At the Class 2A, 3A and 4A levels — or those schools 61 students and above — even the best basketball programs will have rebuilding seasons.
At the Class 1A level — or those schools with 60 students or less — even the best programs will have seasons where they can’t even field a team.
The Cook Inlet Academy boys squad, which won state titles in 1999, 2002 and 2005 and reached another state final in 2003, will be dormant this year.
CIA boys coach Justin Franchino stepped down after last season after leading the Eagles to two Peninsula Conference titles in seven years. A team that included Timmy Smithwick, who was conference MVP last season as a junior, dissolved.
“Trying to find a full-time basketball coach for the boys was a bit of a problem,” new CIA girls coach Jennie Hammond said. “Hopefully, we’ll have a boys team next year.”
The departure of CIA makes what would have been a really tough ticket to state on the boys side of the Peninsula Conference merely a tough ticket to state.
The conference gets two state berths, and Seldovia, Nikolaevsk and Ninilchik all figure to be formidable.
Seldovia has won the conference tournament the past two years, finishing third at state in 2014 and winning the 2015 title.
The two main cogs for the Sea Otters — Aidan Philpot and Calem Collier — return for their senior years. Both were first-team all-conference and state all-tournament selections last season, and Philpot was the MVP at the conference tournament.
As high as Seldovia is riding right now, in 1A trouble is never far away. Of the seven players on the team, four are seniors.
“It really doesn’t take much,” Seldovia coach Mark Janes said. “We’ll have to see how the next few years shake out — if we’re able to have a program.
“We’ve got some good athletes coming up, but we don’t have the numbers the next couple of years.”
The Nikolaevsk boys, who have made two straight state appearances, have solved the numbers problem by getting pretty much everybody in the school involved in basketball.
Bea Klaich, the girls coach, said there are 25 kids in the high school and 23 are involved in basketball as players or managers.
When the Nikolaevsk boys went to state two years ago, it snapped a drought that went back to 1997.
But now the program is rolling, with all the players returning from last year’s team. That includes senior Neil Gordeev, who was second-team all-conference and first-team all-conference tournament; junior Nikit Fefelov, who was second-team all-conference and state all-tournament; and senior Felemon Molodih, who was second-team all-conference tournament.
But with Seldovia and Ninilchik scrapping for a state berth, along with unknowns like Wasilla Lake Christian, Birchwood Christian and Lumen Christi, Nikolaevsk coach Steve Klaich is taking nothing for granted.
“I know the kids have high expectations, but I keep trying to get them focused on the immediate future and not have them spending too much time looking down the road,” Klaich said. “Getting to state is going to be tough for everybody.”
Ninilchik returns junior Austin White, who was first-team all-conference and all-tournament, and junior Tyler Presley, who was second-team all-conference.
Ninilchik coach Nick Finley says his team has plenty of talent, led by the 6-foot-8 White. But Seldovia and Nikolaevsk have a confidence that’s key.
“Seldovia is used to winning, and that’ll pay off for them,” Finley said. “Nikolaevsk gets up and down the floor, and they also have plenty of experience on the floor with some fifth-year seniors.”
On the girls side, Cook Inlet Academy and Nikolaevsk have represented the conference at state the past four years.
The Warriors are poised to return to state again, returning four starters. Included in that group is senior Megan Hickman — the conference MVP and a first-team all-tournament performer — and senior Serafima Kalugin — a first-teamer at all-conference and all-tournament.
“Things can change so much in a year,” Nikolaevsk girls coach Bea Klaich said. “If you lose one key senior, things can change dramatically.
“I think all of us lost seniors in the conference.”
Meanwhile, the Eagles have a lot of work to do if they want a 10th-straight state berth.
The only returning starter is senior Richelle McGahan, who missed part of last season with an injury but is healthy this season.
Other than that, Hammond has four freshman, a sophomore and a junior with which to work. The Eagles lost their opening game 41-2 to Ninilchik.
“I would not underestimate Cook Inlet,” Hammond said. “Once we get our confidence level up, we could surprise everybody. The potential is there.”
Ninilchik and Seldovia are hungering for the state berths that have been monopolized by the Eagles and Warriors.
The Wolverines have finished third at the conference tournament three years in a row.
Seventh-year coach Rod Van Saun got his squad to state his first two years, but has waited to return since.
Van Saun said his team has a nice mix of youth and leadership, led by senior captains Jordan Finney and Krista Sinclair, who was second-team all-conference last season.
The youth movement is represented by 6-0 freshman DeeAnn White, who had 10 points in the first game of her career.
“We have really good balance for the first time in the last five years,” Van Saun said. “The girls program is in the best shape it’s been in, in a long time.
“But that’s not saying anything. We have to prove it.”
The Seldovia girls will be led by senior Olivia Turner, a second-team performer at all-conference and all-tournament a year ago. Coach Damara Burnett takes over the Sea Otters this season.
The following is a closer look at the Peninsula squads in the Peninsula Conference:
Cook Inlet Academy girls
The Eagles lost conference coach of the year Kenny Leaf and a host of other players to graduation, transfers and decisions not to play basketball.
Hammond said she has no experience as a basketball coach, and will be learning along with her team.
“We needed a girls basketball coach and I was the only individual who could be full time,” Hammond said.
In addition to McGahan, the team includes junior Tina Kang, sophomore Madeline Carey and freshmen Adara Warren, Anna Cizek, Brianna Hammond and Sydney Erickson.
Coach Hammond said she already saw a lot of improvement in the first game against Ninilchik.
“Our girls are just looking to get better each time they play,” Hammond said. “Little steps, and we’ll get there.”
A lot has changed in the first eight years at the helm for Bea Klaich.
“Five, six years ago even when we did our best during the season, there wasn’t an expectation of going to state,” Klaich said. “Now that definitely has changed.
“The expectation has changed, but they’re still not going to get there unless they work hard.”
In addition to Hickman and Kalugin, returning starters for the Warriors are senior center Nadejda Gordeev and sophomore point guard Vera Fefelov. Senior Feodora Mametieff also returns from injury, but it’s a little early to see if she’ll start.
Nikolaevsk has good depth with 13 on the team, and freshman Chelsea Johnson, sophomore Kristin Klaich and junior Ellena Gordeev also will play key roles.
Bea Klaich said the team is a nice mixture of experience and inexperience. She said the one thing that ties all the players together is solid fundamentals learned in the Nikolaevsk youth program.
“You can’t make up for experience on the high school floor,” Klaich said. “The older girls are doing a great job of mentoring. The older girls have really big hearts.”
Heading into his 26th year, Steve Klaich also has noticed a change in the culture at Nikolaevsk.
“I think they’re even more focused on what they need to do to get to state, and they’ve learned from the past what it takes to get there,” he said. “They’re enjoying that feel of success.”
In addition to Neil Gordeev, Felemon Molodih and Nikit Fefelov, the other two returning starters are senior guard-forward Jonah Fefelov and sophomore guard Kalenik Molodih.
Klaich also will get help down low from senior Greg Trail, sophomore Anfim Kalugin and freshman Michael Trail. More depth comes from junior forward Brian Whaley and sophomore guard Sergey Yakunin.
“They key for us will be to pick up the intensity at the defensive end,” Klaich said. “If we can make that part of the game consistent, our offense will take care of itself.
“We’re deep enough as far as scorers go.”
In addition to Finney and Sinclair, guard Alanna Goins gives the Wolverines a third senior who will have played all four years.
Behind all that experience is potential and depth in sophomore forward Olivia Delgado, junior forward Mikayla Clark, freshmen White and Jodie Kain, and junior Katrina Appelhanz.
Coach Van Saun said his squad is the biggest team in the conference.
“Our strength is caring about each other and coming to practice every day and laying it out there and competing,” Van Saun said.
The Wolverines have eight state titles to their credit, but the last one came in 2006. Van Saun said the team must learn to win the big games again.
“We didn’t show up at regions last year, and they know that,” Van Saun said. “We just have to come into practice every day and compete like we want to get to state and see if that turns the tide.”
Entering his fourth season, coach Nick Finley is looking to get the team back to state for the first time since 2010.
Finley said his team has shown in a summer team camp that it can beat the likes of Seldovia and Nikolaevsk. Now, the Wolverines have to make it happen when it counts.
“In the summer, they play like there’s nothing to lose,” Finley said of his squad. “During school, they’re not as loose.”
The coach also said his team has to learn how to close out close games. Ninilchik lost two of its four at the season-opening Klawock Tournament, and both losses were on late scores by the opposition.
“All kids want to win, but knowing how to do it is something different,” Finley said.
In addition to Presley and White, returning starters for the Wolverines are junior guard Matt Bartolowits and junior wing Dalton Geppert. Guard Caleb Appelhanz, the sixth man a year ago, also returns.
With 16 kids out for the team, Finley said the Ninilchik will be able to play JV games, as well. Adding depth to the varsity will be senior transfer Pat Brandt, and freshmen JD Mumey and Garrett Koch.
Even though top guns Philpot and Collier are back, fifth-year coach Mark Janes will have to make up for the loss of three other starters.
Seniors Robert Waterbury and Tim Haller stepped up their commitment to the team to make sure it could try and defend the state title. Haller did not play basketball last season.
The Sea Otters also have sophomore Sage Stanish and Sam Scribner and freshman David Botero.
Janes said he thinks there is enough talent around Philpot and Collier that the Sea Otters can make another run. He said the other players must make a team pay for too much attention to Philpot and Collier, and he thinks those players are capable of that.
And if the game is close at the end, Janes said Philpot and Collier have proven their clutch play often.
“If we’re close, Aidan can hit clutch shots, and Calem has ice water in those veins late in the game,” Janes said. “As long as we can hang tight with those teams, we have a chance to close it out.”