Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion Nikiski forward Hallie Riddall looks for an opening against Grace Christian in a Southcentral Conference game Feb. 18 at Nikiski High School.

Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion Nikiski forward Hallie Riddall looks for an opening against Grace Christian in a Southcentral Conference game Feb. 18 at Nikiski High School.

Southcentral hoops preview: Homer girls on path to state again

With the wild variety of scenarios that could play out in any season-ending hoops tournament, coaches are never at ease with their team making it out alive.

Homer coach Chad Felice can rest a little easier than most coaches, however. That’s because his girls team has racked up so many wins this year, it’s nearly impossible for the Mariners to miss out on the big dance.

With a season record of 21-1 overall and a current 17-game win streak on the line, the Homer Mariners are heading into this weekend’s Southcentral Conference tournament at Grace Christian High School with a wave of momentum.

In addition to their pristine 10-win sweep of Southcentral Conference opponents, the Mariners are 14-1 against rival 3A teams in the state, placing them No. 1 on the Winning Percentage Index (WPI) list, which was released Wednesday by the Alaska School Activities Association.

Felice said the stress of making state is nearly nonexistent for his team, as being the top team in the WPI standings gives Homer a near lock on a state berth.

“That was part of our goal, get that number one seed in the WPI,” Felice said. “I don’t know if we will, but we should have a pretty good spot, having just one 3A loss.

“That’s a little less stress on the team, so we can just play and have fun.”

The Homer girls get a first-day bye for the tournament, and will play the winner of Thursday’s Nikiski and Houston matchup Friday at 2 p.m.

The last time Homer lost was Jan. 14 against Bethel at the Nikiski Tip Off tournament. The Warriors nipped the Mariners 37-36 that night, but it provided a kick in the pants for Homer to run the tables the rest of the way.

However, Homer hasn’t had it all easy. In victories over Grace Christian, Houston and Anchorage Christian last weekend, the Mariners won by a combined 14 points, including a tight 35-34 win over Grace. Felice said the Mariners haven’t overlooked anyone.

“Last weekend, we were tested, which was great because we were in spots we haven’t been in before,” Felice said. “You play teams the second and third time around, it gets tougher, especially with all the great coaches in our conference.”

Seward coach Curtis Berry explained that what makes Homer tough to beat is their depth at each position on the floor. With a post presence by senior Madison Akers and a perimeter sniper like senior Kayla Stafford, opposing teams must keep a vigilant watch on the entire court.

“I think they’re a bit above the rest of us,” Berry said. “When they’re playing well, they have the ability to go off on you, because they have solid players in three or four spots that can hurt you in more than one way.”

Akers leads Homer with 18 points and 9.2 rebounds per game this season, and has a free throw percentage of .724, important when teams take Homer to the foul line late in games. Meanwhile, Stafford leads the Mariners in made 3-pointers with 38, and has four years of state experience already under her belt, including three state trips with Nikolaevsk at the 1A level.

“(Akers) has so many assets to her game, whether it’s shooting from the outside, driving the lane, post up,” Felice said. “She has many different styles of play she can adapt to.”

Felice, a New York state native who took over as coach of the Mariners just one season ago, pointed to the team’s hardy defense and defensive press as the key factors to the team’s winning streak.

“We just work hard on the defensive end, and that’s where we pride ourselves,” he said. “When we’re pressing on defense, we get a lot of offense out of that.

“They know it starts from the defensive end, and if they don’t play defense, they’re not going to play.”

After making it to the 3A state tournament last year, Homer also has the advantage of experience under the bright lights now.

When asked which Southcentral opponent scares the Mariners most, Felice pointed to all of them.

“Anybody can beat anybody on any given night,” he said. “We’ve been a little lucky to play this well, but they’re all coached great with great game plans, so it’s always a tough task, and now we’re going into the region tournament, everyone will be gunning for (us).”

If Homer suffers a postseason breakdown and fails to make it to Saturday night’s girls championship game, which guarantees a spot into the state tournament, then they can likely fall back on their WPI position. Felice said Grace will be tough just because the Grizzlies are playing on their home court, an advantage that Homer enjoyed last year.

“You always have that huge advantage of home court, and (Grace coach) Ward (Romans) will have that,” Felice said. “That gave us a big boost last year, just being at home.”

KCFT channel 35 and GCI channel 19 will broadcast live coverage of the tournament, and games will also be streamed live at KCFT.org.

The following is a closer look at the other Peninsula team matchups:

(3) Nikiski boys vs.
(6) Homer, 7:15 p.m. Thurs

The Nikiski boys started on a hot streak, but have since cooled off. After beginning the season with a 12-2 record (including Outside games at the Makahiki Hou Invite in Hawaii), the Bulldogs have lost seven of their last 10 contests, and the regular season ended with a thud with a road weekend sweep by conference opponents Grace Christian, ACS and Houston.

“I don’t know if I can explain it,” said Nikiski coach Reid Kornstad. “It’s a mental thing, an issue of confidence, and that’s about the best way I can explain it.”

Nikiski’s early hot streak culminated with a clutch 58-57 victory against Monroe Catholic, which had Nikiski as high as second in the 3A boys WPI standings. The recent run of losses to 3A opponents, however, have left the Bulldogs sitting seventh in the state in the WPI rankings with an 8-6 record against fellow 3A competition, and third in the region behind Grace and ACS. Nikiski finished with a 15-9 overall mark, 5-5 in the conference.

Kornstad said the three things the Bulldogs have struggled with most in the last month have been turnovers, shot selection and fouling. The sloppy play by Nikiski has limited the team’s offensive opportunities to score, and when an athletic, run-and-gun offense like the Bulldogs does not get the chances to do what they do best, the losses pile on.

“You have to control the things you can control, and we have allowed ourselves to not control those things,” Kornstad said.

However, Kornstad said the recent days of practice leading up to the tournament has left the team in a good mood and feeling optimistic about their state chances. The last time the Nikiski boys went to state was 2002.

In two games against Homer this year, Nikiski has compiled two wins, a 68-43 victory in mid-January and a 71-37 triumph just a week later. Since then, Kornstad said the Mariners could be an entirely different team.

“We haven’t played them since early in the season, and as young as they are, I’m sure they have improved immensely,” he said.

Kornstad said the Bulldogs are not relying on WPI to take them to state, as the late swoon likely left Nikiski out of the running for the sole spot by that method.

“We have the athleticism and physical bodies to get the job done, and we have the shooting to get it done,” Kornstad said. “We have six seniors that are all A students, and good athletes, and they know what they’re up against.”

(4) Seward boys vs.
(5) Houston, 3:45 p.m. Thurs

After ending with a 4-6 conference record and 9-13 overall, the Seahawks clinched the fourth seed out of the six-team tournament.

Seward beat Houston in two meetings this year, a 69-51 win in mid-February and a 63-48 victory last weekend. However, Seward coach Al Plan said his Seahawks must remain vigilant if they expect to take down the Hawks a third time.

“It’s hard to beat a team three times in a season,” Plan said. “I think everybody is aware of that because of the closeness of the region.”

Plan said after his team stumbled last week with two straight losses to ACS and Grace, the team was forced to search for different ways of beating their competition. Seward, a team that likes to press other teams and run the floor at a fast pace, has four senior starters, led by guard Ronnie Jackson.

“Ronnie’s one of those guys that makes everyone around him better,” Plan said. “We like to push the pace, and a lot of teams know that, so they try to keep it back.”

Against top-seeded ACS however, Seward has found a different challenge. Plan said the Lions are one of the only teams in the region that can outpace the Seahawks, and if the Seahawks plan to punch their ticket to the big dance, a date with ACS is inevitable on Friday in the semifinal round.

“We press most teams most of the game, but we had to back out of that against ACS,” Plan said. “Their front line has a few guys that are like (6-foot-5), so we had to change it up.”

With the conference tournament being slimmed down to two automatic state bids, after years of having three headed to the big dance, Plan said that shifts the focus drastically from Saturday’s third-place game to the title bout.

“If you really want to be confident, make it to finals,” he said. “I would hate to have to hang any money on that.”

(4) Nikiski girls vs.
(5) Houston, 2 p.m. Thurs

The Bulldogs ended the regular season with a split 11-11 overall record, but 4-6 in the conference.

Ranked 10th in the WPI standings with a 9-8 record against 3A competitors, Nikiski is looking at Saturday’s championship tilt as essentially its only option of making it to the state tournament.

The Bulldogs were 2-1 against Houston this year, but ended the season with a 53-45 loss to the Hawks last Saturday. However, the loss was preceded by a clutch 50-48 victory over Grace Christian the night before, giving Nikiski a spurt of confidence heading into the Southcentral tournament this weekend.

Nikiski is looking for its third straight state appearance.

(3) Grace Christian girls vs. (6) Seward, 5:30 p.m. Thurs

Seward suffered through a tough 2-20 campaign, and went winless in the conference.

Nevertheless, Seward coach Curtis Berry said the team is remaining optimistic that an upset is in the cards.

“You always hope the stars align, but have to be realistic as well,” Berry said. “We’re looking at it as anybody on any given night can beat anybody.

“We’re looking to play the best game we can give anybody, and if it’s more than they can handle, we’ll take it.”

The Seahawks are dealing with a tough opening matchup today against Grace, a team that defeated Seward 31-24 and 44-16 in two meetings this year. Berry said if the Seahawks are to take down the Grizzlies, an improvement on Seward’s end is needed, starting with consistency on offense.

“When you struggle like we have, it’s not as much attacking,” Berry said. “There’s only so much we can do with the tools we have to work with. Our best hope is to hang in there.

In order to do that, Berry said the Seahawks will have to slow the tempo against Grace and work to stifle the Grizzlies on defense. If they can contain Grace’s top shooters, then the Seward offense will have a shot.

The biggest aspect Seward has going for it, according to Berry, is the expectation level.

“I think it takes away some of that pressure going into the tournament,” he said. “There’s no added burden of something we have to protect.”

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