The 2016-17 Ninilchik boys basketball contingent has been one of superlatives this year. As reigning state champions, the Wolverines had no significant loss of seniors. Last year’s senior class included Alex Koch, Caleb Applehanz and Pat Brandt, and only one of those veterans (Brandt) was a regular starter.
The rest of the Ninilchik boys have returned to run the tables on the Class 1A basketball scene. The Wolverines have run off a 12-0 record against 1A teams this year, and have regularly been recognized as the top 1A school in the statewide coaches poll this year.
But it’s between the 1A contests that the Ninilchik boys have grown. It’s the Class 3A and 4A competition that has kept the Wolverines sharp and on the razor edge of success this year.
Ninilchik head coach Nick Finley said his team is firing on all cylinders, a scary thought for opposing teams.
“I really like how the boys are playing right now after the season schedule we’ve had this year,” Finley said. “I feel we’re a more complete team this year.”
This season, Ninilchik is 12-0 against Class 1A competition, blasting the competition with an outrageous average margin of victory of 55.3 points. Their closest game was a 19-point win over Minto on Feb. 11 at their own Ninilchik Tournament.
The team is also riding a 30-game win streak against 1A competition, dating back to Dec. 2015, and an even longer streak dating back two years of home wins. Ninilchik’s most recent loss at home was Feb. 2015 against the CIA boys, who at the time were led by Timmy Smithwick.
“The kids are going hard, and we’re excited for the regional tournament,” Finley said. “We’re going to take it one game at a time.”
Ninilchik enters the Peninsula Conference tournament as the prohibitive favorites to win it. With a sterling 10-0 conference mark, the top-seeded Wolverines will begin the tournament with an 8 p.m. matchup against eighth-seeded Nanwalek, a team that Ninilchik walloped this year 91-24 in late January.
Other opening-day matchups include the fourth-seeded Lumen Christi boys against Wasilla Lake at 3:30 p.m., the third-seeded Nikolaevsk boys against sixth-seeded Cook Inlet Academy at 5 p.m., second-seeded Birchwood Christian against seventh-seeded Kodiak ESS at 6:30 p.m.
While the Wolverines went undefeated against 1A competition this season, the real moments that have spurred the Wolverines to great heights came in the rest of their schedule. Ninilchik played 10 games against higher competition, the Class 3A and 4A schools that feature much deeper squads. Ninilchik went 2-8 in those games, and all but one were close. The only real blowout was a 72-28 loss to the Dimond Lynx in the Al Howard/Powerade Tip-Off tournament championship game in December.
After kicking off their conference slate with a dominant stretch of seven wins in January, the team faced a three-day Seahawk Classic tournament in Seward during the first week of February. Finley said that was a turning point in the season.
“Seward played the game of their life and beat us,” Finley said. “There was a stretch (of) conference games we won by 60 points, and then we go to Seward, and it was a perfect opportunity for us to play at a higher level.
“We’ve been rolling every since.”
After averaging around 60 points per game in their state championship campaign last year, Finley said his Wolverines are averaging 73 points a game (against all classes of competition) this year. Part of that shift comes from Ninilchik’s style, which has changed from a post-centric scheme that fed the ball to Austin White and Pat Brandt, to a run-and-gun game that helps the Wolverines score in transition.
“People say that we’re playing at a totally different speed right now,” Finley said. “That’s because of the 3A and 4A competition. That’s like half our season, and these boys have adapted that speed to their game.”
Ninilchik left that Seward tournament and reeled off five more dominant victories over 1A school.
It all culminated with a 130-point explosion over Wasilla Lake Christian last Thursday. It was Ninilchik’s senior night, and Finley let loose his senior class in a 130-40 victory over Wasilla Lake.
“That senior night was a really special night,” he said.
Finley noted that the game wasn’t as it seemed. After having his players press for most of the first quarter, he allowed them to relax and simply enjoy the game of basketball. It apparently rubbed off on their opposition as well. Finley said Wasilla Lake’s principal told him he was glad to see both teams having fun on the court, regardless of the score.
“I finally let the seniors play,” Finley said. “Every other game, we’d (take a big lead) and I’d sit the seniors, but we let them finish the game.
“After that night, everyone has been so happy and focused and excited. They understand that if we do what we do, we only have seven games left. For these seniors, that means the world to them.”
And while the bulk of the attention this weekend will be paid to White, a 6-foot-8 senior who signed on to play for the University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves next year, the Wolverines can also get offensive production in other places.
Senior Tyler Presley has been a regular scoring machine for the Wolverines this season, and last Thursday against Wasilla Lake, senior Dalton Geppert put up his season-high of 42 points.
Finley added that Matt Bartolowits and J.D. Mumey have rounded out into consistent starting members, and sophomore Garrett Koch and freshman Jake Clark have come off the bench to play crucial roles.
“You look at the team makeup from three years ago, it was all Tyler and Austin,” Finley said. “Now, Dalton’s stepped up, and the more people worry about him, the better for our other guys.”
So who stands the biggest chance of knocking Ninilchik off its perch? Finley believes it could come from Birchwood Christian or Nikolaevsk, the No. 2 and 3 seeds for the region tournament, respectively.
Nikolaevsk and CIA, the remaining peninsula squads, are two dangerous threats that Ninilchik is familiar with. Nikolaevsk lost a bulk of its senior-laden squad from last year that made it to the state title game against Ninilchik, with senior Nikit Fefelov the lone returning starter. Fefelov has reeled off game after game of big scoring performances this year.
The CIA Eagles, meanwhile, grabbed the sixth seed in the regular season after not fielding a team at all last year, and Noah Leaf has led the Eagles with his all-around play.
But, with the way Ninilchik is executing on the court right now, all other comers will be hard-pressed to knock the Wolverines from their throne.
“We have four seniors that have put in a lot of work, and it’s starting to show,” he said. “The chemistry’s there.”