Ben Boettger/Peninsula Clarion Kenai Central High School basketball player Hannah Drury keeps the ball from South Anchorage's Kelsey Sweetsir during a game on Friday, Dec. 18 in Kenai.

Ben Boettger/Peninsula Clarion Kenai Central High School basketball player Hannah Drury keeps the ball from South Anchorage's Kelsey Sweetsir during a game on Friday, Dec. 18 in Kenai.

Northern Lights Conference basketball preview: Kenai, Soldotna renew chase for state berths

Another year of Class 4A hoops, another power struggle between the Kenai Peninsula and Matanuska-Susitna valleys teams.

With local squads Kenai Central and Soldotna competing against the likes of Wasilla, Palmer and Colony over the course of the year, plus Kodiak, a battle for a spot at state will begin in earnest.

Two teams from the Northern Lights Conference earn automatic berths to the state tournament, with a third team possibly advancing on the strength of their Winning Percentage Index. Two WPI “at-large” bids will fill the remainder of the 4A bracket after the first six spots are determined — two from the NLC, two from the Cook Inlet Conference, and one each from the Mid-Alaska and Southeast conferences.

Last year, the Wasilla boys grabbed the top spot out of the NLC on a coin flip, getting the luck of the draw after tying Colony with 9-1 conference records. The Warriors and the Knights ultimately became the two representatives from the conference at the state tournament.

With no conference matchups played yet, there is no telling how things will shape up in a tight conference, but after seeing an improved Kenai boys squad, Soldotna boys coach Mark Tuter said the competition between the two rival schools will be tougher than ever.

“This is their year,” Tuter said about Kenai. “We need to treat them like 4A varsity players.”

On the girls side, Wasilla also finished the regular season on top, but did so in a much more dominant manner, rolling to a perfect 10-0 conference record. Colony finished the year second in the NLC at 8-2. Wasilla ultimately claimed the 4A state title, its fourth in five years.

“They’ll always be good,” said Kenai assistant coach Craig Jung, who won a state crown with Kenai in the early 1990s. “As long as (coach) Jeannie (Hebert-Truax) is there, they’ll be good.”

“They’re going to be top dogs, I’d say the best in the state again,” added SoHi coach Kyle McFall. “The rest of the region is pretty wide open.”

The following is a closer look at the Class 4A Peninsula teams:

KENAI KARDINALS

After Kenai girls coach Stacia Rustad accepted the athletic director’s position at Wasilla shortly after the conclusion of last season, Kenai Central mathematics teacher Cary Calvert was chosen to fill the role.

Rustad, a former Kardinals player that was a part of the 1991 state championship team under the guidance of coach Jung, left Kenai a winner after six years as head coach. Under her guidance, the Kards broke a lengthy winless streak of NLC losses with two wins over Palmer last season, then finished the year off with a thrilling victory over Kodiak in the NLC tournament third-place game.

The most striking characteristic of Rustad’s teams over the years was tough, gritty defensive play, something she learned from Jung.

“That’s something that’s always been done here,” Jung said. “Whether with me, (Jim) Beeson or Stacia, they’re going to make sure the kids are going to play hard and keep defense a priority.

“The fundamentals of the sport haven’t changed much.”

With Calvert leading the way now, Jung said the team will work to carry on the defensive-minded tradition.

“We want to win our region games,” he said.

Calvert has former experience as a basketball head coach at Skyview, which the team hopes will help to improve upon a 2-8 season in conference play last year.

Jung said the team has used a system of rotating captains for every game, designating a different player as team captain each night.

“We’ve got some that lead by example, others that are verbal leaders, and others that exhibit leadership other ways,” Jung said. “We’ve got the girls that show other kids the way to lead.”

The core of six returning seniors include Cori Holmes, Alli Steinbeck, Hannah Drury, Alexis Baker, Kelsey Booth and Sarah Every. An infusion of athletic talent from other Kenai sports teams has also joined, including junior soccer striker Lara Creighton, freshman runner Jaycie Calvert and junior volleyball player Abby Beck, who was with the hoops team last year.

The last time the Kenai boys team went to state was 2012, a year that the Kardinals faced the Dimond Lynx in the first game of the big dance. Dimond crushed Kenai to the tune of 61-22 en route to the 4A state title.

Fast forward to Dec. 18 at the Al Howard/Powerade Invitational at SoHi, and the Kards and Lynx taking the floor against each other again, and while Dimond won again, Kenai matched up much closer to its Anchorage foe, holding a slim lead as the contest headed into the fourth quarter.

Kenai coach Ken Felchle said his current collection of players are similar to that 2012 squad.

“The reality is this team is the same from the last two years, it’s just that these guys that were freshmen and sophomores are now juniors and seniors,” Felchle said.

One year ago, the Kards struggled to a 1-9 season in the conference, last among the six teams.

But the 2015 Kardinals look different. Taller? Maybe. The current group stands at an average of an inch taller than the 2014 squad — topped out by 6-foot-5 seniors Garrett Fitt and Connor Johnson — and all but two are juniors or seniors. The only two underclassmen are sophomores Zack Tuttle and Luke Beiser, the latter of which stands at 6-foot-4.

More experienced? Probably. Kenai only lost starting seniors Austin McKee and Jonah Theisen, as well as Kyle Foree and Tanner Wortham. They return everyone else from last year’s varsity.

“We’re blessed with the depth we have, that would be one of our biggest strengths we have,” Felchle said. “We have some size and some guards that can handle the ball.”

Against Dimond on Dec. 18, Kenai found trouble trying to play through the fierce defensive press that the Lynx showed. Felchle said in order to play better offense, the Kards will need to learn to handle such a tough test.

Leading that call to duty will be senior captain Keith Ivy, an experienced guard under Felchle’s leadership, and All-Conference junior Josh Jackman. As one of the leading returners, Jackman is coming into his own as a sharpened skill player. Felchle said two years at the varsity level have sculpted Jackman into a formidable guard.

“For him to be playing juniors and seniors when he was a freshman and sophomore, it’s not fair almost,” Felchle said. “But he’s one of our most matured players on the team.”

As the two tallest players on the team, Fitt has only two previous years of organized basketball under his belt while Johnson has only middle school experience.

Rounding out the senior class is forward Taylor Landry, sharpshooter forward Marshall Vest and forward Austin Brazell.

SOLDOTNA STARS

The SoHi boys are on the opposite end of the scale from the Kenai boys and could be looking at a rebuilding year.

After finishing third in the conference last season with a 5-5 record, the Stars have lost nearly their entire varsity lineup. Senior guard Dylan Kuntz is the lone returning member of the 2014 SoHi squad that missed out on a chance to go to state with consecutive losses to Colony and Palmer in the region tournament.

“We have a long ways to come, but this is a great group of kids,” coach Mark Tuter said.

Tuter said both parts of SoHi’s game are currently unproductive, with the offense and defense giving up too many fouls and rebounds, but with Kuntz leading the way, Tuter believes the rate of improvement will be fast.

Kuntz is known primarily as a perimeter attacker, a sharpshooter who can erase a deficit in a matter of minutes.

Standing at 6-foot-5, senior guard Griffen Casey is almost 4 inches taller than a year ago. Casey will join Kuntz and forward Adrian Gomez-Dickson as the varsity seniors on the team.

“We want to get to regions and have a shot at state,” Tuter said.

The Stars also experienced a loss of seniors on the girls side. SoHi lost at least four starting seniors from a season ago, but a few juniors and sophomores have returned to mitigate the damage.

Among the returning varsity starters are seniors Daisy Nelson and Lindsey Wong, the latter of which was an All-Conference player in 2014. Coach Kyle McFall said he will be relying heavily on Wong and Nelson, but he is also looking for players to step up and shoulder the load.

“That doesn’t mean (Wong and Nelson) should take every shot,” McFall said. “It can be tough to put every player in the system.”

After finishing fourth in the conference last year, McFall said the expectations are within reason to be peaking at the NLC tournament and win some games, but the team must stay realistic as well.

“We’re expecting some growing pains along the way,” McFall said. “But once those freshmen adjust and figure out the varsity game, I think we’ll be competitive in our region.”

McFall currently has three freshmen listed in the varsity lineup, including twin sisters Danica and Aliann Schmidt and Brittani Blossom, daughter of assistant coach Doug Blossom and sister of former University of Alaska Anchorage guard Boomer Blossom. Another family appearance is that of Melia Miller, who is 2015 SoHi graduate Haley Miller’s younger sister.

The team is also welcoming the additions of Kendra Brush and Danielle Hills, both of whom have extended experience with the Cook Inlet Academy girls team at the 1A level. Brush won a state title with CIA in 2013, and is the tallest SoHi member at 5-foot-11.

The SoHi offensive system, which relies on a great deal of ball movement, can sometimes be tough to learn in a short amount of time, but McFall said he has faith his less experienced players will fit into the system well.

“We sometimes get to ball watching, and we just watch Lindsey go, and that can lead to trouble,” McFall said.

Ben Boettger/Peninsula Clarion Kenai basketball player Sarah Every scans the court for an open team mate during a game again South Anchorage High School on Friday, Dec. 18 at Kenai Central High School.

Ben Boettger/Peninsula Clarion Kenai basketball player Sarah Every scans the court for an open team mate during a game again South Anchorage High School on Friday, Dec. 18 at Kenai Central High School.

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