The Ninilchik girls will be looking to repeat at this weekend’s Peninsula Conference tournament, something they haven’t done since their days of dominance.
The top-seeded Wolverines head into the girls region hoops tournament this weekend in Homer as one of the favorites to win it all, and a trophy would give them two straight conference crowns. The Ninilchik girls haven’t repeated since the 2008 and ‘09 seasons.
First-year Ninilchik head coach Josh Demlow said securing that No. 1 seed was a goal from the outset of the season.
“That’s the first goal accomplished,” Demlow said. “But we can’t be satisfied with that.”
Ninilchik begins its tournament run with a 3:30 p.m. matchup today against fourth-seeded Birchwood Christian.
The top two teams out of the conference tournament punch their ticket to state. The loser of Friday night’s championship game will have to fight for their state spot in Saturday’s second-place matchup.
After the Wolverines won 14 conference titles in 17 years under head coach Dan Leman — who stepped down after the 2008 season — Ninilchik continued its proud tradition with first-year coach Rod Van Saun in 2009 by winning the region title for a 15th overall time.
It gives a good precedent for Demlow. This year, Demlow’s Wolverines went 6-0 in the conference this year, but many of those contests were narrow victories. In nonconference games, Ninilchik was 1-2 against conference competition, with both losses coming to Nikolaevsk.
“It’s not like we have a lot of breathing room,” Demlow said. “We have to come prepared and focused.”
Last year, Ninilchik broke a three-year Nikolaevsk stranglehold on the region title with a 45-35 victory over their nearby rivals.
Nikolaevsk head coach Bea Klaich, whose Warriors finished with the third tournament seed this season, said not being one of the top two seeds, as Nikolaevsk has been the last five years, does not hang over her team’s head.
“Lumen (Christi), Ninilchik and us have all played each other fairly close,” Klaich said. “Being the three seed doesn’t bother us at all, we’re definitely not over confident.”
Nikolaevsk begins today with a 6:30 p.m. matchup against Lumen Christi, a team that defeated the Warriors 38-23 earlier in the season.
Both Ninilchik and Nikolaevsk suffered key senior losses from last year’s state-appearing teams, but it’s allowed returning players to step into bigger roles.
For Nikolaevsk, one of those players has been senior Vera Fefelov, a dangerous guard who is leading the team with 11.7 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. Her freshman sister, Elizabeth, is second with 9.1 points per game, but averages nearly 10 boards.
Klaich said Fefelov has thrived this season, partly due to the team’s different style of fast-paced, pressure offense, which leads to more shot attempts.
Throw in senior co-captain Kristin Klaich, who averages 6.5 points and 7.9 rebounds, and freshmen Markiana Yakunin and Justina Fefelov, and the Warriors are looking like a tough third-seeded matchup.
“I think the girls are ready to play,” Klaich said. “I have a young team but they’ve improved a lot since the beginning of the season.”
Nikolaevsk and Ninilchik split four games this year, but unfortunately for the Warriors, both losses counted for the conference, while the two wins were tournament games.
Ninilchik will face Birchwood Christian today, a team that the Wolverines have gone 3-0 against this season. In each game, Ninilchik’s offensive production improved, going from 46 points to 53 to 64.
Senior Mikayla Clark, junior Olivia Delgado, sophomores DeAnn White and Jodie Kain and freshman Shelly Johnson make up Ninilchik’s starting lineup, and a trio of freshmen fill out the bench, with Madelyn Cooper, Alexis Kreger and Mikylah Pinnow getting the nods.
Demlow said as the top seed, he is most concerned about facing Lumen and Nikolaevsk, both of which have tough point guards to stop.
“Niko has a great senior with Vera Fefelov,” Demlow said. “We struggle when she starts playing downhill and getting to the rim, so we have to get our rotations correct.”
The Wolverines have a tough player to stop as well in 6-foot forward DeeAnn White, who has made life difficult for opponents on both ends of the court this year.
In their most recent meeting, Ninilchik came away with a exhilarating 36-35 win over Nikolaevsk that ended in an awkward, spinning 3-point shot by Delgado at the buzzer.
“That was a big win for us, if just for the mental side of it,” Demlow said.
As defending region champs, Demlow said his team has the necessary experience to repeat, but will have to avoid letting the little things get in the way.
“I think (winning it last year) is really important, as having that leadership on the team,” he said. “So much has changed since then, we play a whole new style and system from last year, and they’ve done an amazing job of adapting.
“I’m proud of the team being able to change and listen to what I do.”