The path to the Class 4A state basketball tournament for the Kenai Central and Soldotna girls and boys basketball teams at the Northern Lights Conference tournament at Palmer High School is easy to say, hard to do.
Simply put, the squads must beat their Kenai Peninsula rivals today, then beat Wasilla in Friday’s semifinals to earn one of the two state berths available in the girls and boys tournament.
In Winning Percentage Index totals released Wednesday, the Kenai girls were 13th, the SoHi girls were 15th, the SoHi boys were 13th and the Kenai boys were 14th, meaning none has a chance of being one of two girls teams and two boys teams qualifying for state based on WPI.
Qualifying at the NLC tourney will be tough. Although the SoHi boys and Kenai girls have swept their archrivals this year, the games have been relatively close and hard-fought. Today’s winner will then have to beat either the Wasilla girls or boys, both the No. 1 seeds and both with perfect records against peninsula schools this season.
The Soldotna boys come into the tourney as the No. 4 seed after finishing 5-5 in the league, while the Kards are No. 5 after finishing 3-7. The squads face off at 4:45 p.m. today.
The Stars defeated Kenai 57-49 in mid-January and 47-42 on Saturday.
“We match up pretty well with them,” Soldotna coach Mark Tuter said. “It’s tough to beat a quality team three times in a row, though I think we have a good chance.”
In Saturday’s game, SoHi used pressure to pull off a second-half comeback.
“We got better flow in the second half,” Tuter said. “In the first half, we were pretty stagnant.
“We had to apply pressure for us to start playing better. We were too passive to begin with.”
Of course, head coach Ken Felchle and the Kardinals have now spent a week working on breaking that pressure.
“Maybe the third time’s a charm,” Felchle said. “We had the formula for the first half of the last game. We just have to make sure we carry it out.”
While Tuter said a flu bug has pretty much finished working its way through the team, the Kardinals have several injury concerns. Leading scorer Josh Jackman is battling a sprained ankle and played for a quarter and a half Saturday. Senior captain Marshall Vest also sprained an ankle Saturday.
“Two of our probably best players are not feeling their best,” Felchle said.
The survivor of today’s battle feels good about a Friday test against Wasilla. The Warriors beat SoHi 52-29 on Jan. 16 in Wasilla and 42-31 on Feb. 19 in Soldotna. Wasilla also topped Kenai 55-29 on Jan. 9 in Wasilla and 42-36 on Feb. 20 at Kenai.
“We’ve both got a shot,” Felchle said. “It wouldn’t be the greatest upset in the world.”
Both coaches said the tough task ahead will require not just great performances from three or four players, but more like eight or nine.
“We have played (Wasilla) well here,” Tuter said. “If we can rebound a little bit more and be a little more efficient on offense, I hope we can give them a good game and score an upset.”
The Kenai girls defeated Soldotna 38-25 on Jan. 12 and 32-30 on Saturday. The Kards are the No. 4 seed at 4-6, while the Stars are No. 5 at 2-8. The rematch tips at 3 p.m. today.
“I would rather NOT have a third matchup with SoHi but it is a fun game for us and hopefully it will be as competitive as it has been the first two games,” Kenai head coach Cary Calvert wrote in an email.
Calvert wrote that Abby Beck, Brooke Satathite and Bethany Coghill will be missed, but that the Kardinals should do OK without them.
The only injury concern for the Stars is senior Sylvia Tuisaula, who has been gutting it out on a torn anterior cruciate ligament all season.
“Kenai is always a tough, physical game,” McFall wrote in an email. “They play tremendous defense and hit timely shots.
“We have to be smarter in this game. On Saturday, we got into foul trouble early, which really hurt us. We need to be able to match their physicality without picking up the silly fouls.”
Both teams are aware what awaits if they pull out a victory today. Kenai lost to Wasilla 60-11 and 62-24 this season, while the Stars fell 58-28 and 62-25.
“Beating anyone in regionals takes a great team effort and whether it’s us or SoHi facing Wasilla is VERY, VERY difficult, but we will worry about that later,” Calvert wrote.
McFall wrote that all the Stars can do is have seniors Daisy Nelson and Lindsey Wong spearhead an efficient offense, stay aggressive on defense and see what happens.
“Wasilla is the best team in the state,” he wrote. “They play lockdown defense and present a matchup nightmare on offense. Everyone scores for them, you can’t just focus on a couple of players.”
Palmer High School will be streaming all games from the tournament at thecube.com/e/624142.