The task before the Peninsula Conference, and all of Class 1A boys basketball for that matter, was neatly summed up on the opening weekend of tournaments.
The Nikolaevsk boys, the Peninsula Conference and Class 1A runner-up last season, lost to the Soldotna junior varsity boys 60-53 at the Cook Inlet Classic on Dec. 15.
The very next day, the Ninilchik boys, the defending Peninsula Conference and Class 1A champs, defeated Soldotna’s varsity 39-37 at the Al Howard/Powerade Tip-Off.
“They’re a clear favorite,” Nikolaevsk boys coach Steve Klaich, back for his 28th year, said of the Wolverines. “They lost one starter that was an important piece of that team, but they have the core of the team back and they’ll be the team to beat not just in the conference but statewide.”
Ninilchik senior Austin White, a 6-foot-8 center who has committed to the University of Alaska Anchorage, returns to try and reprise his role as state tournament MVP.
Fellow senior Tyler Presley also was on the all-tournament team at state, and seniors Matt Bartolowits and Dalton Geppert also bring loads of experience to the table.
Things came together quickly in head coach Nick Finley’s fifth year. The Wolverines went undefeated in the conference, won their first conference title since 2002 to earn their first state berth since 2010, and then defeated Nikolaevsk 41-37 in overtime for the school’s first boys state title.
“We just tried to have a strong offseason and build upon what we had going,” Finley said. “We were far from perfect last year.
“We have a lot of things to work on. We were just fortunate to be playing good at the right time.”
Finley said there is no way his team is assuming smooth sailing through the conference, much less state.
“It’s not going to be easy for us to do it, but I think we’re capable of doing it,” Finley said.
Nikolaevsk lost three starters from last season, when the Warriors earned their third straight trip to state.
But Klaich has high hopes for a team that will be led by senior Nikit Fefelov, an all-conference and all-conference tournament performer from a year ago.
“I think we should have a good, solid team, but I don’t know who’d I’d pencil in for the No. 2 spot,” Klaich said. “There are a half-dozen teams that are fairly even.
“It’s going to be who works hardest and stays healthy.”
After taking last season off, Cook Inlet Academy returns with a boys team.
The Eagles have three state titles to their credit and first-year head coach Ryan McMilin has two experienced seniors in Noah Leaf and Brady Hammond.
“We’re going to take it one game at a time and look to grow,” McMilin said. “We’ll then put everything into the region tournament.
“We’ll see what a bunch of young players can do behind senior leadership.”
One conference stalwart that will be noticeably absent is Seldovia, which won a state title in 2015. Head coach Mark Janes reports there was not enough interest in the student body for a boys or girls team.
Meanwhile, Nanwalek boys head coach Kevin Seville lost two starters and will field a team of sophomores, freshmen and eighth-graders.
“A strength I see for our program is overall participation giving our program depth it has been lacking,” Seville wrote in an email. “A weakness for our program is being such a young developing group of student athletes.”
On the girls side, the Peninsula Conference saw a shuffling at the top last season.
The Ninilchik girls defeated Nikolaevsk in the conference championship for a 15th Peninsula Conference title, but a first in seven years.
After the season, Rod Van Saun stepped down after seven seasons at the helm and handed the program to Josh Demlow, a boys assistant the past two seasons.
Demlow said he is fortunate to inherit a program with eight state titles to its credit, and one that Van Saun left stocked.
“This program has a lot of history of winning, and I expect to continue that and be held accountable,” Demlow said.
The Wolverines will be led by junior Olivia Delgado and sophomore DeeAnn White, who made the all-conference and all-conference tournament teams last season.
Nikolaevsk girls coach Bea Klaich got her 11th season off to a good start by defeating the Wolverines 30-27 at the Cook Inlet Classic.
The Warriors are on a run of five straight appearances at state. Last year, Nikolaevsk had a run of three straight conference titles snapped.
Leading the way this season will be senior Vera Fefelov, an all-conference and all-conference tournament performer last season.
Klaich said the fate of her young team will be determined by improvement over the course of the season.
Girls coaches are wary of teams from the north like Lumen Christi, but one conference colossus out of the picture is Cook Inlet Academy.
The Eagles, the 2013 state champs, had a run of nine straight state appearances snapped last season and did not have enough players for a team this season.
The following is a closer look at the Peninsula Conference teams of the Kenai Peninsula:
Cook Inlet Academy boys
McMilin is a 2006 Skyview High School graduate who played hoops at the school for four years, two years on varsity.
He said he planned to get into coaching as his son started playing basketball, but his friend, Karl Straume, told him about the CIA opportunity and he couldn’t pass it up.
“I have no experience coaching,” McMilin said. “This is my first shot at it.”
That’s why McMilin, who went 1-2 on his opening weekend at the Cook Inlet Classic, is glad to have experienced players in Leaf and Hammond.
“I’m leaning on them a lot,” McMilin said.
The coach also is happy to have nine players on the roster, a number that gives the team cushion as it starts anew.
Sophomores Hunter Moos and Ben Grossl, and freshman Robert Walsh, also started for CIA at the Classic.
But McMilin said he is counting on the whole roster, which includes sophomores Jiabao Leaf, James Anderson and John Peterson, and freshman Lucas Cragg.
“I’ve just got a really young team of guys willing to learn,” McMilin said.
After losing two seniors to graduation, Seville said his squad will be led by a trio of sophomores.
“Uriah Huntsman will hold down the middle while Isaiah Bales and Johnathan Jimmy will apply pressure in the front court,” Seville wrote.
The squad also will include three freshmen and two eighth-graders. The Nanwalek squad also will include two players from Port Graham.
With two eighth-graders, six freshmen, one sophomore, two juniors and a senior, Bea Klaich said the Warriors have plenty of room to improve.
“Probably the best word to describe the team is young with a capital Y,” Klaich said.
And Fefelov, the lone senior, really isn’t a senior. She just overachieves off the court, as well, and is due to graduate a year early.
“She’s already embraced mentoring the young girls,” Klaich said. “She’s really great with them.”
Junior Kristin Klaich also saw some time as a starter last season.
Other starters will be freshmen Elizabeth Fefelov, Markiana Yakunin and Justina Fefelov.
Klaich also expects bench help from Sarafima Mametieff and Chelsea Johnson.
“I think they’re going to improve by leaps and bounds judging by their attitude and willingness to work hard,” Klaich said. “I’m excited to see what they’ll do.”
In addition to Fefelov, junior Kelenik Molodih returns as a starter.
“We had a bunch of seniors graduate last year, so there’s going to be holes to fill,” Steve Klaich said. “We have two returning starters and some young kids coming in doing a really good job right now.”
Fefelov and Molodih are both quick guards. The Warriors get height from 6-4 junior center Anfim Kalugin. Klaich said Kalugin is not as quick as White on the perimeter, but said Kalugin does give an inside presence.
The remaining two starters will be sophomore Michael Trail and freshman Zachary Trail.
Providing depth will be juniors Sergey Yakunin and John Jones.
Klaich said the three straight state appearances and the near miss in the state title game have had an effect.
“I think they are really motivated because there is an expectation now of where they want to be at the end of the year,” he said. “It takes work ethic to get to that point, and we had a bunch of kids at camp working hard and showing they understand what it takes to get back to state.”
It’s always easier to be the man after the man after the man.
Van Saun was replacing Dan Leman, who won eight state titles from 1996 to 2006 and finished third or better in the state in 16 of his 18 seasons.
Demlow comes in with nine seasons of basketball coaching experience, and also has coached track, football and cross-country.
In addition to Delgado and White, Demlow will start senior center Mikayla Clark, and sophomores Isabella Koch and Jodie Kain.
A deep roster of 11 players will battle for the rest of the minutes.
“Whoever shows me they can come in and bring energy and go after loose balls, that person will get more minutes,” Demlow said. “It could be any of the six.”
Demlow said he has changed everything on offense and defense, but he’s confident the team will adjust.
Ninilchik does not have an athletic director, so Finley did the scheduling himself.
He made sure to challenge his team by putting tournaments at 4A Soldotna and Kodiak and 3A Seward on the schedule.
“I think every game on the schedule is a game in which we can compete,” Finley said. “I don’t think it’s unheard of that we could upset some of the bigger schools.”
Finley said that before the Wolverines went to Soldotna and took down the Stars.
One big reason is White, who averaged 19 points and 15 rebounds. This season, Finley doesn’t think 20-20 games are too much to ask of his big man.
But as the Stars found out, the Wolverines are more than White. Presley provided the difference against Soldotna with 17 points.
And Soldotna coach Nolan Rose was also very complimentary of Ninilchik’s role and bench players after the game, saying that is the area where 4A schools typically beat 1A schools. But Rose said his squad found no big holes on the floor to exploit.
Presley said Bartolowits put in a ton of time this summer with the aim of having a great senior year, and Geppert took a similar tact.
Additional depth comes from senior Levi Adams, sophomores JD Mumey and Garrett Koch, junior Robert McGinnis and freshman Jake Clark.
Presley said the biggest challenge may be making up for the grit of the graduated Pat Brandt.
“He didn’t score a lot of points, but 50-50 balls for him were more like 80-20,” Finley said. “Talking in the locker room after the state championship, I said everybody needs to step up because a huge part of our toughness is gone.”