Race is on for state berths out of Peninsula Conference

The teams may be smaller in terms of roster and player size, but at the Class 1A level of high school basketball, the action is just as big.

This weekend’s Peninsula Conference tournament, held at Lumen Christi High School in Anchorage, is shaping up to possibly be one of the most competitive ever. The boys tournament features no less than six teams that have a realistic shot of grabbing a spot at state, but with only two tickets available for a field of nine teams, there are going to be seven squads going home. The girls bracket features six teams, which means four will be seeing their season end this weekend.

“It’s gonna be a very exciting tournament,” said Ninilchik boys coach Nickolas Finley. “It’s tightened up at the top so much. It’s all about which teenagers show up to play that day.”

Championship games for the boys and girls tournaments are slated for Friday night, leaving Saturday’s second-place game a final winner-take-all shot to clinch a spot at state. Friday’s title game loser will be the team getting a second chance on Saturday.

“This losers’ bracket is gonna be a hornet’s nest,” said CIA boys coach Justin Franchino. “Some teams won’t even make it to Friday.

“There’s a whole bunch of teams that are focused and ready to go. It’s going to be anybody’s game.”

The action begins today with a full slate of games:

BOYS TOURNAMENT

Ninilchik boys (4) vs. Birchwood Christian (5), noon

The Wolverines claimed a 74-45 win last week against Birchwood, their only meeting with the Warriors this season.

“They’re pretty fresh in our minds and we’re pretty fresh in theirs,” said coach Finley. “It’ll interesting to see what kind of changes they make and how we react to it.”

The Ninilchik boys finished 6-6 in the conference to grab the fourth seed for the tournament, but to many, the Wolverines may have the inside track to Friday’s championship bout.

The defending region champion Seldovia Sea Otters are the top seed with a perfect division record, but Ninilchik has given Seldovia the most trouble this year, losing by a combined eight points in both matchups. No other conference opponent from the Peninsula has come within single digits of the Otters in any one game.

Finley said if his squad makes it into Thursday’s semifinal round against Seldovia, it could go either way.

“I know they’re favored to win, but basketball is all about matchups,” Finley said. “It’s a matchup that they may struggle with.

“If we show up and play to our potential, we can give anyone a run for their money.”

It’s no secret what Ninilchik’s key matchup is with Seldovia and other opponents. With 6-foot-8 sophomore Austin White standing under the rim, opposing players find it difficult to get an open look at the net, and if they do get a shot and it doesn’t go, White is there to scoop up the rebound.

“When you look through our season stats, the games that we are successful in are games we rebound well,” Finley said. “When we get 40-plus rebounds in a game, we either win or it’s a close game.”

Finley said White brought down 21 defensive rebounds against Seldovia in their most recent matchup, effectively limiting the Otters to barely one shot per possession.

Ninilchik is also getting good offensive production out of multiple players. Overall, White is averaging 18.5 points, 13 boards and five blocks this season. Sam Mireles, a speedy guard that can make quick cuts to the basket, has come on strong with an average of 16 points and nine boards, and Tyler Presley is notching about 15 points and six assists per game.

Nikolaevsk boys (3) vs. Wasilla Lake (6), 3:30 p.m.

The Warriors finished off the year 7-4 in the conference, good for third behind Seldovia and their longtime rivals CIA, and after last year’s trip to state (the first one since 1997), the Nikolaevsk boys are hoping to gain a repeat trip with a squad that is one year older and wiser.

“It’s going to be really fun to see what happens if we step up and everybody has a hot game at the same time,” said Nikolaevsk boys coach Steve Klaich. “We always seem to have one or two guys play really well, so all five will be fun to see.”

Nikolaevsk escaped with a 52-49 win over Wasilla Lake earlier this year, so nothing is a given in the matchup.

“They’ve got a good team full of tall, athletic kids,” Klaich said. “It boils down to who steps up on defense.”

Luckily for the Warriors, Klaich believes they have taken a massive leap in defensive play this season.

Nikolaevsk junior Neil Gordeev stands at 6-foot-1 and leads the Warriors in rebounds and steals per game, averaging 9.9 boards and nearly 4.5 steals this year, while also getting 12.1 points per contest.

Nikolaevsk’s leading scorer has been Nikit Fefelov, a long-range shooter that averages 13 points per game, and teammate Felemon Molodih has averaged 12.1 points, giving the Warriors three double-digit scoring players.

“We move the ball well, we’re a good passing team,” Klaich said. “The kids are unselfish, they’ve got a lot of speed and they run the floor well.”

Cook Inlet Academy boys (2) vs. Kodiak ESS (7), 6:30 p.m.

The CIA boys enter the tournament riding a hot streak, having won six of their last seven conference games. The strong finish to the regular season ultimately landed the Eagles the second best division record of 10-3.

“That was big for us, securing the two seed,” coach Justin Franchino said. “The last few weeks we were locked in, and everyone’s been playing their role.”

CIA rolled to an 80-45 win over Kodiak ESS in early February, with 35 of those points going to junior Timmy Smithwick. Franchino said he does not expect a cakewalk, however.

“They’ll get after it, they gave us three hard quarters at their place,” he said. “They get players from all over the (island of Kodiak), which is hard to practice with, but by the end of the season, they might have something.”

Smithwick has undoubtedly been one of the top scoring guards at the 1A level, averaging 27 points and six steals per game, and on more than one occasion has reached over 40 points in a single game this year.

Smithwick’s game is dangerous from any point on the floor; under the rim, beyond the arc and every spot in between. But it’s also the consistent play of the four guys around him that makes CIA a dangerous team.

Smithwick’s senior brother, Riley, is the team captain, and coach Franchino said he is the leader on and off the floor.

“He’s the anchor of our team,” Franchino said. “He’s the heart and soul from an emotional standpoint, and he’s just a rock.”

The only conference team that the Eagles failed to beat this year was Seldovia, which defeated CIA twice by an average margin of 23.5 points. If both teams win out on the first two days of the tournament, it leaves CIA and Seldovia with a meeting in Friday’s championship game.

In six years of coaching, Franchino has twice seen his Eagles squad compete in the title game only to lose out and be dropped into the second-place game the next day, which they also lost.

“I tell you, losing in the title game is so emotional, because you get so close, but then you’ve got to get up for the next day,” he said.

Seldovia boys (1) vs. TBD, 8 p.m.

With the No. 1 seed, the 15-2 Sea Otters await the winner of the eight and nine seed matchup between Lumen Christi and Nanwalek.

Seldovia ran rampant in the Peninsula Conference this year, racking up a pristine 11-0 division record and beating opponents by an average of 18.3 points. The only two losses on the Sea Otters’ resume came at the hands of the Soldotna and Kenai Central JV squads.

Coach Mark Janes said part of that success is due to how he’s run the defense.

“I wouldn’t let them play any zone defense this year,” Janes said about his practice techniques. “They couldn’t get back and relax, it forced them to be aggressive on defense all the time.”

Seldovia’s two biggest scorers — Aidan Philpot with 20.8 points per game and Calem Collier with 18.2 ppg — have presented difficulties to opposing teams all year long. The duo have accounted for 64 percent of Seldovia’s points this season, and have done so from all areas on the floor, whether it be with cuts to the rim or shots from beyond the 3-point line.

“It’ll be important,” Janes said about his two star guards. “The game is putting the ball through the hoop.”

Janes said he feels pretty confident in both teams that are set to decide which one faces Seldovia. The Otters crushed Lumen Christi 64-28 early in the season, and notched a 47-17 win over Nanwalek one week ago.

He also did not deny that Ninilchik has been the team that’s given Seldovia the most trouble. If both teams win their quarterfinal games today, they will meet in the semifinal round on Thursday.

“The problem is if you concentrate on Austin (White), Sam (Mireles) can sneak by you,” Janes explained. “Our kids have never played against a guy that’s 6-8.”

However, with Dylan Waterbury — a junior guard that Janes said has been capable of guarding CIA’s Timmy Smithwick — Chance Haller and Seth O’Leary playing supporting roles, all players that have competed with each other since junior high, Janes said he likes his chances.

“I’ve got 11 great guys with four years of experience,” Janes said.

GIRLS TOURNAMENT

Cook Inlet Academy girls (3) vs. Seldovia (6), 5 p.m.

On paper, the CIA girls should have no problem moving on to the next round after taking care of business against Seldovia this season. The 11-8 Eagles beat the 2-12 Sea Otters twice this year, a 45-20 drubbing in December and a 42-22 shakeup last Friday.

But, that old saying continues to show up. Everyone starts at zero at tournament time.

The Seldovia girls have also been here before. One year ago, the one-win Sea Otters entered the region tournament as a sixth seed and were matched up with third-seeded Lumen Christi on the first day.

Lo and behold, Seldovia came away with an upset win in overtime to advance. That is why CIA is not counting their eggs just yet.

“We’ve matched up well against their team a couple times, so we’re feeling good,” said CIA coach Kenny Leaf. “Our press is difficult for them to handle, and we generate a lot of points against them.”

If they can get by Seldovia today, the real challenge may lie in Thursday’s semifinal matchup with second-seeded Birchwood Christian. The two squads only game this year came less than two weeks ago, a 36-28 loss for CIA.

“We’re still planning on getting there,” Leaf said about Thursday’s semifinals. “Honestly, the (loss) was our worst game of the season, so we’re looking forward to a rematch.”

Leaf said unforced turnovers hurt the Eagles against Birchwood in their previous meeting. In a recent team meeting, Leaf said they received a boost of confidence from CIA boys coach Justin Franchino, who told the squad that he believes the Eagles are the strongest team if they “put together four full quarters of good play.”

Senior captains Madison Orth and Ashleigh Hammond have been instrumental this season in leading a CIA team that has felt the loss of Nicole Moffis, a senior from last year’s squad that graduated, but has returned this year to guide the Eagles from the bench as an assistant coach.

Leaf has had his hands full not only working with a Moffis-less squad, but also with current players losing time due to injury. Sophomore Danielle Hills, senior Richelle McGahan and junior Kendra Brush have missed time after suffering injuries. McGahan is back, Hills returned to play against Nikolaevsk last week, but Brush is still out. Leaf said Brush is hoping to make a return at the state tournament, assuming the Eagles get through.

Leaf explained that a limited roster this year has forced Orth and Hammond to step up in big ways.

“My expectations are less than what they expect of themselves,” Leaf said. “They’ve really come alongside the younger players out of necessity.”

Lumen Christi girls (4) vs. Ninilchik (5), 1:30 p.m.

The Ninilchik girls finished up the 2014-15 campaign with a 3-5 conference mark, leaving them with the fifth seed. But for once, the Wolverines are playing with a full, healthy squad.

Ninilchik coach Rod Van Saun said he has had two players miss substantial time due to injury, and at the Class 1A level of basketball, anyone not playing can spell the difference in making it to state or missing out on the big dance.

“It’s just taken us a whole season to put it together,” Van Saun said. “But it really comes down to who shows up at the tournament, and brings their ‘A’ game.”

The Wolverines narrowly missed out on a ticket to state last year, falling to CIA in a 33-30 loss in the deciding second-place game on the final day of the tournament. In that contest, Ninilchik made up an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter, only to fall short at the line.

“Oh yeah, it fired them up,” Van Saun said. “They know they can play with either of these teams.”

The good news for Ninilchik is that when they are at full strength, they have shown the potential to hang with any team. Ninilchik lost to CIA by 23 points in their first meeting of the year, but lost by only eight the second time around. Against Nikolaevsk, the Wolverines lost by 22 points the first go around, but nearly pulled off a win in the second meeting, losing by a single point.

The Wolverines most recent meeting with Lumen Christi did not end well. Ninilchik was dealt a 35-20 loss on Saturday.

“I think we clearly have our hands full,” Van Saun said. “They have a good team and they’re well coached.”

Ninilchik’s biggest scorer this year has been Jordan Finney, a junior who is averaging a double-double with 10.7 points and 10.9 boards per game. Additionally, junior Melissa Ehlers, junior Krista Sinclair and freshman Olivia Delgado have emerged as big threats on both ends of the floor.

Ehlers ranks third on her team with 5.8 points per game, while Delgado averages eight rebounds and has totaled 39 blocks this year, and Sinclair is one of the Peninsula Conference’s leading ball distributors with almost four assists per game.

Nikolaevsk girls (1) vs. TBD, 1:30 p.m Thursday

Like Seldovia on the boy side, the Nikolaevsk girls dominated in conference play, winning all eight division matchups by an average of 16.1 points and storming to a 16-2 overall record in 2014-15.

It was more than enough to earn Nikolaevsk the top seed in the region tournament and a rest day today. The Warriors will face the winner of today’s game between Lumen Christi and Ninilchik at 1:30 p.m. Thursday.

The only divisional opponent that the Warriors have not beaten by double digits at least once this year is CIA, which they defeated by nine points last week. From every angle, Nikolaevsk seems to be sitting in good position to win its third straight Peninsula Conference crown on Friday.

But, as any player from last year’s state squad can attest to, nothing is a given when there are games yet to be played.

“We take it one game at a time for sure,” said Nikolaevsk coach Bea Klaich. “We’ve had games this year where we’ve only beaten CIA by a point and Ninilchik by a point.”

Prior to its current two-year run of success, CIA had won three consecutive region titles, a stat that Nikolaevsk can match this weekend. All they need is to win two games to retain their title.

“I think it’s definitely a mental advantage knowing if you play well and play hard, you don’t have to get all beat up,” Klaich said about the extra rest day. “We’ve got to stay healthy.”

The Warriors routed Lumen Christi by 20 points earlier this season, while their two games with Ninilchik looked very different.

Nikolaevsk rattled Ninilchik with a 38-16 win in January, but only managed to beat them by the narrowest of margins in late February, a 33-32 win.

“I think we were off against CIA early in the season, but my girls have been a work in progress,” Klaich said. “We’re bringing on seven girls that didn’t play last year, so we’ve improved late in the season.”

Junior forward Serafima Kalugin has stepped up into the leading role this year, nearly averaging a double-double with 13.9 points and 9.2 rebounds per game.

Another junior, Nadejda Gordeev, is averaging six boards per game and brought down a season-high 15 against CIA last week. Coach Klaich that Gordeev had played her first full game of the year only a week prior.

With senior Kilina Klaich as the main ball distributor, averaging over four assists per game, the group is once again humming on offense at the right time of the year.

“They haven’t peaked yet,” Klaich said. “I asked the girls if they feel like they’re getting better, and it was pretty unanimous. That mentality will serve us well.”

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