For the past three years, there has not been a boys team in the Peninsula Conference that has been to state twice.
On the girls side, Cook Inlet Academy and Nikolaevsk have represented the conference all three years.
This season, even with the conference-champion Seldovia boys returning six of eight players from last year, including Peninsula Conference co-MVP Aidan Philpot, coaches expect the boys play to be as topsy-turvy as ever.
The change could come on the girls side, where both CIA and Nikolaevsk will have to overcome losses to return to state.
“I think it’s going to be whoever works really hard,” said ninth-year Nikolaevsk head coach Bea Klaich, who has three straight state trips and two straight conference crowns. “There’s not going to be any dominance. It’s going to be a pretty even playing field.”
The Warriors return just two starters from the squad that took the consolation championship at state last year. Nikolaevsk lost 1A Player of the Year Nianiella Dorvall to graduation. Dorvall, along with fellow graduate Sophia Kalugin, is playing college ball.
The Eagles, who have a run of eight-straight state appearances going, but must replace head coach Rustin Hitchcock, who snapped up first-, second- and two third-place finishes in his five-year tenure.
Replacing Hitchcock is Kenny Leaf, the longtime coach of the CIA coed soccer team. Leaf has led the Eagles to four-straight Aurora Borealis Conference championships — the de facto state title for coed soccer.
“I’m a new coach but these girls are not new,” Leaf said. “We’ve got six returners from last year’s squad that went to state.
“That’s a lot of experience and it’s surely been helpful to me.”
One program hungry to get back to state is Ninilchik, led by sixth-year coach Rod Van Saun. Van Saun got his team to state in his first two years, nabbing a runner-up finish.
“We’ve been in a rebuilding mode and now the group we’ve been building around is all juniors,” Van Saun said.
Girls coaches are also casting a wary eye toward Lumen Christi, which went 0-3 against teams from bigger schools at the Kenai River Challenge.
And Seldovia should also be improved, although second-year coach Tiffany Haller has to weave together players from Seldovia, Nanwalek and Point Graham.
On the boys side, Seldovia, CIA, Nikolaevsk and Ninilchik are all considered worthy contenders for state berths.
Seldovia won the conference tournament last year and went on to finish third at state. The group of six players that led that charge all return, including Philpot and second-team all-conference player Calem Collier.
“I think that Cook Inlet Academy, Nikolaevsk, Ninilchik and Seldovia all have legitimate shots at making the run at the two spots (to) state,” 2013-14 Peninsula Conference boys Coach of the Year Mark Janes wrote. “Of those four, a couple are 1A state champion contenders. I have to hedge my bets on Seldovia!”
CIA coach Justin Franchino has two conference titles in his six years at the helm. The Eagles return just two starters, but one is co-MVP Timmy Smithwick so a first state trip since 2012 is possible.
Nikolaevsk head coach Steve Klaich, now in his 26th year, made his first trip to state last year since 1997. He has three returning starters that are ready for more.
And Ninilchik is a threat to ride super sophomores Tyler Presley and Austin White to a first state berth since 2010. There aren’t a lot of tall players in 1A ball, which makes the news that White has grown to 6-foot-8 all the more imposing for Peninsula Conference rivals.
The following is a closer look at the Peninsula Conference teams from the Kenai Peninsula:
Cook Inlet Academy girls
While Leaf’s title is head coach, he said he sees himself as more of a manager of the resources at hand.
Those resources are not only the players, but the coaching help he is getting from Franchino and assistants Nicole Moffis and Chloe Kytonen.
Leaf said he particularly needs help teaching the technical aspects of the game.
“Justin was laughing when he thought about what I was doing,” Leaf said. “He said, ‘If somebody told me to structure a two-hour training session for soccer, I’d just laugh.’”
After an opening loss to Soldotna’s varsity, the Eagles rebounded by going 3-0 to take the Cook Inlet Classic crown.
Leaf said seniors and returning starters Madison Orth and Ashleigh Hammond have helped him in the coaching transition. Junior Kendra Brush, who Leaf describes as a dangerous post presence, also is a returning starter.
Sophomores Emma Lyons and Danielle Hills didn’t start last year, but have a year of experience on which to depend. And Leaf said sophomore Kendall Taplin also is putting her experience to good use.
Leaf also said freshmen Bre Delon and Madeline Carey will have a role to play on a team with just eight players.
“I coached all of them in soccer, but it’s going to take some time for them to respect me as a basketball coach,” Leaf said. “Like I said, I’m just fortunate I have tremendous help.”
Cook Inlet Academy boys
The Eagles have just eight players on varsity, but Franchino said it is a tight-knit group.
“It’s eight guys and nobody hides — all eight contribute,” he said. “Nobody has to ride the pine — everybody has a different skill that can make a difference. It’s a nice roster.”
Junior Timmy Smithwick and senior Riley Smithwick are the returning starters.
Key returners are junior Andrew Hammond, junior Jeffrey Solie and sophomore David Barlow.
Rounding out the squad are sophomore Brady Hammond, freshman Chase Miller and freshman Johnny Smithwick, who Franchino said will be just as exciting as his brothers.
“We lack some size, but we make up for it in speed and tenacity,” Franchino said. “Seldovia is the returning champs and we’re probably taller than them at all levels. Height is not a must.”
Franchino said Timmy and Riley will mask the lack of height by being able to play anywhere on the floor.
“Riley is built like a truck but moves like a Ferrari,” Franchino said. “He’s really fast and strong. I can put him at the top of a defense, or use him to anchor inside.”
Before the season, Kevin Seville, the seventh-year head coach, already had scored a victory.
After last season, the program saw five seniors graduate, which can normally be a death blow for a program as small as Nanwalek’s.
The only players left were senior Xavier Romanoff and juniors Joshua Evans and Lavrentie Ukatish.
“Coming into this season and school year it did not appear that Nanwalek would have a basketball program due to a shortage of male student athletes in the high school,” Seville wrote in an email.
But Seville said the Alaska School Activities Association granted a waiver to allow three eighth-grade boys to play, and the season was on.
“I feel one of the strengths of our team will be the young, enthusiastic eighth-grade class,” Seville wrote in an email. “I also feel that our senior will develop great leadership skills and become a mentor for these younger student athletes.”
Nanwalek started its season with a pair of games Dec. 19 and 20 against Lumen Christi in Anchorage, and took a close loss to the Archangels on the first night, while losing by more the second night.
While acknowledging bringing together various ages will not be easy, Seville said the first weekend of games was positive.
“Finding a balance between developmental drills for eighth-graders and trying to teach offensive and defensive plays will be a hardship or weakness for our program,” Seville said.
For the first time in a long time, the team is going through a transition.
“I had the privilege that when I had that team that went to state three years ago, I had that exact same team three years in a row,” Klaich said. “We’re back to square one on a lot of things.
“It’s not as advanced of a team as I’m used to starting with.”
But Klaich does have solid players returning. The two returning starters — senior Kilina Klaich and junior Serafima Kalugin — were both second-team all-conference.
Coach Klaich said junior Megan Hickman and freshman Vera Fefelov are looking solid as well.
“For the fifth position, we’ve got eight more girls that are working hard at practice,” Klaich said. “I’m not sure who the fifth starter will be.”
Freshman Kristin Klaich could be that player, as could junior Nadejda Gordeev or sophomore Ellena Gordeev, both of whom are returning after not playing last year.
Klaich also said it’s nice to have some tradition to fall back on to keep the girls working hard.
“The strength of these kids is they want to give their all,” Klaich said. “The key to my teams is defense — I’m a big defensive coach — and if my girls give their all on defense we’ll be OK.”
Like the Nikolaevsk girls, the Nikolaevsk boys were already given a nice incentive to get back to state.
After the Mixed Six state volleyball tournament in mid-December, Nikolaevsk attended a University of Alaska Anchorage basketball game at the Alaska Airlines Center.
“I think that fueled their fire to want to get back there more,” Steve Klaich said. “They want to get out there and play on that beautiful court in that phenomenal new facility.”
The Warriors’ returning starters are juniors Jonah Fefelov and Neil Gordeev, and sophomore Nikit Fefelov.
Gordeev was first-team all-conference last season, as was Jaruby Nelson, who is now playing for Homer.
“We have some athletic kids with a lot of enthusiasm,” Klaich said. “With two starters not back, we’re going to have to step it up and play as a team.”
Felemon Molodih, the sixth man from last season, will slide into one of the starting slots.
The big question is the fifth starter. Klaich said that could be junior Greg Trail, or freshmen Kalenik Molodih or Anfim Kalugin.
“The biggest question is who will take that fifth starting spot,” Klaich said. “Rather than looking at it as a weakness, it’s a competition that’s making everyone better.”
The Wolverines will count on a group of four juniors that has been starting since their freshman year.
Ninilchik lost its other starter — first-teamer Jessica Rogers — to graduation. The roster then went from eight to seven when the team’s only senior, Melissa Clark, was lost for the season due to an injury sustained during volleyball.
“I think our strength is we’re physical,” Van Saun said. “We’ve played a lot together. When you have four kids that have started together since freshman year, it’s a big bonus.
“And even though we are not deeper on numbers, we’re deeper than we’ve been and we have more scoring options than in years past.”
The four returning juniors are Krista Sinclair, Jordan Finney, Alanna Goins and Melissa Ehlers. Finney made second-team all-conference last season.
Van Saun said freshman Olivia Delgado should really help the team. Sophomores Mikayla Clark and Tatiana Cooper will look to build on the minutes they played as freshmen.
“It’s always a concern making it game to game healthy when you have seven eligible players,” Van Saun said. “We went from eight to seven before the season started. It’s a long season. Anything can happen.”
The Wolverines showed just how much potential they have in a team camp at Kenai in late November.
Ninilchik played CIA, Kenai, Nikiski, Homer and Soldotna, losing only to Soldotna.
“All those kids that were freshmen are now sophomores and they’ve put a ton of time in,” said third-year head coach Nick Finley.
Sophomores Tyler Presley, Austin White and Matt Bartolowits are all returning starters. Presley and White made second-team all-conference last season.
Senior Sam Mireles should provide a boost with his return to the program, and sophomore Dalton Geppert also has transferred back in.
Finley also said junior Caleb Appelhanz has put a lot of time in and will find a role as a starter or sixth man.
Senior Peter Pasqua, junior Alex Koch, sophomore Seth Schultz and freshman Matthew Fido also provide depth.
The conference will closely monitor the improvement of White, who started playing basketball in eighth grade. Most teams in Class 1A ball simply don’t have a player that can match up with a skilled 6-8.
“I had some coaches tell me he was the best entire player at that team camp,” Finley said. “He should have a big season, but it’s not going to be one guy that does it all.
“We’ve got to have a good, core group of kids.”
Finley said both White and the squad must work a lot on defense. They also must learn to win.
“We went to a team camp in Palmer and played in the lowest division,” Finley said. “We went 11-0.
“One reason I played at that lower level is I wanted to get the kids used to winning.”
There are many things in this world that can be done now over great distances. Practicing basketball is not one of them.
With players from three different schools, head coach Tiffany Haller and her husband, Shad, face a unique task.
“Logistics is going to be the most difficult part of the season for us,” coach Haller wrote. “Having our players in three different locations makes it extremely difficult to learn new plays as well as just meshing as a team.
“We generally get the Port Graham and Nanwalek players the day before we leave for a trip and that’s not much time.”
Before the Cook Inlet Classic, the Sea Otters had just two practices but still went 2-1.
Seldovia has three returning starters in junior captains Olivia Turner and Marina Chissus and junior Kelsey Meganack.
Sophomore Violet Mitchell also returns.
Three players are from Port Graham: senior Cyrena Joseph, freshman Suzanne LaBelle and eighth-grader Monique Cook.
The three from Nanwalek are senior Amber Tanape, freshman Rina Ukatish and Meganack.
Haller said early returns are positive.
“All in all, I think they did really well, they played hard and encouraged each other,” she wrote after the first game of the season.
After a loss to Soldotna JV in their opening game of the season, the Sea Otters returned to form with convincing wins over Kalskag and CIA to close out the Cook Inlet Classic at 2-1.
Seldovia has a core of six players that have been playing together since sixth grade. Those players are seniors Seth O’Leary and Chance Haller, and juniors Robert Waterbury, Aidan Philpot, Calem Collier and Dylan Waterbury.
Due to its long history together, the team has an uncommon cohesion that allows feats like the classic, 81-76, double-overtime win against Selawik on the first day of state last year.
“As a coach, I would prefer to avoid those close games, but these guys have had experience finding ways to win in pressure situations,” Janes wrote. “That is hard to teach.”
Despite all the success, Janes said his squad is not physically imposing, which means the team can’t let up.
“We ended last year well, but not quite well enough,” Janes wrote. “A couple of missed baskets and we could have been watching from the bleachers at state.
“This year teams will be motivated to beat us. A win against us will mean a little bit more this year. We certainly wouldn’t want it any other way and are looking forward to even more pressure this year.”