With such close parity in competition in the Class 3A Southcentral Conference, basketball teams on the Kenai Peninsula will be facing a long road full of challenges en route to the region tournament in early March.
Add one more to the mix.
The number of automatic bids from the Southcentral Conference that go to the state tournament is dropping this season from three to two, as the Class 3A level is gaining a designated berth that will go to the team with the highest Winning Percentage Index, as is done at the 4A level.
The WPI is a mathematical formula that factors in each team’s win-loss record against opposing 3A competition and, in the past few years at the 4A level, has gotten good teams to the big dance that would have missed it due to bad performances at their regional tournament.
At last year’s Southcentral Conference tournament, the No. 1 and No. 3 seeded girls teams, Nikiski and Homer, found each other battling for the crown. Nikiski was tied in the regular-season standings at 6-4 with Grace Christian, a team that was handed an opening-day loss by Cordova, and then was ultimately left out of state with a loss to Anchorage Christian Schools on the last day of the tournament.
If the WPI would have been in place, Grace would have likely been in on the big dance.
Homer girls Chad Felice, a New York native entering just his second year on the job, said in order to boost the team’s WPI, he scheduled at least 14 games with other 3A schools outside the conference, including Mt. Edgecumbe and Valdez.
“It’s tough, because we have a tough region, and anybody in our region can beat anyone on any given night,” Felice said. “There’s lot of emphasis on getting to that championship game.”
Last year, the Homer girls won the Southcentral tournament to claim a spot at state, but a loss in the early stages of the bracket would have left the Mariners hanging in the balance for another day before the official WPI standings were announced on that following Sunday.
Seward girls coach Curtis Berry, who is not as fond of it as others, said the WPI will not affect the SCC as bad as other conferences, such as the Southeast Conference. With such powerhouses like defending state champions Sitka in the region, one lone automatic berth could ruin a good team’s entire season due to one bad region tournament game.
“Getting quality games is tough with the travel situation,” Berry said. “There’s that dynamic in the state that makes it hard, to make WPI equitable. The teams that really want to be in the state mix have to pay attention to that.”
Last year on the boys side, Grace Christian flourished en route to a 10-2 conference record. The Grizzlies lost the SCC championship to Anchorage rival ACS by four points, but no WPI savior was needed. The Grizzlies continued on to a third-place finish at state, best of the SCC teams.
The following is a closer look at Peninsula teams:
As the top team in the conference last year (on a tiebreaker over Grace, which the Bulldogs beat twice in the regular season) the Nikiski girls finished the season on a happy note by winning the state tournament fourth-place game 37-33 over ACS.
However, the Bulldogs lost their star player, senior guard Rachel Thompson, a dynamic point guard who was named to the Class 3A state all-tournament team.
Nikiski coach Scott Anderson, last year’s 3A girls coach of the year following a 19-8 overall record, said losing Thompson will force the Bulldogs to transition from a team with one leader to a team full of leaders.
“We want to be known as a team that plays with maximum effort at all times,” Anderson said. “We want to be the team that no one wants to play.”
After an auspicious start to last year, the Nikiski girls continued to knock out wins en route to the region tournament, which had even Anderson surprised.
This season, Anderson said his squad may be undersized, but the sort of values he teaches his kids — communication, trust and smart play among them — could propel the Bulldogs to another successful season.
“We need to take care of the ball better, and it’ll be a year of learning how to play together and jell,” Anderson said.
One of the leaders of the current crop of Bulldogs will be senior Hallie Riddall, a versatile point guard who has been named team captain, Anderson said. Joining her among the starting cast is senior Arianna Parrish and juniors Brianna Vollertsen, Ayla Pitt and Avery Kornstad.
Anderson returns for his fifth year with the team, and at the recent Kenai River Challenge tournament, Nikiski went 1-2 with a win over Houston. The results had Anderson feeling confident that the team can improve.
“The problems you see the first weekend of the season are usually going to disappear,” he said.
The Nikiski boys went 2-10 last year in conference play, placing them sixth in the conference standings, and coach Reid Kornstad is looking for another year of improvement from his boys.
“I think this is a really unique group, we have six seniors that lead in different ways,” Kornstad said. “It’s exciting to see them together.”
The promising news is that the team is stocked with seniors that can lead. It’s only a question of how much that leadership experience can be used to gain the team’s first trip to state since 2002.
Entering their senior years are guards Cade Anderson, Nathan Carstens and Sam Tauriainen, and forwards Javon Pamplin, Hunter Holloway and Luke Johnson.
The majority of the squad is often kept busy throughout the year with multiple sports. Johnson is fresh off a third straight 1-2-3A state wrestling championship, and was joined by Holloway, Anderson and Carstens on the Nikiski football team that played in the small-schools championship game in October.
After just two conference wins last year, the objective is to win region games on a more consistent basis. Kornstad said seeding is important, mostly as to avoid playing twice in one day at the region tournament, as low seeds are apt to do.
“This is a really well-balanced group,” Kornstad said. “We have a lot of different players that can score points on any given night.”
After one season with Nate Creel at the helm, the Homer boys are gaining a new coach in Weston Carroll, who is a lifelong Homer resident.
Carroll, 43, has six previous years as a hoops coach at the middle school level, and one as an assistant at the high school level, and will also have assistant Dave Edens by his side. Edens is a former head coach at the 2A level.
“This is going to be a rebuilding year,” Carroll said. “The speed and pace of the game might be different, but we’re ready for the future.”
In 2014, the team finished third with an 8-4 conference record, but ultimately lost out on the third and final state bid with a narrow, 52-50 loss to Cordova in the SCC third-place game.
Of the nine players on last year’s varsity squad, eight were seniors, including 6-foot-7 center Sheldon Hutt. This year, the tallest player is 6-foot-3 senior Johann Kallelid, with six of the 11 players under 6 feet.
“The skills and potential are there, we just have to put it all together,” Carroll said.
The lone varsity returner from last season is sophomore guard Jordan Beachy. Joining Beachy will be Kallelid, junior forward Justin Ellison, junior guard Hunter Edens, sophomore guard Koby Etzwiler and sophomore forward Charles Rohr.
The Mariner girls finished third in the conference, but went on to win the region tournament to grab their first state berth in nine years. Homer went two-and-out at the state tournament, losing games to Hutchison and ACS.
Felice returns to coach the squad for a second straight year, and said he believes the girls are capable of another state run.
“The girls put a lot of offseason work in, and they’re really motivated,” Felice said.
Homer just completed a successful weekend at the Service Tip-Off tournament in Anchorage, where the Mariners finished 2-1 with wins over Service and Kodiak.
Felice said he would like to see the team return to the SCC championship game, which they won last year in a tight, 44-41 contest over Nikiski.
“That goal is pretty simple,” he said. “Play hard defense, get after it and force those tough shots, which will hopefully ease our transition game.”
The three returning seniors that Felice named team captains are Madison Akers, Aurora Waclawski and Kayla Stafford. Akers was named to the Class 3A state all-tournament team last season.
“All three are great leaders,” Felice said. “They know what they want on the floor, and sometimes I don’t have to call plays, they just know what to do.”
The starting trio will also be joined by junior Uliana Reutov and senior Sam Draves.
The Seward girls will be welcoming back their old coach, Curtis Berry, who last coached the girls in 2012.
Last year with the boys, Berry went 6-6 in the conference that left the Seahawks fifth at the end of the season. This year, current Seward athletic director Al Plan will be taking over the boys team.
“It’s gonna be fun to watch,” Berry said. “The girls are really young, with a couple of returners that haven’t really been much in the mix, but they have some experience.”
Last year with Mark Clemens as head coach, the Seward girls entered the region tournament as the fifth seed, dropping out of the running for a state berth with a loss to Grace.
The Seahawks went 1-2 at the Holland America tournament in Sitka last weekend, beating an Outside team from Idaho. The defending state 3A champions, Sitka, handed Seward a 50-31 loss.
“We were happy with our performance in all those games, but Sitka are the returning state champs,” Berry said. “I hate making predictions, but the philosophy is to play to get better. We want to win games, that’s a given, but you’re not going to win games by saying you want to have a certain record against teams.”
Berry said he refuses to look past any other teams in the region. He expects ACS and Grace to be tough again, as well as Homer. He added that Nikiski and Houston could make strong runs in the region tournament.
“It always comes down to who’s playing well on any given night,” he said.
Seward will play its first SCC game Jan. 7 at home against Nikiski, which will be a telling sign where the program is.
With a core of seniors leaving since the spring, the next class will have to step up, Berry said. Among the current crop of seniors are forward Iris Anderson, guard Jessica Honebein and forward Chloey Baldwin. Joining them will be sophomores Maille Moriarty and Ayla Lipanskas.
“I think we’re still trying to identify ourselves, but they’re all sponges, they learn easily,” Berry said.
Al Plan, who has been an assistant to Berry with the boys for the previous three years, takes over in a year that very well could see the Seward boys get to state for the first time since 2013.