Northern Lights season preview: Kenai and SoHi look to make it big

The history between Kenai Central and Soldotna is long and filled with memories, but the two basketball teams that represent the schools may need a refresher course regarding the rivalry.

The two Peninsula teams in the Northern Lights Conference could hardly be more different entering the 2014-15 season. On one hand, Kenai returns both head coaches on the boys and girls side, as well as most of its starting lineups from a year ago. On the other hand, Soldotna features a revamped lineup as well as two different faces at the head coaching spot from a year ago.

The Kardinals return boys coach Ken Felchle and girls coach Stacia Rustad, while the Stars will see a familiar face return to prominence and a new one start a new era.

Former longtime SoHi girls coach Mark Tuter takes over the boys varsity with aspirations of returning as a state contender and a region champion, while former Skyview girls coach Kyle McFall takes over the reigns for Doug Blossom in his first year in the Stars organization.

The ability for the Stars and the Kards to load up against conference opponents Colony, Wasilla, Palmer and Kodiak will be tested this year. With Anchorage teams getting a large chunk of attention concerning state championship favorites, the Northern Lights conference has slowly and quietly become one of the hotbeds for talented basketball teams. The Colony Knights and Wasilla Warriors have both made runs in the 4A state tournament in recent years, while Soldotna’s famous moment came in the 2009 boys title game, an overtime loss to Dimond.

Felchle tabbed Colony as the favorite to win the Northern Lights Conference, with Kodiak also getting a nod.

“Up in camp this summer, I don’t think I’ve ever seen them that good and that deep,” Felchle said. “They will be the favorite in the region.”

The past four state champions on the girls side have come from the Northern Lights conference, and Rustad believes that the Wasilla girls — winners of three straight state titles from 2011 to 2013 – will be back up to par after a down season a year ago.

“I think (coach) Jeannie (Hebert-Truax) has them back up and running,” Rustad said.

The following is a closer look at the Peninsula squads:

SOLDOTNA STARS

Mark Tuter takes over for Matt Johnson, who helped guide the 2009 SoHi boys to the 4A state championship final.

Tuter, although seeing his first action as a boys head coach, is by no means new to the school. Tuter was involved in coaching the Soldotna girls for close to 20 years — including a state title in 1993 as an assistant to head coach Dan Gensel — prior to taking a back seat as an assistant for the boys a few years ago.

Tuter said the biggest difference between coaching boys and girls comes not in how they play, but how they react on the bench.

“It’s still coaching but there’s a big difference in how you relate to them and deal with them,” Tuter said.

Dealing with the SoHi boys may be an easier task this year. Of the 13 listed varsity members, 12 are upperclassmen.

“We’re an explosive team,” Tuter described.

Senior Nate Spence, a four-year player for the team, said with such a prominent number of seniors taking up the starting lineup, the drive to win is overwhelming.

“I think one thing that feels different is being a senior,” Spence said after the Stars’ season opener against CIA on Dec. 13. “You have a bigger sense of urgency. We have seven seniors, I think, so the whole team is feeling that.”

Tuter added that if outside shots are not falling, there are players who can get points from down low in the post, players such as Joe Weltzin — a 6-foot-3 senior from Washington — and senior Drew Fowler.

Spence and Weltzin have combined as a dynamic duo in early season action, while seniors Brooks Furlong, Hunter Phillips, Matt Trammell and juniors Dylan Kuntz and Drew Gibbs have added crucial depth.

The lone player from Skyview that made the varsity squad is senior Tim Duke, who played a big role in the Stars’ win over Palmer on the second day of the Al Howard tournament. Duke adds speed and agility to the equation, which brings the Stars to a full house of talent.

Tuter said a top-two finish in the region is what the Stars are after this season, and Colony is still the top team to fight if they hope to do so.

“That’s a realistic goal for us,” Tuter said. “If the cards fall right and we get hot at the right time, we can do it.”

Tuter said he is still trying to establish an identity for the team, but for the time being believes that the Stars are a “running team.”

“I think we’re an aggressive team,” Tuter said. “I know we’re an athletic team.”

For those who think the Soldotna boys have changed over the offseason, one only needs to look at the Soldotna girls to get a sense of a real change-up.

Kyle McFall takes over for Doug Blossom as head coach, who oversaw two state tournament bids for SoHi in his term.

McFall won his debut with the team — a win over Cook Inlet Academy — but then saw the Stars drop a close matchup with Homer on the opening day of the Kenai River Challenge. McFall explained that it has become a process of introducing a different style of play to the team, trying to get them to work in a motion offense, which relies on passing and screens.

“They’re picking it up, it’s just gonna take some time,” McFall said.

McFall is also working with a few players from his days as a coach at Skyview High, players such as seniors Hayley Ramsell and Joanne Glaves, and junior Jacy Rouse.

“They fit in nicely with the team that was here already,” McFall said. “But it is a new group, and I’m excited about this group. They work really hard.”

Ramsell has already made an impact for the Stars, regularly becoming the team’s top scorer in the first few games of the new season, and standing at six feet tall, it’s not difficult to see why. Along with Ramsell, key members have included returning starter Haley Miller, Skylar Shaw and Kelsey Jackson, all seniors. Miller was a part of last year’s Soldotna team that finished fourth at the 4A state tournament.

McFall said that the volleyball team — which received former Skyview coach Sheila Kupferschmid as a coach this year — helped to mix things up and get any chemistry issues quickly out of the way. It’s made his transition easier to SoHi that much easier.

“A lot of these girls know each other from volleyball, and have been a part of successful teams before,” he said.

KENAI KARDINALS

Ken Felchle returns to lead the Kenai boys, and will be getting a helping hand on the bench with assistant coaches Jesse Settlemyer, Chris Hanson and Cary Calvert, all of whom hold previous head-coaching experience. Settlemyer made the jump as the last Skyview boys head coach, Hanson comes in with experience as the SoHi boys coach and Calvert comes in as a former Skyview girls coach.

“I got really lucky this year that Jesse was interested in coming to Kenai,” Felchle said. “Every one of us has been a head coach on the Peninsula, and I am extremely lucky and fortunate to have them.

“Having those coaches is like drawing the number one draft pick.”

Another reason why Felchle is feeling lucky is the fact that most of the team that went through last year’s campaign is back. Sophomore Josh Jackman and seniors Jonah Theisen and Austin McKee headline the offensive set with juniors Keith Ivy and Taylor Landry serving as power forwards. And if they need a bigger post presence, Felchle can add six-foot-4 junior Garrett Fitt into the mix.

With a steady rotation of ten players on the bench keeping the starters fresh, the Kards may be primed for a comeback year. There’s just one thing that Kenai may need to figure out.

“We’ve got to learn how to win, and sometimes that’s hard,” Felchle said. “You have to fight through the obstacles in your head, like, ‘Here we go again’.”

Felchle brought the Kenai boys to the 2012 state tournament, but the Kards have missed each of the last two years after struggling to rebuild from a loss of a number of key seniors. Felchle said in the past, he has laid out basic goals for the team, such as boxing out more efficiently, playing with purpose and improving every day.

“This year we’ve simplified it even more,” Felchle explained. “I have the kids rate themselves every day on two things. Mental effort and physical effort.”

With the kind of team that is returning, Felchle stated that team chemistry is not lacking in the slightest.

“It’s huge,” he said about the large number of returning players. “It’s huge in their cohesiveness, it’s huge in how they get along, how they play well together. We’re growing up as a team together, and we’re getting better together.”

The Kenai girls may also be looking at a bounceback year.

After struggling to an 0-10 mark in conference play last year, the Kards opened this season with a 76-15 blowout of 1A opponent Lumen Christi in the tournament opener at the Kenai River Challenge in mid-December. The most important thing that victory established is Kenai’s confidence in being able to score.

“We have to learn to score,” said coach Stacia Rustad. “It’s something that we have not done the last two years, and hence why we have lost.

“We have not won many games because we cannot score.”

Since losing several standout players to graduation over the course of 2012 and 2013, the Kards have been able to rely on a stubborn defense to stay in conference games, but defense has only gotten Kenai so far. It’s caused Rustad to make offensive production a point of emphasis in practice this year. Rustad said she would like to see 45 to 50 points on the board every night.

“Our goal this year is to press for 32 minutes, and we have the personnel to do that,” Rustad said. “We want to generate offense from our run-and-jump.”

The two seniors on the team — Hannah Barcus and Allie Ostrander — both return as experienced leaders who can operate an offensive scheme. Supporting Barcus and Ostrander are juniors Hannah Drury, Alli Steinbeck, Alexis Baker and Sarah Every, and sophomore Abby Beck.

With the tallest player listed at 5-foot-8, the Kardinals are facing an uphill battle against powerhouse opponents Colony, Wasilla and Kodiak. But with returning players keeping up a staunch defense and improved offense, a rise to the occasion seems perfectly suited for the Kards.

“We will rely heavily on our seniors’ leadership,” Rustad said. “I think (Ostrander) is one of the best defenders in the state, regardless of her stature. I think she can frustrate any guard in the state and cause them to have an off-night.

“Barcus is the player that does the little things for me and does the dirty work.”

Kenai will face the Homer Mariners on Tuesday, before diving into the bulk of its conference schedule with away games against Kodiak Jan. 2 and 3.

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