Saturday night, with head coach Ward Romans standing on his new home floor, the Grace Christian girls basketball team captured their first Southcentral Conference championship in team history with an intense, drama-filled 41-38 victory over the Homer Mariners.
Looks like some of the old Nikiski magic has rubbed off with the Grizzlies.
“Homer is a championship team, and we were fortunate enough to execute tonight,” Romans said.
With the win, Romans claimed his 13th Southcentral crown as a coach but first with Grace Christian. The longtime coach of Nikiski, who won 12 region titles and eight state crowns with Nikiski through the 1990s and 2000s, pulled off the feat in just his second year as the Grace girls leader. It also marks only the second time the Grace girls team is headed to the big dance.
“Faith is main reason we’re standing here today,” Romans said. “This team has been through a lot of adversity, but they trust each other.”
Romans said he intentionally scheduled a tough slate of games this year for his squad in order to boost their Winning Percentage Index numbers for a state run, but he was also concerned the plan would backfire if the team lost too many games. As it was, Grace did lose to quality teams like Sitka, Barrow and Mount Edgecumbe.
“That’s a risk we took, because it’s not hard for a team to lose confidence,” Romans said. “But the chemistry of this team is fantastic, and they weren’t afraid to make some big plays down the stretch.”
The Grizzlies had to go through a formidable Homer girls squad to get the title Saturday. Homer took an 18-game win streak into Saturday that dated back to mid-January, and against Grace this year, Homer recorded a sweep with a 46-35 win at home and a narrow 35-34 win on the road, but all coaches know that beating a team three times in a season is tough.
“They’re at home and they’re tough,” said Homer coach Chad Felice. “A couple times, we gambled out there trying to get a steal and it hurt us.”
Romans noted that many times in his years with Nikiski, his Bulldogs would face Southcentral opponent Seward four times in a single season.
“It is a fact, it’s tough to play a team three times,” he said. “The familiarity with each other really makes it challenging.”
After a fast start that saw Homer stake out a 16-10 lead early in the second quarter, Grace clamped down on defense and turned the tide, taking a 22-18 lead into halftime.
In the fourth quarter, a few timely buckets by Makenna Shamburger and Sarah Laker helped stave off a last-ditch effort by Homer. Shamburger finished with seven points and Laker had six. Grace’s leading scorer was Annie VanderWeide, who went 5 for 6 from the foul line to finish with 13 points.
Homer senior Madison Akers had a strong performance with a game-high 20 points, including nine in the fourth quarter.
Senior guard Aurora Waclawski, who finished with eight points for Homer, noted that the game was almost a mirror opposite of what occurred at last year’s Southcentral tournament, which was held on Homer’s home floor. In 2015, the No. 3 seed Mariners knocked off the top-seeded Nikiski Bulldogs by three points in the tournament championship game.
This time around, Homer was the top seed and Grace played the role of the third-seeded underdog.
“It was tough,” Waclawski said. “We’re definitely bummed we didn’t win but we’re hoping it will motivate us at state.”
The pivotal moment came on a play that Homer had never run in the regular season, according to Waclawski. With 8.9 seconds on the clock, the Mariners attempted to send the ball across the court on the inbounds pass, but the throw by Kayla Stafford to Waclawski in the corner was too high and the ball sailed out of bounds, handing possession to Grace.
“We just didn’t do it correctly,” admitted Waclawski. “We’ve run plays similar to that, but never that exact one.”
Just prior to that moment, Shamburger converted one of two free throws to force a three-point lead.
Akers hit a jump shot with 3:25 left in the game to close Homer’s deficit to 36-34, but layups by Grace Salima and Laker put the Grizzlies in front by six points with 1:19 to play. Homer again cut the gap down to 40-38 in quick fashion with a driving layup by Akers with 36 seconds left and a baseline jumper by Stafford with 28 ticks left.
In the end, the home team proved to have enough in the tank to finally emerge victorious over the Mariners this season.
Romans paid respect to his fellow coach by praising Felice for his ability to adjust on the fly.
“I’ve been coaching for 25 years and I would be honored to have him coach my daughter,” Romans said. “Coaches can make other coaches work by changing and attacking. That’s why our games are always so close.”
When asked about Homer’s state championship chances, Felice said he was pleased that his team got the winning-streak snapped before the big dance.
“We’d rather lose now than two weeks from now,” Felice said. “It’s a whole new season at state, and we’re challenging ourselves to come together.
“That’s what I told them afterwards, I asked if they can come together or let this ruin us. The message was, we’re fine.”
Homer girls 32, Houston 29
The Mariners survived a scare in Friday’s semifinal contest at the Southcentral Conference tournament to claim a dramatic victory over the stubborn Houston Hawks at Grace Christian High School.
With a state tournament spot effectively wrapped up due to their state-leading Winning Percentage Index among 3A girls teams, the Mariners did not necessarily have to beat Houston, but the win was nevertheless important to keep the momentum rolling.
“It was definitely tense at the end,” said Homer senior Madison Akers, who embraced her teammates in an emotional hug after the final buzzer. “We’ve come so far from the beginning of the season, and we wanted to keep it going. We’re all one big family.”
Akers led Homer with 13 points, and capped her day with the go-ahead layup with 46 seconds left, which put the Mariners up 30-29 at the time. Once they were in the lead again, the Mariners forced two crucial turnovers in the final 24 seconds to seal the win.
“This was good for us,” said a relieved Homer coach Chad Felice. “I told them in the last huddle there that this is what we do, it starts on defense.”
The win was the 18th straight for Homer and advanced the Mariners to Saturday’s championship tilt against Grace Christian. The Grizzlies beat ACS in Friday’s other semifinal 45-30.
Kimberly Quincy led Houston by hitting 7 of 10 from the foul line and finishing with 13 points. Overall, the Hawks converted 9 of 16 from the free-throw line, and went 5 for 6 in the fourth quarter.
“Houston’s a really physical team, and the mentality for us was to get back on defense as soon as we could,” Akers said. “Beating a team three times is hard, and we saw it.”
Although they were ranked as the No. 5 seed, the Hawks were looked at by rival teams as a challenging matchup, and Houston coach Colton Conner said Thursday’s quarterfinal win over Nikiski and Friday’s test against Homer proved their mettle.
“We went in with a game plan to keep the score as low as possible, contain Madison at the post and (Kayla) Stafford at the perimeter, and the girls played their hearts out doing that,” Conner said. “Defensively, we played our best game.”
Early on, shots were falling for Homer. Aurora Waclawski knocked down a pair of 3-pointers to help the Mariners stake out a 13-2 lead after six minutes were up. Stafford opened the scoring with a triple of her own for Homer, and the defense forced Houston into three early turnovers as well.
However, the Hawks showed off their long range game as well with triples from Makayla Moore and Kaila Wilkerson, which closed Houston’s deficit to 13-8 by the end of the quarter. Moore buried another trey early in the second frame to knock the lead down to two points.
Homer led 19-15 at the halftime break, but Houston put up a charge in the third quarter with gritty defensive play that frustrated Homer, leaving the Mariners with a scant five points in the frame. A corner triple by Aspen Ruth with 3:30 to play in the quarter gave Houston its first lead of the day at 22-21. A late bucket by Waclawski put Homer back on top 24-22 by the end of the period.
As the teams headed into the fourth quarter, Homer began rebounding better, but the Hawks took the lead again with 1:47 to play on a jump shot by Wilkerson. Just 17 seconds later, Akers grabbed the lead back with a jumper from the free-throw line, putting Homer up 28-27.
After a Houston turnover, an empty possession by Homer ended in a traveling call on Akers, and a crosscourt inbounds pass by Houston resulted in another Homer foul, putting Quincy on the charity stripe.
Quincy hit both shots to give Houston a 29-28 lead, but it didn’t last long. The Mariners had the ball knocked out of bounds on the next possession, and on the ensuing inbounds pass, Akers collected the ball and laid it in for the 30-29 lead.
From there, the Mariners worked hard in pressing the Hawks, which helped force a Houston turnover with 24 seconds left. The sequence forced Houston to start fouling, and Waclawski helped build the lead to three points on a pair of clutch free throws with 16 ticks on the board.
“Aurora has ice in her veins,” Felice said. “It doesn’t affect her, she just knocks them down.”
Waclawski offered her explanation of her clutch gene.
“I guess I don’t remember to get nervous,” she offered.
From there, the Mariners held strong to clinch the win after a full-court shot by Houston bounced off the rim at the buzzer.
“This was a good win for us,” Felice said. “Last week’s (44-38) win over ACS was good, but this one was big to put us in state.”
Akers said with the Mariners’ second consecutive state berth locked up for certain, she plans on heading to the big dance with her teammates with one goal in mind.
“I want to end my high school career with three wins,” she said.
ACS girls 62, Nikiski 49
The Nikiski girls saw their season come to an end Saturday morning with a loss to Anchorage Christian Schools.
Amir Williams led the Lions with 23 points, including 11 of her team’s 20 points in the second quarter. Mary Kate Parks added 12 points as well for ACS.
Arianne Parrish mustered up a huge performance in her final game as a senior, scoring a team-high 21 points, including an 8-for-8 performance from the free throw line. Parrish and Brianna Vollertsen chipped in six points apiece in the third quarter, helping Nikiski close the gap to 48-41, but that was as close as the Bulldogs could get.
Emma Wik also hit a pair of 3s in the fourth quarter to finish with nine points for the Bulldogs. Overall, Nikiski converted 11 for 13 from the foul line.
Houston 40, Seward 31
The Seahawks ended their season with a thud, losing to the Hawks in a Saturday morning consolation matchup.
Kimberly Quincy scored 19 points to lead Houston, while teammate Makayla Moore added 12.
Ashley Jackson paced Seward with 10 points, all coming in the second half, while Maille Moriarty added seven.
The Seahawks outscored Houston 13-9 in the second quarter to trail the Hawks 18-17 at halftime, but Houston charged back in the third quarter by outscoring Seward 15-5.
Lions 62, Bulldogs 49
HOUSTON (29) — Thomas 0 0-2 0, Ruth 1 0-0 3, Moore 2 0-2 6, Wilkerson 2 2-2 7, Quincy 3 7-10 13, Moore 0 0-0 0. Totals 8 9-16 29.
HOMER (32) — Todd 0 0-0 0, Reutov 2 0-0 4, Knott 0 0-0 0, Draves 0 0-0 0, Akers 6 1-3 13, Cole 0 0-0 0, Waclawski 3 2-2 10, Stafford 1 2-4 5. Totals 12 5-9 32.
3-point goals — Houston 4 (Moore 2, Ruth 1, Wilkerson 1); Homer 3 (Waclawski 2, Stafford 1).
Team fouls — Houston 12; Homer 14. Fouled out — none.