Homer’s Daniel Reutov slips while dribbling the ball with pressure from Service’s Brandon Gail (14) Dec. 15, 2017, at the Powerade/Al Howard Tip-Off tournament at Soldotna High School. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

Homer’s Daniel Reutov slips while dribbling the ball with pressure from Service’s Brandon Gail (14) Dec. 15, 2017, at the Powerade/Al Howard Tip-Off tournament at Soldotna High School. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

Southcentral hoops preview: Girls field chasing Nikiski, boys field hunting Anchorage teams

A dream hoops season quickly turned into a nightmare for the Nikiski girls program last March, and all it took was one play.

The juggernaut Bulldogs entered last spring’s Southcentral Conference tournament on the heels of a 21-2 season, but just minutes into the tournament semifinal against Grace Christian, leading scorer Bethany Carstens collapsed on a drive to the rim, ending her season on the spot with two torn knee ligaments and a fractured femur.

While Nikiski head coach Scott Anderson always stresses the team aspect of the sport, there was no doubt that the loss of Carstens, who accounted for 40 percent of Nikiski’s scoring in 2016, put a big knot in the Bulldogs’ state plans.

“It was a big blow and it took a while to recover from that,” Anderson said.

Nikiski lost that region semifinal to Grace, had to rely on a Winning Percentage Index berth to play at state, and finished 1-2 at the big dance, losing a semifinal clash to Sitka. The Bulldogs took home a fifth-place finish at a state tourney they believes they could’ve won.

With that heartbreak on their mind, the Nikiski girls are back this year to try again.

“I was really pleased with how the girls finished the year last year,” Anderson said. “Going to state and beating Grace (in a quarterfinal game) said a lot about them. That was awesome, they showed a lot of resilience, and I think it showed that they can play as a team.”

As it is with any injury to a significant scorer, the question remains of how effective Carstens will be after her recovery. Anderson isn’t worried.

“She’s done a lot of offseason work, physical therapy and stuff,” he said. “She’s wearing a brace, and looked good last weekend. As the year goes on, she’s going to get faster and faster, stronger and stronger.

“She averaged 18 (points) last weekend, and she’s still getting back into it.

Nikiski is already off to a 3-0 start this year after a weekend of wins — including one over 4A opponent Soldotna — at the Craig Jung Kenai River Challenge, but with Anderson’s experience, the task continues to unfold one game at a time.

“There’s a lot to be seen yet,” Anderson cautioned. “ACS is coming off the state title, and for us, we’ll have to take it one game at a time.

“Hopefully we’ll put ourselves in that position.”

The line of Southcentral Conference foes waiting to test their mettle against the Bulldogs is long. It includes defending Class 3A state champion Anchorage Christian, Grace Christian, Homer and Seward.

“In our region, we have 1A and 1B,” explained Homer coach Chad Felice. “It’s ACS and Nikiski. Everyone else is fighting for third.”

Entering his fourth year with the Homer girls program, Felice has experienced similar pains. In 2015-16, Felice coached the Mariners to a 24-3 season and the Class 3A girls state championship game, where they lost to a dominant Barrow team. Leading the way that year was a talented core of seniors that included 3A Player of the Year Madison Akers.

Now, after a year of rebuilding from the loss of that talented senior crop, Felice said the Mariners could possibly be in the mix for that aforementioned third seed.

“Right now we’re kind of in the middle of the road,” Felice said. “The girls have been working hard, putting in ton of time in the offseason.”

Seward head coach Curtis Berry echoed Felice’s thoughts in pointing to Nikiski and ACS as the top dogs in the conference.

“(Carstens) is back and I know she’s tough as ever,” Berry said. “So there’ll be some monsters to slay out there.”

The boys teams in the Southcentral Conference also have a 3A state champion to deal with in Grace Christian. The Grizzlies went 21-6 last year (12-0 in the conference) and capped the seasons with a state championship.

Coaches don’t expect a dramatic change, especially considering Grace returns one of the state’s star players in point guard Tobin Karlberg, who average 16.3 points per game.

The other Anchorage juggernaut, ACS, won the Southcentral Conference title and didn’t lose much of its starting core, making for quite a dynamic duo between the Grizzlies and the Lions.

“I don’t see how you can pick anybody else than those two,” said Seward head coach Al Plan, who added that the Homer boys may be a dangerous outside threat this year. “Homer is going to be the next team in line.

“They can pick off ACS or Grace in a home night down there.”

The Homer boys finished fourth in the conference last year with an even 6-6 record, and things are certainly trending upward for the Mariners.

Weston Carroll returns for his third go-round with the team as head coach, and said he believes his squad is in the mix for the third seed, behind the two Anchorage powerhouses.

“Grace and ACS have that reputation of being 1-2 for quite some years,” Carroll said. “A lot of their kids play in a fall league up there.

“We live in our little ‘podunk-ville’, and it’s hard to get in the gym to play sometimes.”

Nikiski coach Reid Kornstad agrees with Plan that the Mariners are in position to knock off the two Anchorage schools.

“Homer has a very competitive group of seniors, they’re very well-coached, Weston does a phenomenal job with them,” he said. “They’re going to give anyone they play all they can handle.”

Kornstad added that the history of the Southcentral Conference landing a boys team in the state title game is on Anchorage’s side, so another year of challenges for peninsula teams is coming.

“We’ll see,” Kornstad said. “They’re always the measuring stick.”

The following is a more detailed look at each peninsula team:

NIKISKI BULLDOGS

At 11-1 in the conference, the Nikiski girls finished in a tie with ACS for the top spot last year, but were handed the second seed with the flip of a coin.

Anderson, who begins his seventh campaign as head girls coach at Nikiski, is approaching his year with renewed optimism.

“Our goal this year is not necessarily based on wins and losses, but to improve every time we step on the court,” he said. “If we do that, we know the end result will be good.”

The Bulldogs lost three seniors, including a starter in Ayla Pitt. Avery Kornstad and Brianna Vollertson also graduated after contributing significant minutes as seniors.

The returning cast of starters include Carstens as a shooter, junior Kelsey Clark at point guard, junior shooting guard Emma Wik, and senior forward Rylee Jackson, who started about half the season last year. Anderson said Clark committed just one turnover in three games at the recent Kenai tournament.

Joining the starting cast is sophomore Kaycee Bostic at the post. Anderson said Bostic stands about 5-foot-11 and has made a giant step up this year to be on varsity.

The deep bench includes sophomore wing Kaitlyn Johnson and sophomore point guards America Jefferies and Angela Druesedow, as well as freshman Lillian Carstens, younger sister to Bethany.

“We really have 10 solid girls,” he said. “It’s basically two varsity teams going at it in practice.”

Overall, Anderson said the team is well equipped to compliment Carstens’ scoring abilities.

“This year we have the opportunity to put Bethany on the bench for a little while,” he said. “It allows us to work with different matchups and groups on the floor.”

The Bulldogs lost the Craig Jung Kenai River Challenge on a defensive points tiebreaker, but Kornstad believes his squad had the best performance of the weekend in a win over Soldotna.

“We played one of the tougher teams in Soldotna,” he said. “That was the game of the tournament and a confidence booster.”

The Nikiski boys missed state last year, going 2-20 one year removed from a trip to the big dance.

In his 19th year as head coach, Kornstad said he is already seeing improvements. The Bulldogs split four games against their opponents two weeks ago at the Holland American tournament in Sitka.

“I’d like us to continue to learn to play defense the right way and build the right habits to play hard and consistently and play together,” Kornstad said. “It’s one building block at a time. We’ll see in March how we stack up, but right now our main competition is us.”

The Bulldogs lost one senior and starter in Braden Ellis, but four others return to the starting lineup.

Leading the way are seniors Ian Johnson and Cody Handley and junior Jace Kornstad. Both Johnson and 6-foot-4 Handley are menaces to opponents in the paint, while Kornstad has clearly staked a claim as a deadly outside shooter in his tenure with the team.

Kornstad said the experience of those three, which extends to the 2016 state tournament appearance, is crucial for the team.

“It’s nice to have Ian, who’s a big strong kid to do all the dirty work, and Cody, who will play with his back to the basket, he’s really long,” Kornstad said. “And Jace, who’s highly skilled with the ball, can penetrate and dish and shoot it very well.”

Junior Shane Weathers and sophomore Noah Litke will add depth as power forwards for Nikiski.

Nikiski’s bench includes senior Tyler Litke, fresh off a run at the state wrestling tournament, and juniors Garrett Ellis and Seth DeSiena and sophomore Michael Eiter, a JV player last year. DeSiena and Eiter will fill in as forwards, while Litke will use his 195-pound frame as a post player.

Michael Bridges joins Litke and Johnson as the three seniors on the team.

SEWARD SEAHAWKS

Al Plan’s third year as head coach of the boys team may be his most challenging. The Seahawks lost seven seniors, including all five starters from last year, which saw Seward go 4-8 against conference opponents.

Plan realistically labelled this season as a rebuilding effort.

“We have a lot of learning to do, but we have a good crop of freshman and sophomores that are eager to learn,” he said. “We’re going to have some growing pains, but we have a good group of seniors that are great role models.”

Leading the starting lineup are returning seniors Case Estes and Zen Petrosius. At 6-foot-6, Petrosius can be a tough player for opponents to handle in the paint, Plan said, which will help to spread the floor.

“He’s going to be hard to handle for other teams, they may have to throw three guys at him,” Plan said. “But we can use his skill set to make everyone else better.”

Petrosius and Case Estes got time off the bench last year with a handful of starts mixed in.

Joining the two seniors are junior guard Josh Jarvis, sophomore forward Connor Spanos and David Thomas.

The bench includes senior Simon Estes, sophomore John Moriarty and freshmen Max Pfeiffenberger, Trey Ingalls and Sam Koster.

With hopes of a deep playoff run, Plan said the team will have to come together at the right time, a process that includes “doing the non-skill things every night.”

The Seward girls return head coach Curtis Berry, who enters his third year with the team on the current stint. Berry previously coached the girls four years before taking over the boys program for three years, making 2017 his 10th total season with the basketball program.

But, Berry hasn’t coached a team to the state tournament since 2013, when he took the Seward boys to a seventh-place finish.

The girls finished fifth in the conference last year with a 5-7 record against opponents, and the Seahawks lost just one senior bench player.

“We’re just working to get a little bit better,” Berry said. “We’re really focused on performance and not outcomes. We don’t have that kind of manipulative power.

“We’ll try to stay with some teams, and try to pull one out here and there.”

However, the team lost would-be starter Ayla Lapinskas, a senior that graduated a semester early, and another starter to a medical issue, making for a tough road ahead.

Three starters return in junior point guard Ashley Jackson, forward/guard Riley VonBorstel and 5-foot-10 forward Coral Petrosius. Joining the starting lineup are senior guards Rose Terry and Alexis Sullivan.

“From there, we’re pretty raw,” Berry said.

Berry said the bench is all underclassmen, three of which have limited varsity experience. Berry’s bench includes sophomore Sophia Dow and freshman forward Sequoia Sieverts, as well as freshmen wings Anevay Ambrosiani, wing Katelyn Sawyer-Lemme and forward Selma Casagranda.

HOMER MARINERS

Many fingers are being pointed to the Homer boys as the team to put up the greatest fight against Anchorage and Grace Christian schools.

Weston Carroll, in his third year at Homer, is optimistic about his crew.

“If we focus on one game at a time … the WPI business will take care of itself,” Carroll said.

The Mariners return three of five starters from a year ago. The current cast includes senior point guard Koby Etzwiler, junior forward Seth Adkins, senior guard Jordan Beachy, junior post Japheth McGhee and senior post Joel Carroll. McGhee stands at 6-foot-4 while Carroll is 6-2. McGhee and Adkins are new to the regular starting lineup.

Coach Carroll said Etzwiler and Beachy will handle the ball most and help distribute and space the floor, while McGhee and Carroll will provide an inside presence.

Sophomore guard Daniel Reutov is expected to provide a spark off the bench, as will sophomore forward Ethan Anderson.

Homer went 1-2 against a variety of teams early this season at the Powerade/Al Howard Tipoff tournament, and Carroll said he is working on tuning up the team defense and transition game.

“We want to be a team that’s quick with energy,” Carroll said.

On the girls side, Felice continues to try to rebuild a program less than two years removed from a second-place finish at state. After the senior class of 2016 left, Homer was drained of experience, dropping to a 2-23 finish last year after going 24-3 in 2015-16 and knocking the Mariners to sixth place in the conference standings, a tough season by Felice’s standards.

“I don’t have an exact word for it,” Felice said. “I look at it as a big positive. These girls that are juniors and seniors now were part of (the 2016 state run), and they’re motivated to get better.”

Unlike last year when Homer was drained of its senior talent, the Mariners return all but one of their starting five. Last year’s lone senior Uliana Reutov was a significant starter.

The only players with significant experience from that 2016 state tournament run are seniors Alissa Cole and Maggie Box, both which have been named team captains.

Felice said the experience of Cole and Box is crucial to the team, which has completely rounded out to fit Felice’s coaching philosophy.

“The girls have adapted to my ways,” he said. “They know that you earn what you get. Not everyone gets a ribbon just for being here.”

Junior guard Rylyn Todd returns with minimal playoff experience from two years ago, and sophomore forward Rylee Doughty returns to add depth, although the latter will not join the starting lineup until later in the season due to a hip injury.

Freshmen sisters Anna and Anna Godfrey will start at the guard positions, along with Cole, Doughty and Todd and sophomore forward Marina Carroll.

Nikiski’s Bethany Carstens (20) drives into a pack of Redington defenders, March 9, 2017, at the Southcentral Conference tournament at Nikiski High School. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

Nikiski’s Bethany Carstens (20) drives into a pack of Redington defenders, March 9, 2017, at the Southcentral Conference tournament at Nikiski High School. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

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