NLC tourney preview: Kenai, SoHi meet again

In the span of an entire high school basketball season, individual plays hardly have an impact on end-of-season results. But in the case of Soldotna and Kenai Central, those plays could now mean the difference between heading off to state or going home.

Five days after walking off the hardwood at Cliff Massie Court in Kenai, the two rival schools will be back at it on the first day of the Northern Lights Conference tournament, held today, Friday and Saturday at Kenai.

The Stars finished off their regular-season campaigns last Saturday with a pair of Northern Lights victories over the Kards, giving SoHi a season sweep for the boys and girls, but if there’s anything to be said about end-of-season tournament play, today’s matchups can go either way.

Only the top two earn an automatic berth to the state tournament, putting extra emphasis and excitement into Friday’s semifinal games. After that, any remaining teams can only hope to grab one of two at-large state bids determined by the Winning Percentage Index standings. Those two spots will fill the remainder of the state seedings.

In the latest WPI standings released by ASAA, the Soldotna girls are ranked 14th out of 20 teams, while Kenai sits right behind in 15th. In the boys standings, SoHi sits 15th, and Kenai is 19th.

It leaves both squads in desperation mode, needing a win today and a win in tomorrow’s semifinal round to clinch a berth at state.

Soldotna boys (3) vs. Kenai Central (6), 6:30 p.m.

A quarterfinal matchup between the Stars and the Kardinals is sure to pack the gym.

The winner advances to tomorrow’s semifinal round against the second-seeded Colony Knights, which lost the top seed to Wasilla with a coin flip. Both Valley teams finished 9-1 in the division this year, and the next four tiebreaking procedures — including head-to-head matchups, which they split — were not enough to decide the top seed.

The longtime rivalry between the two Peninsula schools has not lacked in action this year.

SoHi (5-5 in conference play) escaped with a pair of razor-thin wins over Kenai this season, starting with a 67-63 game in late January that saw the Kards dig themselves out of a 24-point halftime deficit to come within two points of the Stars in the waning seconds. Then, last Saturday, SoHi was on the attack, as the Stars had to overcome an eight-point hole in the final four minutes to eke out a 43-42 victory. It’s added up to a five-point scoring discrepancy in over an hour of playing time between the two.

Soldotna coach Mark Tuter, even with all his years of coaching experience, does not know for sure what to expect in the third meeting of the two sides.

“I get really excited for these games, but my guys have been pretty relaxed,” Tuter said. “It’s pretty amazing that they can stay calm and collected for these games.”

Tuter pointed out the fact that many of the boys on his team were also a part of the Soldotna football squad, which capped a second-straight undefeated season in 2014 with a third-consecutive, medium-schools state crown.

“They’re all football players, they’ve all won a lot of big games, so there’s a lot of confidence there,” Tuter said.

However, it will take more than confidence to get past the top two Valley teams. Tuter said he is looking for big games out of Joe Weltzin, Brooks Furlong, Drew Fowler and Nate Spence. Tuter said Spence — a senior forward that scored a game-high 18 points against Kenai last Saturday — in particular has raised his level of play in recent weeks.

“It’ll be pretty tough on us,” Tuter said. “We’ve gotta win on Thursday, and if we don’t, that’s it.”

If the 1-9 Kardinals are to score an upset as the sixth seed, they will need to learn to finish strong, says coach Ken Felchle.

“Offensively, down the stretch, we’ve got to make free throws, then turn around back to defense,” Felchle said. “We match up well with each other, so I think it’ll be a close game one way or the other. We figured we would be playing them even before our last game.”

Kenai sophomore Josh Jackman flourished the most this year against the Stars, averaging 13 points in the two matchups, but one of the biggest heroes against SoHi last Saturday was junior Marshall Vest, whose tenacious defensive play in the second half resulted in Soldotna turnovers and transition buckets.

“I asked Marshall if he had another game like that in him, and he said yes,” Felchle said.

However, Felchle added that if Kenai is to advance, the Kards will need all five players on the court competing at a high level, something they saw in the second half of the first game against SoHi.

“We’ve got nothing to lose and few people expect us to win this weekend,” Felchle said. “It takes the pressure off of us.”

Soldotna girls (4) vs. Kenai Central (5), 8:15 p.m.

The Stars swept the Kards this year with scores of 34-23 in January and 40-35 last Saturday, but Kenai coach Stacia Rustad made it no secret that she is highly anticipating a rematch.

“There are a couple changes we’ve made since Saturday, and all we can do is go out and play the best we can,” Rustad said. “The kids play hard every game, and I give them that.”

Just like Rustad predicted at the start of the season, the Wasilla girls have returned as the top dog in the NLC, rolling to a 10-0 conference record. Colony, at 8-2, enters this weekend as the second seed.

After two straight seasons of winless conference play, Kenai finally snapped the long drought with a 50-31 victory over Palmer in late January. Rustad said the 2-8 Kardinals being able to finally break that NLC drought did a lot of good for the team.

“We’re proud of ourselves, coach (Craig) Jung is proud of them, and we were pleased to get wins, it was a huge boost for us,” Rustad said. “But my kids expect more than what we’re able to obtain. There’s definitely a fire in them, we know we let games go that we shouldn’t have. It’s in the back of our minds.”

Kenai swept Palmer in the pair of matchups they had with the Moose, and in division meetings with SoHi, Wasilla and Colony, the Kards were able to stay in games on the strength of a ferocious defense. In their 10 NLC games, the Kardinals had a points differential of minus-7.4 points per game.

However, Rustad’s concern with Saturday’s game was the defensive play of Kenai. While scoring 35 points in the game was a high point, a low point was looking up at the board and seeing 40 points on the other side.

“We had some defensive breakdowns we don’t typically have,” Rustad said.

Some of that, according to Soldotna coach Kyle McFall, is due to the play of Haley Miller and Hayley Ramsell, a pair of seniors that combined for 39 points against Kenai in both games this year.

“They’ve been patient, they’ve gotten good shots and haven’t tried to force anything,” McFall said.

After senior Kelsey Jackson fell victim to injury after the holiday break, forcing her out for the remainder of the season, McFall had to come up with another lineup that would mesh well together. In Jackson’s absence, McFall said Lindsey Wong has stepped up and added a third element in SoHi’s wheelhouse.

“(Jackson) provided a huge spark off the bench, so we’re trying to adjust to that,” he said. “If those three are on their game, we can compete.”

As host of the tournament, Rustad said both Kenai teams are prepared for 32 minutes of battle.

“Every time Kenai and Soldotna play it’s going to be a hard-fought game,” she said. “Both the boys and girls put on a clean, hard-fought game that comes down to the wire, and as coaches, parent and athletes, that’s what we want to see.”

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