtime victory over Soldotna for fifth place at the NLC tournament.
But it did not mean a state spot. Felchle lost seven seniors and four starters in guard Jackman, wing Tristan Landry and forwards Nick Beeson and Kalvin Daniels.
The one starter that returns with significant varsity experience is Luke Beiser, a senior this year. Beiser was a second-team All-Conference forward that complimented Jackman’s abilities at the point.
“It’s reality,” Felchle said. “We have one player with substantial varsity experience and that one player is very good, maybe one of the best in the region.
“But in reality, we have a lot of kids, who are all willing to work hard. It’s going to take our team time to figure out how good we are.”
Kenai already owns a successful 2-1 record this year, helping the Kards win the Al Howard tournament last week, but Felchle knows the true key to a successful season is team chemistry.
“The boys enjoy one another, they understand their limitations right now, and they’re willing to work hard,” he said.
Beiser leads the starting lineup at the post position, and is joined by senior guard Zack Tuttle, junior guard Connor Felchle, junior forward Preben Strende and senior forward Braydon Goodman.
Tuttle and Felchle are good ballhandlers and defenders, Felchle said, who will help facilitate and distribute the load, while Beiser and Strende will be primary scorers.
Felchle tabbed 6-foot-4 junior post Adam Trujillo as another big scoring option off the bench, and is joined by junior post Dominik Efta, junior forward Tyrone McEnerney, junior post Logan Baker, senior forward Rykker Riddall, sophomore forward Titus Riddall and sophomore guard Andrew Bezdecny.
At 6-foot-5, Beiser and Efta are the tallest on the team, which will help the Kards control the rebound battle and space the floor.
While the Kards lack experience on the big stage, Felchle said he believes the team’s cohesiveness and work ethic could carry them far.
“We weren’t very deep last year, maybe six, seven guys deep,” he said. “This year is not the case. There is legitimately 10 guys that can play basketball.
“Right now, I’m really confident in those 10 guys. We have a lot of depth.”
The Kenai girls finished fifth last year in the regular season at 3-7 in conference play, splitting contests with Soldotna, Palmer and Kodiak. In the NLC tournament, Kenai narrowly beat Palmer to advance to the semifinals, but had nothing against a stacked Wasilla team.
This year, Calvert said his team’s responsibility lies in their effort levels and chemistry.
“We’ve got to learn to be a varsity team,” he said. “Wins and losses are not in our vocabulary.”
The Kards will need to rely as much as possible on experience after losing five seniors, including key starters Abby Beck and Lara Creighton. Both could dominate the paint and the glass in close games, and Creighton was a second-team All-Conference player.
The two returning starters, juniors Brooke Satathite and Jaycie Calvert, both claimed second-team All-Conference honors. Calvert runs the operation at point guard and Satathite controls the paint with her height.
Added to the mix this year is junior guard Hayley Maw, sophomore post Elizabeth Hanson and senior forward Lexy Carrasco, who is a team co-captain, along with Calvert and Satathite.
The first players off the Kenai bench include senior forward Kasey Paxton and sophomore post Jaiden Streiff, both of whom were JV regulars last year with limited varsity experience.
Calvert said the plan this year is to push the tempo in games and create pressure for opposing teams, which is something the Kards have struggled with in recent years.
“If we don’t set the tempo, we won’t win much,” Calvert said. “If we can do it, we can compete.”
At last place in the conference at 1-9 last year, the Stars don’t have anywhere to go but up, and Rose may have the player experience to lift the squad.
“We have eight seniors, and some guys are on their 60th varsity (career) game,” Rose said.
The senior-laden squad includes starters Caleb Spence, Eli Sheridan, Brandon Crowder, Wendell Tuisaula and Sam McElroy, as well as bench players Luke Trammell, Chase Miller and Logan Smith.
The answer to getting back into the state playoff picture? Turn close losses into victories. Rose pointed to the Stars’ 14 games that they lost by single digits last year as a reason why SoHi has a shot to bring its experience to new heights.
“While that was painful, it will help us in game situations this year,” he said. “We don’t rely on one star to lead us, everyone is a leader in their own way.”
Spence is a primary ball handler at point guard, while Sheridan is a deadly shooter. Nearer to the post, 6-foot-2 Crowder and McElroy will team up with Tuisuaula to feed the shooters.
Rose said sophomore Jersey Truesdell has been one the team’s most improved players, while junior David Michael at 6-foot-3 brings extreme athleticism to the table.
On the girls side, SoHi ended last season on a much better note than their male counterparts, claiming third place at the NLC tournament with a 34-28 win over rival Kenai after going 5-5 during the regular season.
The SoHi girls only lost two seniors, and return four starters from last year, so the immediate future looks bright.
“We’re trying to take the next step forward from last year,” coach Kyle McFall said. “We won 16 games, we were close to the state tournament, but our big thing is mental toughness and finishing close games.
“But I think we’re more than capable of making it to state.”
The Stars starting lineup includes returning senior point guard Mei Miller, junior post Aliann Schmidt, junior wing Danica Schmid and junior guard Brittani Blossom. Those four will be joined this year by senior post Denali Wurst, who made it in a handful of varsity games last year but played a big role on the JV squad.
McFall said Blossom is a traditional 3-point shooter who is now developing an attack on the basket, and the Schmidt sisters, who were both second-team All-Conference players last year, bring size and length to the court.
First off the bench for SoHi is junior guard Kalyn McGillivray, sophomore post Kianna Holland and junior guard Haley Buckbee.
McFall also credited the help by assistant coaches Kurt Schmidt, Doug Blossom and Krista Kennedy.
McFall said he has been emphasizing a faster game this year, complimented by smart decision making under pressure in order to get the team accustomed to those region tournament games.
“I’ve been working a lot on playing a little faster,” McFall said. “Their conditioning has been big, but part of that is using that going into our half court offense. We’re relying more on a pick-and-roll offense, because the girls can handle that now.”
“We have length, but not necessarily size. I hope to use that to our advantage.”