Peninsula Conference bringing tons of depth to small schools level

When the Peninsula Conference Tournament wraps up early Saturday evening at Homer High School, one of the top three Class 1A boys teams in the state will see its season end short of the state tournament.

The Ninilchik, Nikolaevsk and Seldovia boys squads all come into this tournament, which starts today, as top Class 1A teams in the state, but with two berths, one will be left out.

And with Wasilla Lake Christian having played the top three tough but not having broken through for a win, two very good teams will be staying home.

“The Peninsula Conference, in my opinion, is the strongest conference in the state,” Nikolaevsk boys coach Steve Klaich said. “There’s a very real possibility the state championship game could come from two teams in this conference.

“Wasilla Lake, Seldovia, Nikolaevsk and Ninilchik are the top four going in. I would expect the top two teams to come out of that four, but the other teams have to be respected.”

Klaich said, in his opinion, the Peninsula Conference has three of the top five teams in the state, and four of the top 10.

While the boys tournament has eight teams, the girls tourney has five. Top seed Ninilchik and No. 2 seed Nikolaevsk are the favorites to reach state there.

On the boys side, Ninilchik earned the top seed by going perfect in league play and opens today with an 8 p.m. tilt against No. 8 Nanwalek.

The Wolverines have not been to state since 2010, but every indication is a young team this season is finally coming of age.

“I’m proud of how far the kids have come,” Ninilchik coach Nick Finley said. “The guys have gotten beaten up the last couple of years in conference.

“They’ve battled it out and learned from the seasons before.”

Now the question is whether the Wolverines can take the next step and beat out battle-tested Seldovia and Nikolaevsk, who each have been to state the past two seasons.

Finley said he prepared his team for this moment by playing a tough schedule, including the Homer Winter Carnival against teams from bigger divisions. Ninilchik went 2-1 on that tournament, and also got experience playing on Homer’s 94-foot floor.

The coach said the tough schedule has left him with four players — Austin White, Tyler Presley, Dalton Geppert and Pat Brandt — who can all score.

“That’s what made the difference,” Finley said. “We don’t just have two guys or one guy.”

Nikolaevsk took the No. 2 seed with an 11-3 record, losing to Ninilchik twice and splitting with Seldovia. The Warriors took the No. 2 seed based on point differential in the split with the Sea Otters. Nikolaevsk opens against No. 7 Kodiak ESS at 6:30 p.m. today.

Nikolaevsk did not lose anybody from last year’s state squad, which won the tough and pivotal Saturday second-place game for the second year in a row.

“Experience will take you a long way, but with the other teams playing such a tough schedule, and Seldovia having just as much experience at state, I don’t think it will be a determining factor,” Klaich said. “Whoever shows up and plays well will be rewarded with a trip to Anchorage.”

Klaich said his team is healthy and playing well. The key for the squad’s success is consistency, defense and fundamentals.

Despite being the defending Class 1A state champions and the two-time defending conference champions, the Sea Otters go in as the No. 3 seed and open with No. 6 Lumen Christi at 3 p.m. today.

And while Seldovia lost some firepower off last year’s squad, the two players who made the state all-tournament team — Aidan Philpot and Calem Collier — return.

Mark Janes’ squad has been gaining steam lately, and the coach said a big reason is defense and balanced scoring. Janes said defense and rebounding will be vital in the tournament, because both Ninilchik and Nikolaevsk have more size than Seldovia.

The coach added that players like David Botero, Jaren Swearingen and Sage Stanish mean squads can’t just gang up on Philpot and Collier.

“Our defense has definitely stepped up and is starting to click more,” Janes said. “They’re finding their roles and they’re peaking at the right time.”

The final boys game today features No. 4 Wasilla Lake vs. No. 5 Birchwood Christian at noon.

In the girls tournament, one of the most tradition-rich programs in Alaska will try and retake its place on the state-tournament stage.

The Ninilchik girls won eight state championships under Dan Leman. Rod Van Saun went to state in his first two years after replacing Leman, and now seeks to return in his seventh year.

The Wolverines went 7-1 in the conference, winning the No. 1 seed on point differential. Ninilchik opens Thursday at 5 p.m. against the winner of No. 4 Birchwood and No. 5 Seldovia, which will be played at 1:30 p.m. today.

“I don’t think the top seed is a big deal because anything can happen in a tournament,” Van Saun said. “I’m not looking at it like an extreme advantage because there are only five teams.”

Van Saun said Nikolaevsk is the team to beat because of the Warriors’ experience, which includes state trips the past four years. But he said Birchwood, Seldovia and Lumen Christi all have good players which make them dangerous.

“We’re a team and we all contribute,” Van Saun said. “There’s not one standing out above the rest. The really awesome thing to me is it’s different people leading us every night.”

In addition to those four straight state berths, the Nikolaevsk girls also have won the last three conference titles. Nikolaevsk went 7-1 in the league and opens against No. 3 Lumen Christi today at 5 p.m.

“Lumen has a really good core group of girls that are freshmen and sophomores, and they have good seniors that add a lot of depth,” said Nikolaevsk girls coach Bea Klaich. “Their young players have come a long way.”

Klaich said the key for her squad will be defense.

“We know we can have off games offensively, but we can never have an off game defensively,” she said.

The Seldovia girls will lean on the duo of Olivia Turner and Marina Chissus in trying to reach state.

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