Southcentral Conference tourney preview: Parity reigns

The top-seeded Grace Christian boys have lost twice in Southcentral Conference play — once to No. 2 seed Anchorage Christian Schools and once to No. 4 seed Cordova.

The top-seeded Nikiski girls have gone down four times in the league — twice to third-seeded Homer, once to fourth-seeded ACS and once to sixth-seeded Houston.

That should give some idea of the craziness that should ensue determining a champion once the Southcentral Conference tournament tips off today in Homer.

And while picking the champion is tough enough, determining which three girls teams and three boys teams emerge with Class 3A state berths is even harder.

“This will be a great tournament for the fans and the players,” Nikiski girls coach Scott Anderson said. “For the coaches, it’s going to be a little stressful, but everyone else can enjoy it.

“This would be the tournament to come watch if I was a fan.”

Both the Nikiski and Grace Christian girls finished 6-4, but the Bulldogs swept the season series from the Grizzlies to win the tiebreaker for the top seed.

That means Nikiski gets a first-round bye Thursday, resting up for the ACS-Seward winner.

Anderson said there can be benefits to playing on the first day, but this year he said the better option is probably to rest on the first day.

That’s because he doesn’t expect Cordova, the No. 7 seed, to be an easy game for Grace due to Cordova’s ability to keep games close with great shooting.

“In a year like this, I think the bye is a bonus because every game will be so hotly contested,” Anderson said.

The coach said the teams that do well will have the right mindset — focused and playing to win, not to lose.

After returning just one full-time starter from last year’s state team, Anderson said that going into the season, he told his wife and assistant coach, Sari, that he was expecting a .500 team.

With that returning starter, Rachel Thompson, having a great year, and all the players, especially Alison Litke and Chena Litzen, stepping up and filling big new roles, the Bulldogs have vastly outperformed the expectations of their coach.

“We’ve exceeded what I thought they could do,” Anderson said. “They just have to go out and play, and let whatever happens happen. They shouldn’t put pressure on themselves.”

And even though the tournament is in Homer, Anderson is expecting plenty of support for the Bulldogs.

“I really appreciate the support the Nikiski community has shown us,” Anderson said. “I couldn’t be happier than coaching where I’m at. It’s an amazing place and I’ve been out there 24 years.”

The third-seeded Homer girls start their tourney with a 6:30 p.m. tilt against No. 6 Houston today. Homer is 3-1 against the top two seeds Nikiski and Grace, yet has lost once to No. 4 ACS, once to No. 5 Seward and twice to No. 6 Houston.

“Both times we’ve played them it’s been the third game on a third day,” Homer girls coach Chad Felice said. “They shoot fairly well and they’re a physical team that wears us down a bit.

“We’re excited we drew them on the first day. It’s a challenge for us and the girls.”

Felice, who is expecting a boost from playing on Homer’s home floor, said defense, rebounding and a team approach to offense will be key for his squad.

“We play best when we have five players within five points of each other,” he said.

The Seward girls are a dangerous No. 5 seed and open with No. 4 ACS at 11:30 a.m. today.

The Seahawks have a run of four straight state berths going, and the last two years have won twice on Saturday to book their trips to Anchorage.

This year, that will be especially tough because Homer’s court is 10 feet longer than normal high school courts.

“Once you get into that third-place bracket, it’s all about heart,” Seward girls coach Mark Clemens said. “Anytime you play at 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. — those games are a real bugger.”

Of course, Clemens would prefer to make state through the winners’ bracket, and that starts with today’s game. Seward beat ACS twice this season, including in overtime last week.

With the games expected to be so close, Clemens said every possession will matter. He is leaning on the experience of seniors Kiana Clemens, Maria Jackson and Jasmine Perea to make those possessions count. With those three playing solid, coach Clemens said the other five regulars will have a chance to step up and be the difference.

The sixth-seeded Nikiski boys and third-seeded Homer boys will cap Thursday’s action with an 8:15 p.m. contest.

Nikiski finished 2-10 in the league, with victories over No. 7 Houston.

“We’ve been competitive in most of the games we’ve played,” Nikiski boys coach Reid Kornstad said. “We just haven’t been able to beat anybody else yet.”

Kornstad said his team was in both games with Homer, but the Mariners pulled away at the end.

He said Homer is tough to match up with because 6-foot-6 Sheldon Hutt is dangerous inside, while Jaruby Nelson and Kenneth Schneider are dangerous from outside. And if you forget about Filip Reutov, you will pay.

Kornstad said Luke Johnson will have to do a good job on Hutt, and guards Hunter Holloway, Nathan Carstens, Cade Anderson, Sam Tauriainen and Brady Malston will have to keep order on the perimeter.

The Nikiski coach then views Sullivan Jackson and Javon Pamplin as tough matchups that could swing the outcome in Nikiski’s favor.

Homer earned the third seed with an 8-4 record, losing twice to Grace and splitting with ACS and Cordova.

This past week in Homer, the Mariners beat ACS by a point and lost to Grace by a point. With 10 seniors on the squad and with the tournament being in Homer, head coach Nate Creel said he feels things are breaking in his team’s favor.

“With the home-court advantage, I believe my guys probably have a better shot to win it,” he said. “Our guys are excited and want to play hard, and want to come out on top in this tournament.”

Seward, the No. 5 seed, opens with No. 4 seed Cordova at 1:15 p.m. The Seahawks were 6-6 in the league, sweeping Nikiski and Houston, and splitting with ACS and Cordova.

“They’ve got some very good pieces we don’t have such as height and athleticism,” Seward boys coach Curtis Berry said of the Wolverines. “But that’s what we’ll give up with anybody we play.

“I’m feeling like we’re playing pretty well right now, and we’re peaking at the right time if there is such a thing.”

Berry said the Seahawks overcome lack of height with tough, team defense.

“Everybody is trying to do everything they can so we can go as far as we possibly can,” Berry said. “It’s not just one, two or three guys that are into it, everybody is into it. That bodes well.”

The other boys game features No. 2 ACS against No. 7 Houston.

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