Last weekend’s slate of regular season finales really injected some intrigue and drama into this weekend’s Northern Lights Conference tournament.
Not that it needed it, mind you.
The No. 1 and 2 seeded teams in the boys tournament, Colony and Wasilla, forced a tiebreaker situation after the Warriors toppled the league-leading Knights 43-42 on the final day of the regular season.
About the same time that was happening, the Soldotna and Kenai Central boys were waging a war in the SoHi gym. After trailing by as many as 15 points early, the SoHi boys staged a fourth-quarter comeback and grabbed a late lead, only to see it disappear on a tying 3-pointer from Kardinal showstopper Luke Beiser with 20 seconds left.
If that wasn’t enough to send the crowd into a frenzy, SoHi sophomore Jersey Truesdell’s gamewinning layup with just two seconds left was. The Stars escaped with a 57-55 win to secure the fourth seed in the tournament, while Kenai remained winless in the conference and is the sixth seed.
Same in the girls tournament. The absence of star player Olivia Davies doomed the Wasilla girls to a 53-35 regular-season loss to Colony on the final day, although the top seed has already been locked up for the Warriors.
Nevertheless, it gave a glimmer of hope to teams hoping to topple the might Wasilla girls.
“Our conference is crazy right now,” said Soldotna girls coach Kyle McFall after Saturday’s finale against Kenai Central.
The NLC tournament tips off today with four quarterfinal games at Wasilla High School. The games will be streamed live online at www.livestream.com/matsutv.
The top two in both the boys and girls championships go to state, meaning Friday’s semifinal games will decide who goes and who goes home. However, two at-large spots are up for grabs based on a team’s standing in the Win Percentage Index (WPI) standings.
The following is a closer look at today’s opening matchups:
Soldotna (4) vs. Kodiak (5), Thursday 4:45 p.m.
The SoHi boys finished 4-6 in the NLC this year to grab the fourth seed, and will face the 2-8 Kodiak Bears on opening day. The winner moves on to play the top seeded Colony Knights Friday at 3:15 p.m.
The Stars beat Kodiak twice this season, dominating the first game 52-29 but escaping with a 45-40 win the second time around.
Soldotna features a senior-heavy lineup with experienced veterans like Eli Sheridan, a stealthy shooter from beyond the arc, Caleb Spence, a nimble guard, and Brandon Crowder, who commands the post. Sam McElroy, a 6-foot-2 forward, has given the team quality looks inside the paint and junior David Michael has added depth at the forward position as well.
Add to that the potent sophomore Jersey Truesdell, who exploded for 29 points off the bench in an early January loss to Juneau, then scored 25 against Kenai Central in a comeback effort on his home floor. SoHi rallied from double-digit deficits in both victories over Kenai this year.
Kenai (6) vs. Palmer (3), Thursday 8:15 p.m.
Tonight’s quarterfinal game between the Kardinals and the Moose features a heavyweight matchup between two of the most dynamic players in the league, Kenai senior Luke Beiser and Palmer senior Clayton Southwick.
Beiser stands at 6-foot-5 and has crafted his game with varsity experience over three years. Last week at Kenai, Beiser scored 22 points in a nail biting loss to SoHi, and earlier in the year in a loss to Palmer, Beiser had 32 of his team’s 39 points.
“I told him this year,” explained Kenai head coach Ken Felchle. “For us to win, he has to be great.”
Palmer, on the other hand, features Southwick, a 6-foot-7 senior who can equal Beiser in many ways, be it speed, strength or skill.
Palmer was 2-0 against Kenai this season with scores of 54-31 and 47-39. The tournament winner advances to a semifinal matchup with No. 2 seed Wasilla Friday at 6:45 p.m.
Behind Beiser, the Kardinals have received depth from Norwegian transplant Preben Strende, an exchange student who has helped alleviate the scoring load with deadly accuracy from 3-point land, senior Zack Tuttle and junior Conner Felchle.
At 0-10 in the conference, the Kards do not look like much of a threat, but after Saturday’s heartbreaking loss, Felchle said his message to his crew was simple.
“I told them we have to look at what’s next,” Felchle said. “We have to have two positive practices next week and get ready for the tournament, because anything can happen there.”
Soldotna (4) vs. Kenai (5), Thursday 3 p.m.
After prevailing over Kenai on home court last Saturday, the SoHi girls will be facing the challenge of beating their rivals for a third time.
SoHi won the first game 49-41 and the second 38-28, but in this classic rivalry, nothing is guaranteed.
“It’ll be a fun game,” said Kenai head coach Cary Calvert after last Saturday’s game. “We match up well.”
The winner advances to play the top seeded Wasilla Warriors Friday at 5 p.m.
At 4-6 in conference play this year, SoHi has gotten experience from a starting lineup of upperclassman, led by the Schmidt sisters, Aliann and Danica, and Brittani Blossom, who wrapped up the regular season with a game-high 14 points last weekend against Kenai.
The Schmidts both possess the height and wingspan to frustrate opponents in the paint, but Kenai can counter with junior forward Brooke Satathite, who has proven to be just as tough to beat in the post.
Add to Kenai’s roster the shooting of junior Jaycie Calvert and senior Lexy Carrasco, and the speed of junior Hayley Maw, and the Kardinals are looking like a bona fide threat to SoHi’s state plans.