Rare is it that a sports team comes along with the ability to dominate its competition to a degree that the outcome is a near guarantee.
The Ninilchik boys basketball team is about as close as it gets, and for a while Saturday, it seemed the only thing standing between the Wolverines and a second straight Class 1A boys championship was divine intervention.
Rocking a double-digit lead for all but two minutes of the contest, Ninilchik captured its second straight prep hoops crown under the bright lights at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, defeating the Gambell Qughsatkut in a dominant 79-39 title victory.
The repeat championship comes a year after Ninilchik won its first boys title in a thrilling overtime showdown against peninsula rival Nikolaevsk, and it extends the streak of 1A state boys champions to three years, adding to the title Seldovia won in 2015.
In winning its 37th straight game against 1A competition, Ninilchik capped a dominating two years of prep hoops with a lopsided show.
“We definitely knew it was over before it started,” said senior point guard Tyler Presley.
“It was a gut feeling,” added senior Austin White. “We were going to come out and take care of business.”
The Wolverines had good reason to be confident. Presley and 6-foot-8 big man White played crucial roles in getting Ninilchik to consecutive titles, but it also came from the impressive depth that the rest of the team provided. There are simply too many scoring threats that opponents have to watch.
Senior Dalton Geppert received player of the game honors for leading the Wolverines with 24 points on a red-hot start. Geppert hit three corner 3s in the first 97 seconds from the opening tip, then added a fast break layup and a fourth 3-pointer to finish with an outrageous 16 points in the first quarter.
“He was hot, so I kept throwing it to him,” Presley said.
Geppert, who was 5 for 9 from downtown in the first half, joined Presley and White on the 1A boys all-tournament team. White finished with 23 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks, while Presley had 12 points and six boards.
Ninilchik quickly streaked out to a 15-0 lead, then pushed it to 26-2 in the first quarter. Head coach Nick Finley, the architect of the team, said after two close wins over Aniak and Shaktoolik in the first two days of the tournament, his team finally learned to settle down and play their style of basketball. It resulted in two lopsided victories over Buckland in the semis and Gambell in the final.
“They’ve played so long with each other, they know where the others are (on the court),” Finley said. “And everyone (on opposing teams) are so focused on Austin, they don’t realize how good the others are.”
Senior and team captain Matt Bartolowits is one of several Ninilchik players that can easily go unnoticed behind the trio of White, Presley and Geppert. Born and raised in Ninilchik, Bartolowits said he did not expect the kind of success the Wolverines have experienced over the past two seasons.
“Our freshman year, I knew we’d get better,” Bartolowits said. “What really helps is we’re the same age.”
Bartolowits, who Finley called an unsung hero, scored nine points Saturday on 4-of-6 shooting, and grabbed five boards as well.
No doubt the current Ninilchik boys contingent is a special one, as 37 straight wins over 1A opponents will attest, but what makes the squad a true rarity is the depth. At the small-schools level that is Class 1A hoops, most teams typically feature one or two stars, but the 2016-17 Ninilchik boys are a complete five-star squad.
The majority of Ninilchik’s lineup have played with each other since grade school, with the exception of White, who moved to Alaska after growing up in Meridian, Idaho.
“At this level, to be successful, all you need to do is put in the time and effort in the offseason,” Finley said.
After discovering a 6-foot-8 star had moved to the diminutive community of Ninilchik with his family in 2012, Finley quickly set to work constructing what turned out to be a juggernaut.
And, with no other sports save for a spring track season, basketball is one of the only sports that Ninilchik’s students know.
Saturday afternoon was a shining example of what can happen when hard work and effort and happenstance collide.
By halftime, Ninilchik had staked out a 34-13 lead, helped by 48 percent shooting from the floor, compared to a meager 20 percent by Gambell.
Gambell’s Wallace Ungwiluk proved to be the only member of the Qughsatkut with which Ninilchik had difficulty. Ungwiluk led Gambell with 25 points.
Ungwiluk posted a pair of treys in the third quarter, but the long shots would be about all Gambell could find on offense, especially with White in the post. A 6-0 run early in the third quarter extended Ninilchik’s lead, and a 3-pointer by White at the top of the fourth quarter proved to doubters that the Wolverines were deadly from any spot on the floor, no matter who was shooting.
A 10-0 run midway through the fourth quarter sealed a victory that was already decided in the minds of Ninilchik’s players.
Finley pulled his senior starters in the final minute, and when the final buzzer sounded, the Wolverines began exchanging high-fives in a rather orderly procedure while the Ninilchik crowd clustered behind the bench roared in approval.
“We planned on winning state this year, and last year was just a year early,” Finley said. “These guys came here expecting to do this.”
Wolverines 79, Qughsatkut 39
Ninilchik 26 8 20 25 — 79
Gambell 4 9 16 10 — 39
NINILCHIK (79) — Adams 0 0-0 0, Presley 5 2-6 12, Koch 4 2-2 11, Geppert 9 0-0 24, Clark 0 0-0 0, Bartolowits 4 0-0 9, Mumey 0 0-0 0, McGinnis 0 0-0 0, White 9 4-5 23. Totals 31 8-13 79.
GAMBELL (39) — Tungiyan 0 0-0 0, Aningayou 1 0-0 2, A. Appassingok 0 0-0 0, W. Ungwiluk 10 2-2 25, S. Appassingok 2 0-0 4, Campbell 1 0-0 2, S. Ungwiluk 0 0-0 0, Koonooka 0 0-0 0, C. Appasingok 0 0-0 0, Iworrigan 0 0-0 0, Aningayou 0 0-0 0, Apangalook 3 0-0 6. Totals 17 2-2 39.
3-point goals — Ninilchik 9 (Geppert 6, Koch 1, Bartolowits 1, White 1); Gambell 3 (W. Ungwiluk 3).