Seven teams make up the Class 3A Southcentral basketball conference in both the boys and girls divisions in Alaska. There are only two available automatic spots from the division that send teams to the season-ending state tournament in March.
Six additional teams, eight total, from across the state get the chance to compete at the big dance — two from the six-team Aurora Conference, two from the four-team Western Conference and one from the two-team Southeast Conference.
So why does the biggest division of all, the seven-team Southcentral Conference, select a meager two squads to play in the season-ending state tournament? It’s a question that peninsula coaches have been figure out since last year when a new format was introduced.
Following several seasons of use at the Class 4A level, accounting for teams from the biggest schools in the state, the Win Percentage Index (WPI) was instituted for the first time at the 3A level last year. The WPI is a formula that takes into account statistical performance markers such as win strength, opponents record and schedule difficulty.
With seven teams clogging up the Southcentral Conference, it is logical to believe that the SCC is the toughest league to play out of. With the use of the WPI, which debuted last year in 3A basketball after several seasons of use at the Class 4A level, a talented team could still make it to state after a rough weekend of region hoops play.
The Southcentral Conference includes peninsula schools Nikiski, Homer and Seward, and the last remaining bid goes to the team with the best WPI that isn’t already in. Last year, the Nikiski boys pieced together a successful 15-9 season but were knocked out of the SSC championship semifinals with a loss to Grace Christian. Only their high WPI ranking saved the Bulldogs from missing state.
Nikiski girls coach Scott Anderson pointed out the use of the system in saving a good thing from missing the state tournament, but added that tweaks are likely needed.
“It’s not a bad thing when I look at it as a whole, but the state needs to relook at it and decide if it’s the right thing (for Class 3A),” Anderson said. “There are 13 teams in the Southcentral and Aurora conferences, and only four berths for both. On the other hand, there are six teams in the other conferences and three berths for them.
“That’s not a perfect system.”
With the WPI being decided primarily by head-to-head and common opponent results throughout the regular season, bigger schools in the Anchorage and Fairbanks areas have an easier time playing each other due to major road systems and flights that transport the teams to bigger towns.
But if a team like Seward wishes to play a fellow 3A opponent like Bethel or Valdez, then scheduling can become quite frustrating.
Last year’s Seward boys team slogged their way through a 9-13 season but were heating up by the end of the year. After missing the state tournament following a loss in the SCC third-place game, Seward coach Al Plan said a third automatic spot to state could be useful for a stacked conference.
“I’m not a big fan of it in 3A basketball,” Plan said. “It’s very difficult for 3A schools to play one another, especially those off the road system. It’s difficult to schedule games, while 4A teams are primarily condensed to urban areas.”
The Southeast and Western conferences each send half of their schools to state on automatic bids, while the Aurora Conference (comprised mostly of interior squads) send a third of its teams to state. The SCC sends 28 percent of its teams to state on automatic bids, assuming a third does not go on the WPI.
“Plus, we have two private schools (Grace and Anchorage Christian) in our region in an urban area,” Plan said. “Most of 3A is primarily rural areas, but we’ve got these two schools with no jurisdictional boundaries (to use players).”
Homer boys coach Weston Carroll praised the use of the system, but added with caution that it has the potential to favor particular divisions.
“I like that there’s an option,” Carroll said. “But it seems kind of unfair for our region, because we get less percentage wise.
“The Southeast gets one out of two teams to (automatically) progress, and we have seven teams and only two get automatically. At least the WPI gives the opportunity to add another team.”
The system will be used for a second consecutive year, so for now, Southcentral teams are focused on racking up the best season possible.
The following is a closer look at the Southcentral peninsula teams:
Nikiski High School will get the honor of hosting the Southcentral Conference tournament this year on March 9 to 11. Coach Scott Anderson, who is entering his sixth season as head coach of the Nikiski girls, said the entire hoops program and Nikiski community is excited for the weekend.
“It’s been a while since it’s been here, and the community loves basketball,” Anderson said. “The reason for coaching goes a long way beyond winning games, we like to help the kids. It’s being a part of the whole process that is very fulfilling.”
Last year, the Nikiski girls finished fourth in the region and played to an 11-11 overall record in what was considered a rebuilding year. The Bulldogs lost just two seniors over the offseason, as Hallie Riddall and Arianne Parrish graduated, but Anderson said a talented core of players will hopefully blossom into the experienced group that he has been coaching for years.
“I say it’s not a rebuilding year, it’s a building year,” he explained. “We have some experience but also some youth, and it’s going to be whether or not it jells together.”
Four of last year’s five starters are returning. Seniors Avery Kornstad, Brianna Vollertson and Ayla Pitt will return, along with sophomore Kelsey Clark.
Another sophomore poised to make a splash with the team is the fifth starter, Bethany Carstens, who missed her freshman campaign with an injury. Anderson said Carstens would have been a starting player last year if not for her injury, and her time gaining skills with competitive hoops programs across the state and Outside has increased her production. Carstens was recently named tournament MVP at the Kenai River Challenge.
Four of the five starters also gained valuable big-stage experience as teammates on the state runner-up Nikiski volleyball team this fall.
Anderson said in addition to Carstens, several others have attended Point Guard College camps in the continental United States, including the cities of Portland and Seattle.
“I have some great defenders and rebounders that take care of the ball,” Anderson said.
The bench will be comprised of numerous valuable players, including sophomore guard Emma Wik and junior Rylee Jackson.
The Bulldogs have already won a tournament title this year, the Kenai River Challenge on Dec. 17, utilizing a stifling defense that held opposing teams to just 15.7 points per game. Anderson said he believes in defensively minded teams, a trademark of the Nikiski basketball program.
“I don’t know if we’ll be holding teams to under 20, but it’s something that we stress,” he said. “We’re not the biggest team, but we’re athletic and fast. We’re working together and focusing on giving the other team only one shot per possession and communicating on the court. If we can hold teams down in the 30’s, we can win games.”
One of the teams Nikiski beat was Homer, the state runner-up last year. The Mariners managed just 12 points against the Bulldogs in the early-season contest, but Anderson stressed the “early” in that equation.
“Good is the enemy of great,” he said. “It’s going to be how great do they want to be? If they stick together and keep working at it, they can be a great team.”
A flashy start to the 2015 season cooled off midway through for the Nikiski boys squad, but the Bulldogs still qualified to state on their high WPI numbers. They were strong enough to see them through to the state tournament for the first time since 2002. It was there that Nikiski fell in a tough opening day matchup to top-seeded Barrow, which went on to claim the 3A state title.
“There’s no shortcuts,” said head coach Reid Kornstad when asked what his team learned about the state experience. “And to get to that point, it took several years of being very intentional of building habits and building a culture.”
The culture is one that continues to thrive at Nikiski, but Kornstad will be having to to start anew this season with an very different team. Of last year’s senior-laden varsity lineup, only one regular starter returns — sophomore Jace Kornstad.
“All of a sudden, we’re very young,” an optimistic coach Kornstad said. “It’s fun and exciting, and it’s an awesome coaching challenge. I’m up for it.”
With four of the five starters gone from last year’s magical team, Nikiski is in rebuild mode. It begins with Jace Kornstad, who will be seeing his role with the team take a considerable leap as a primary ball handler this year.
Joining Kornstad on the floor is junior post player Ian Johnson, sophomore forward Cody Handley, senior forward Braden Ellis and sophomore guard Garrett Ellis, who has never played in a high school varsity game before, partly due to injuries he sustained last year.
Coach Kornstad also mentioned sophomore guard Shane Weathers, sophomore guard Seth Desienna, junior forward Baker Hensley and junior forward Tyler Litke — who recently finished second at the Class 1-2-3A state wrestling tournament — as role players.
Kornstad said the key test will be seeing how the players react in pressure situations.
“That’s what these guys are back to, they were a part of that culture,” Kornstad said. “But when you’re not on the floor for those pressure situations, it’s difficult to understand all the hard work and mental preparation of being able to compete at that level.”
Two years ago, the Homer girls snapped a nine-year drought of state appearances, but went two-and-out at the big dance. Last year, they went to state again and bowled their way into their first appearance in the championship game in a quarter century.
However, the Mariners will have to figure something out if they wish to continue the momentum of rising success after losing a chunk of starting talent to graduation.
“We’re pretty much a brand new team,” said 2015 Class 3A Coach of the Year Chad Felice. “We’re a young team, but we’re not using that as an excuse.”
Seniors on last year’s team included girls 3A Player of the Year Madison Akers, as well as state All-Tournament team members Aurora Waclawski and Kayla Stafford. Sam Draves and Grace Kann also contributed significant minutes last year.
But they all are gone this season, and third-year head coach Felice is trying to piece together the remnants of the 2015 squad, which finished 24-3 overall, including postseason play.
“It’s been kind of nice because I get to do a whole lot of coaching,” Felice said. “The girls are very responsive and adaptive, and they play hard every game.”
The lone returning starter from last year is senior Uliana Reutov, a forward that possesses good ballhandling skills. Reutov has already missed action this year after going down with an injury at the Kenai River Challenge tournament last weekend.
The only other returning members from the varsity lineup last year are junior Alyssa Cole and sophomore Rylyn Todd. Everyone else is either making the jump from the JV squad or is new to the team. The seniors include Reutov, Annali Metz and Haley Knott.
When healthy, the starting lineup will feature Reutov, Cole, junior Maggie Box, sophomore Cora Parish and sophomore Kailee Veldstra. Felice said the system will feature a revolving door of positioning, with no consistent guard bringing the ball up the court in games.
At the Kenai River Challenge, the Mariners went winless in three games, including a 52-12 loss to fellow conference opponent Nikiski, but Felice said there is no cause for concern yet.
“There was a lot of nerves, we were running new stuff, but I believe in the girls,” he said. “I’d go up against anybody with the group of girls I have and they’re comfortable with the game and new things.”
After experiencing two heartbreaking championship losses last year, starting with a dramatic 41-38 final to Grace Christian in the Southcentral Conference tournament title game, then finishing with the state championship final, which they lost 49-26 against a powerful Barrow team, Homer had multiple reasons to lose confidence and allow doubt to creep into their minds, but Felice said after a summer to reflect on it, he would make no changes.
“Just getting back to that championship game was huge,” he said. “It had been 25 years, it was a great accomplishment, and we don’t regret anything. We gave our all.”
Starting this summer, several members of the team kept up preparations with offseason workouts in June. To avoid making comparisons to last year’s team, Felice said he’s had the squad training to retain the competitive edge.
Felice said he’s seen 12 to 14 players work three days a week over the summer, giving him hopes of a successful encore.
“Our goal is just to get better with every game,” Felice said. “We’re not so much concerned with wins and losses. We even have a tougher schedule, and that’s just because we need the game experience.”
The Homer boys finished out the 2015 season sixth in the SCC standings under Weston Carroll’s debut campaign as head coach.
Carroll returns for another go this year with a team that lost just one senior, forward Johann Kallelid, a bench player who saw consistent minutes a year ago.
“We had a really young team last year,” Carroll said. “We’re still somewhat young, but more experienced this year, so I’m hoping to be competitive.”
Even the competition noticed that Homer is a squad to contend with. Nikiski boys coach Reid Kornstad pegged the Mariners as a difficult team.
“They were young last year, and I think all their guys are back with a season under their belt,” Kornstad said.
In the season-opening tournament, the Al Howard/Powerade Tipoff, the Mariners found themselves in a trio of close games, including a 54-44 win over conference rival Nikiski, a 42-41 loss to Mt. Edgecumbe and a 45-42 loss to 4A opponent Kenai Central.
Carroll said as long as the contingent can continue improving throughout the season, a state appearance isn’t out of the cards.
“You never know how other teams will progress and which players are returning,” he said. “Our goal is to be in the top two.”
Among the returning starters are junior guard Jordan Beachy, senior guard Hunter Edens, senior post player Justin Ellison, junior forward Charles Rohr and junior center Joel Carroll, who stands tallest on the team with junior Adam Brinster at 6-foot-2. Coach Carroll added junior Koby Etzwiler as a sixth-man type of bench player.
“We’re a quick team, kind of fun-sized,” Carroll said, adding that Rohr brings speed to the floor, while Etzwiler and Edens are stealthy shooters.
The Seward girls slogged through a tough 2-20 season last year, and the rebuilding effort is on in earnest.
In his ninth year with the Seward hoops program, coach Curtis Berry said he is coaching a team thin on depth this season.
“Depth is our enemy,” Berry quipped.
Gone from last year’s team are graduated members Jessica Honebein and Iris Anderson, but returning are able-bodied starters, including juniors Ayla Lapanskas and Maille Moriarty. Players that didn’t start include sophomore Ashley Jackson, junior Riley VonBorstel, sophomore Coral Petrosius and senior McKenzie Hauze. Terri Cinereski and Madelyn Moore will see minutes off the bench.
Berry said he is not placing an abundance of expectations on the team, but is rather working on making improvements every contest.
“Our energy is better spent on getting better fundamentally and enjoying the game while we’re doing it,” Berry said. “That’s the reality of our vision, it’s where we’re at, we’re just keeping that focus on the process of trying to understand how to get the best out of our competitiveness.”
A split against Nome last week helped the Seahawks to further understand their makeup and mechanics.
“We’re going to be dependent on playing an inside game,” Berry said. “We need to get the ball in, and we have a couple girls that have a little bit of height.
“As long as we keep our wits with us and cut our turnovers down, we may get a win here and there.”
The Seward boys are facing a big loss of talent from a senior-laden squad last year, one that finished 9-13 overall and fourth in the conference.
Al Plan, back for his fifth year with the hoops program and second as head coach, said the team has returned to establishing a new identity with a different cast of players on the court.
One of the biggest losses to graduation was Ronnie Jackson, a senior last year that led the team in nearly every statistical category. Jackson is currently playing college ball at Oak Hills Christian College in Bemidji, Minnesota, a Division II school in the National Christian College Athletic Association.
Along with Jackson, Seward also lost valuable senior talent in Paxson Berry, Thomas Zweifel and Seth Brewi, all regular starters.
“If we’re playing Nikiski or the Lakers, they’ve just got to go out there and try to do what we coach them to do,” Plan said.
Even with the loss of five seniors, the Seahawks are still looking stocked in the starting lineup with a new set of seniors, last year’s junior class, on the way in.
The largest issue early in the year has been injuries. The team’s lone returning starter Rhett Seiverts is out with a knee injury that he initially sustained during the prep football season. Fellow senior Nik Pahno is also currently out with an ankle injury.
When healthy, Seiverts and Pahno will join junior starting point guard Sully Hauze, senior Hunter Kratz and Jonah DeBoard in the starting lineup. Plan said DeBoard will help give the team an inside presence and scoring benefit.
Plan also mentioned junior Case Estes, senior Michael Wilps, senior Kjell Nillson and junior Zen Petrosius as potential candidates to make big strides this season off the bench. Petrosius and DeBoard both stand as the tallest members at 6-foot-5.