In the months following their agonizingly close overtime loss to Wasilla in the Northern Lights Conference basketball semifinals, Kenai Central boys coach Ken Felchle has had a lot of time to process what happened and what the Kardinals could have done differently to punch their ticket to the state tournament.
Amidst the offseason reflection, Felchle realized an interesting factoid; only four times since 1992 has the boys Northern Lights Conference championship game featured Kenai or Soldotna. Each of them has made two appearances, but the trend is a disturbing one to Felchle.
With a school population that is close to half of what most other Class 4A schools have, Kenai Central is already at a disadvantage with about 450 kids. Even Soldotna, which hovers around 750, is well below the enrollments of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley schools, which rank over 1,000 students.
With a larger student base to choose from, team sports like basketball will naturally be more competitive, and the peninsula schools are struggling to keep up.
“I look at last year’s team and think, we really close to making it to the championship at regions,” Felchle said. “We were up by four (points) in the Wasilla game, with about two and a half minutes to go, and Josh (Jackman) tweaks his ankle. But we were that close.”
In their pursuit of a state appearance, the Kenai and SoHi girls teams haven’t fared much better in recent years. The SoHi girls last made a state appearance in 2014, and the Kenai girls haven’t been to state since 2002.
Among peninsula schools, the good seasons are often marked by a class of juniors or seniors that have developed well through the hoops program, starting in middle school. Once a deep team, such as the 2013-14 SoHi girls, loses a core of starting seniors, it’s often a case of back to the drawing board for coaches.
Last year, the Palmer Moose won the NLC boys title with a win over Wasilla, while the Wasilla girls claimed another NLC crown with a victory over Colony. Both championship finals were all-Valley affairs.
“Wasilla is great, and they’re going to be great forever, they’re not going anywhere,” said Kenai girls coach Cary Calvert.
NLC tournament hosted at Kodiak this year March 9 to 11. The top two teams — the region championship contestants — get automatic bids to state, while additional NLC teams could qualify on two at-large spots determined by the WPI.
So how can peninsula schools break the slump? The following is a closer look at how the teams stack up:
Last year, with Mark Tuter heading up the coaching effort, the SoHi boys finished fourth in the NLC with a 5-5 mark.
While the Stars are getting a new coach to lead the charge this year, the face will be a familiar one.
Nolan Rose enters his first stint as head coach of the Soldotna boys, but he’s been wrapped up in the Stars program for the two previous seasons, first as the C-team coach and then as the JV coach.
“It’s nothing new, I’m just moving up a level,” Rose said. “We’re still practicing the same way we’ve been practicing.”
Rose, who played a season of college basketball at Lower Columbia College in Longview, Washington, said he has had the gyms open all summer long for the players, and while coaching lessons are not allowed until hoops season officially starts, he’s challenged the team with several pickup games, along with other members of the coaching staff.
“Honestly, watching it for two hours isn’t very fun,” he said. “I’m geared towards how I like to play.”
Rose said the Stars learned a lot after finishing with two wins and a loss at the recent Al Howard/Powerade tournament at SoHi. Rose teaches his squads a man-to-man defense, but against Eagle River, Ninilchik and Mt. Edgecumbe, SoHi saw a variety of zone defenses.
“But in our league, you see man defenses,” Rose explained. “And to beat the Valley schools, you’ve got to score against man defense.”
Rose added that he hasn’t made any major changes from the systems that Tuter used the previous two years, but has simply made minor tweaks in order to tune up a different team.
Five seniors gone from last year’s squad, including starters Dylan Kuntz and Griffin Casey, as well as bench player Timmy Smithwick, who was one of the team’s top shooters, but the Stars are loaded with juniors, while featuring just one senior, Kyle Marcuson.
“It’s a lot of older bodies leaving the program, but talent wise, I don’t know if we’re worse off,” Rose said.
With Smithwick out of the picture, however, Rose did not deny that scoring will have to be replaced by others.
The current starting lineup will feature a pair of experienced junior guards in Eli Sheridan and Caleb Spence, junior forwards Wendell Tuisaula and Sam McElroy and junior post Derek Evans. Rose said Sheridan and Spence will be forced into more prominent roles this year in terms of scoring. Tuisaula and McElroy are making their varsity starting debuts this year.
Other key figures expected to make an impact off the bench include Brandon Crowder, who is still nursing a football injury, Luke Trammell, Michael Reutov and David Michael.
The SoHi girls finished fifth in the NLC last year with a 2-8 record, and coach Kyle McFall returns for a third year with the Stars.
Soldotna lost several key starters to graduation, including 2016 NLC tournament first-team player Lindsey Wong and second-teamer Daisy Nelson, as well as forward Sylvia Tuisaula, making for a younger team that is split between upper and underclassmen.
Returning members include junior Melia Miller, sophomore Brittani Blossom, junior Hannah Wells and the Schmidt sisters, Aliann and Danica, two sophomores who were named to the All-tournament team at the recent Kenai River Challenge. Blossom also proved her shooting skills with a 3-point contest triumph.
The lone seniors on the team, Abi Tuttle and Abby Kruse, both have varsity experience.
Ituau Tuisaula, the only freshman on the team, is also expected to bring power to the team. Tuisaula played a pivotal role as outside hitter with the SoHi volleyball team this season.
The Kenai boys improved upon a one-win NLC season two years ago with a 3-7 conference mark last year, which left the Kardinals fifth in the NLC.
In last year’s NLC semifinal game against Wasilla, the Kardinal boys were leading 46-44 with 2 1-2 minutes to go, but an ankle injury befell guard Josh Jackman, who had to be taken out of the game.
With one of Kenai’s quickest guards out, the Kards fell in overtime to the Warriors, wiping away their chance to go to state.
“I’m still thinking about it,” Kards coach Ken Felchle said. “There were key things in that game, I think of plays we could’ve called in that situation. I even drew up a play that would’ve worked a week later, and I called my captain, Marshall (Vest) up and told him, this would’ve worked.
“But his response was, we had a good look at the rim, we had a shot.”
Felchle said the loss of several starting seniors from last year’s deep squad will make the going tough this year. Overall, Kenai lost Garrett Fitt, Taylor Landry, Keith Ivy, Marshall Vest, Conner Johnson and Austin Brazell, four of which started on varsity.
Kenai also dropped a few inches, as Fitt and Johnson were both the tallest players on the team at 6-foot-5.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever coached a team as deep as last year,” he said.
However, while the squad may not have the same depth, there are certain leaders that return, most notably Jackman, who enters his senior campaign.
“There were times I could play 10 to 11 guys, and right now, we consistently play seven,” Felchle said. “That has to increase, so I’m challenging our guys on our JV team to step up.”
Joining Jackman on the starting lineup will be senior forward Tristan Landry, senior guard Kalvin Daniels, senior forward Nick Beeson and junior center Luke Beiser. All five players have varying levels of varsity experience. Landry and Beiser have starting experience from last season.
Coming off the bench will be senior forward Avery Heiber, who Felchle calls his sixth man on the team.
With Jackman leading the way, Felchle said he believes his Kardinals can find their way back into the state tournament for the first time since 2012.
“I told Josh, one consolation for me every year is he’s going to be back,” Felchle said. “After this year, it won’t be, so let’s make the most of this year.”
Under first-year coach Cary Calvert, the 2015 Kenai girls finished fourth in the NLC at 4-6, then lost to peninsula rival Soldotna in the NLC tournament on the first day, ending their state hopes and continuing a now 14-year state drought.
To make matters worse, the Kards lost a crucial senior class that featured 2016 NLC tournament first-team player Alli Steinbeck and second-teamer Hannah Drury. Other significant losses include Cori Holmes, Alexis Baker, Kelsey Booth, Sarah Every and Jacey Ross.
However, coach Calvert is bringing back a former Kardinal to help out on the coaching staff, 2012 Kenai graduate Morgan Wensley. Calvert said Kenai stalwart Craig Jung is back, along with new member Jacob Songer.
“I’d say we’re trying to figure ourselves out right now,” Calvert said. “We have good leadership and our returning starters, Abby Beck and Lara Creighton, have good leadership. I like how they work.”
Calvert said Creighton and Beck, both seniors, have taken up the leadership role quite nicely, along with sophomore Brooke Satathite, which will be handy for a team that otherwise does not feature a lot of varsity experience. Creighton unfortunately bowed out of the recent Kenai River Challenge tournament with an ankle injury, and Calvert said she will be returning later in the season.
Beck and Creighton were both starters last year, while Satathite received minutes off the bench as a freshman. Now a sophomore, Satathite’s role will take a big leap, Calvert said.
“Lara, Brooke and Abby are going to have to carry us,” he said. “If we can control the boards, we can be in games. That’s where Lara will have to big.”
Other current players making their debut as starting members include sophomore Jaycie Calvert and senior Bethany Coghill, who Calvert described as a defensive stalwart.
Getting minutes off the bench will be seniors Rebecca Miller and Julie Wilson, as well as junior Lexy Carrasco.