It may seem quiet this time of year at the end of the Alaska Railroad in the small town of Seward, but the energy inside the Seward High School gym is getting ready to explode with noise and excitement.
That’s because Seward plays host to the 2019 Southcentral Conference basketball tournament, where eight schools and 16 teams will fight for four tickets to the Class 3A state tournament.
Seward’s gym is notoriously small and cramped to be hosting 16 teams, and peninsula coaches are mindful of how close the fans are to the action, and are preparing for the tournament in earnest with ways to beat the noise.
“Seward is a cracker box gym,” said Nikiski boys coach Reid Kornstad. “It will be an intense, pressure-filled, awesome high school basketball environment. The noise in there is piercing.”
“It’s going to be crazyville,” added Kenai Central girls coach Cary Calvert. “It’s going to be exciting, people are on top of each other.”
Even the home teams know they are facing a tough time when the crowd gets going.
“It’s wall-to-wall atmosphere,” said Seward girls coach Curtis Berry. “I think it’s going to be really crazy, it’s a great atmosphere. It’s a basketball mentality morning to night, it’s crowded and loud.”
Some coaches have even taken to creating a set of signs to communicate to the players on the court which play to run. Nikiski girls coach Rustin Hitchcock likened it to a third-base coach in baseball.
“There’s something to be said about the feel of the old days,” Hitchcock said. “There has the potential to be this circumstance you can’t control, and you really you have to try and drown that out.”
The tournament also boasts some of the best 3A teams in the state, evidenced by the two heavyweight contenders on the girls side, the Nikiski and Anchorage Christian Schools squads. The Lions have staged an impressive, undefeated run thus far at 24-0 overall, while the Bulldogs haven’t been far behind at 20-3.
Together, the Bulldogs and Lions have combined to go 19-1 against conference opponents, not including their only matchup against each other this year, an 86-56 win for ACS on Nikiski’s home court.
“It’s an ACS world,” Calvert said. “Our region looks pretty good, but Nikiski and ACS have been 1-2 pretty much all year.”
So is it inevitable that Saturday’s girls championship showdown will feature Nikiski and ACS? Last Friday, the Kenai girls showed they can hang with the Lions in a 57-32 loss that was still close at halftime — against a team that has averaged 73.5 points on offense this season — giving Calvert and the rest of the conference ideas of how to topple the Goliath.
“When you get beat by 53 (points) the first time, 25 doesn’t sound too bad,” Calvert said.
Hitchcock said he pored over film of that game, searching for weaknesses in the Lions’ game to exploit, and is eagerly anticipating a Saturday night clash when the lights are brightest.
“Being in the neutral court of Seward, there’s definitely a chance,” Hitchcock said about an upset win. “There’s some technique or design Kenai did that we didn’t do.”
The tournament bracket matches teams from the North division with teams from the South division. ACS clinched the top seed from the north and was followed by Grace Christian, Redington and Houston. The girls south division was led by Nikiski, followed by Kenai, Homer and Seward.
On the boys side, Anchorage Christian also holds command with a 22-4 overall mark this year, but conference foes have shown that there could be trouble brewing if ACS lets its guard down.
ACS clinched the No. 1 seed in the North division, and was followed in the regular season this year by Grace Christian, Houston and Redington. The South division was won by Kenai Central, followed by Seward, Nikiski and Homer.
The top two teams in the conference — aka Saturday’s championship contenders — get automatic bids to state. One at-large bid will also be awarded to the 3A team chosen in Sunday night’s March Madness Alaska Selection Show, which will be streamed live on the NFHS Network at 7 p.m.
The following is a quick look at Thursday’s opening games:
Nikiski girls (1S) vs. Houston (4N), 8:15 a.m. Thursday
The Bulldogs are 3-0 against the Hawks this season with a combined score of 165-51, but will open their tournament today with the early game.
Hitchcock said his team can’t afford to suffer a first-round collapse like it did at the ACS Pepsi Invitational tournament in early January, when the Bulldogs lost to Kenai 42-41 in the tourney semifinals in anticipation of a finals clash with ACS.
“We had that vision of playing ACS in the finals and got tripped up,” Hitchcock said. “We haven’t been able to have that experience before.”
Hitchcock said his team is getting healthy at just the right time, as several players missed contests in February due to illness and injury, including junior Kaycee Bostic, a post player.
Nikiski’s starting lineup features five dangerous names that opponents have had trouble defending this year, led by reigning Class 3A Girls Player of the Year, senior Bethany Carstens. Carstens is joined by seniors Kelsey Clark and Emma Wik, junior America Jeffreys and Bostic.
Kenai girls (2S) vs. Redington (3N), 3:45 p.m. Thursday
The Kardinals defeated the Huskies 42-18 in the only contest between the two schools in January, setting up what is expected to be a win and advancement to the semis for the Kards.
However, Calvert knows better than to underestimate any opponent.
“For us, it’s just all about Redington,” he said. “Who cares about anything else. They gave us some problems last time, and I’m not even allowing my girls to think about (other teams).”
Kenai has mostly avoided the illness and injury bug, Calvert said, although senior point guard Jaycie Calvert was sick last week and freshman Logan Satathite will likely not play this weekend after falling ill herself.
Calvert headlines a starting lineup that includes seniors Brook Satathite and Hayley Maw and juniors Liz Hanson and Damaris Severson, who will take over for Logan Satathite.
Homer girls (3S) vs. Grace Christian (2N), 12 p.m. Thursday
The third seed from the south could have the advantage over the second seed from the north in a lunchtime matchup.
The Mariners picked up a 33-26 win over Grace on Feb. 22 at home, setting up what should be a tight contest the second time around.
Backed by an experienced upperclassmen lineup, Homer is looking to advance to state for the first time since finishing runner-up in the 2016 dance. The Mariners feature seniors Alia Bales and Rylyn Todd and juniors Kelli Bishop, Laura Inama, Rylee Doughty and Marina Carroll.
Seward girls (4S) vs. ACS (1N), 7:30 p.m. Thursday
The fourth seed from the south division, and the host school, will have its hands full tonight with the undefeated ACS Lions. The Seahawks girls team lost 83-27 to ACS on the road just last Saturday.
Seward girls coach Curtis Berry is simply wanting to see the best game the Seahawks have played this year.
“From our perspective, we’re the low seed on the totem pole,” Berry said. “We expect to go out and finish the season with the same things in mind we started with. That’s continue to get better, which is cliche but that’s really what the game’s about.”
Seward has just two wins total this year, one each against North Pole and Eielson in tournament play, but will likely be buoyed by a feisty home crowd.
The lineup features seniors Ashley Jackson and Riley Von Borstel, Sequoia Sieverts, Anevay Ambrosiani and Katelyn Lemme.
Kenai boys (1S) vs. Redington (4N), 10 a.m. Thursday
The Kenai boys are searching for their first state appearance since 2012, and will play an early game against Redington, which the Kardinals defeated 62-33 in a home win in January.
“Better get some rest,” said head coach Ken Felchle.
With a win today, the Kardinals’ chances of securing their first state spot in seven years could rely on Friday’s semifinal, which would either be against Grace or Nikiski. Kenai holds three close wins over Nikiski, but fell in a 50-32 loss to Grace last weekend.
Felchle said the team has done everything it had to do to clinch the top seed from the south division, and that has set the Kards up for success with a best-case scenario in the region tournament.
“Here’s the deal, we can’t afford to underestimate anyone,” he said. “We did what we needed to do to give us the best chance. In the beginning of the year, everyone said ACS and Grace, they’ve been the best teams in this region. They’ve been two of the best teams in the state for a long time at 3A and 4A, and they still are the favorites.”
The Kardinals starting lineup features seniors Connor Felchle, Adam Trujillo, and Dominick Efta and juniors Logan Baker and Andrew Bezdecny. Coach Felchle said Efta was dealing with a sickness this week and could miss the first game, with either Tyrone McEnerney or Evan Stockton replacing him in the lineup.
“It would be an enormous honor to go to state with this group of boys,” he said. “They’re just a good bunch of kids.”
Seward boys (2S) vs. Houston (3N), 9:15 p.m. Thursday
The Seward boys have put the rest of the conference on notice by earning the second seed from the south, giving the Seahawks a shot at clinching a state spot for the first time in six years.
“It’s the beauty of March Madness,” said head coach Al Plan. “Upsets happen and maybe you’ll get the chance to redeem yourself after a loss.”
Seward prevailed 53-39 at home over Houston in January, a game in which the Hawks took an early 17-3 lead in the first quarter, before the Seahawks flipped the script and mounted a comeback to win.
“It was a lot closer than the score,” Plan said. “We had to claw our way back and fight to where we could put ourselves in position to win.
“We’ll have to work hard to match up with them, man to man, and be highly efficient offensively to win.”
The starting lineup includes junior Connor Spanos, sophomore Max Pfeiffenberger, senior Josh Jarvis, sophomore Sam Koster and a fifth player that Plan said would be determined later, based on matchup.
Nikiski boys (3S) vs. Grace Christian (2N), 1:45 p.m. Thursday
The Bulldogs lost a 52-39 home game to the Grizzlies on Feb. 23, but coach Reid Kornstad said if his squad can avoid a slow start like they did in that game, Nikiski can be playing in Friday’s semis.
“Against a team like Grace, you can’t spot them a big early lead,” Kornstad said. “We have to take it a possession at a time, we can’t lose confidence if we lose a few possessions. We just have to be poised and understand you lose some and win some.”
The Bulldogs flaunt a deep lineup that features a few deadly shooters, like senior Jace Kornstad, Noah Litke and Michael Mysing, along with some post size in senior Cody Handley, Michael Eiter and Shane Weathers.
Nikiski had a tough month of February, going 0-9, but revived its chances with a win over Homer in the regular season finale.
“It was tough, and the guys have done a great job of rallying down the stretch and battling that,” Kornstad said. “We’re realizing that confidence comes from knowing you’re prepared, and I’m excited.
“I think we’ve got the best road we could’ve gotten, we’re going to have to put two tough games together or one really, really tough game.”
Homer boys (4S) vs. ACS (1N), 5:30 p.m. Thursday
The Mariners face the daunting task of trying to upset the top-seeded Lions today. Homer lost 83-42 to ACS at home Feb. 23 in the only meeting between the two sides.
The lineup includes a talented cast of seniors Seth Adkins and Japheth McGhee, junior Daniel Reutov and sophomores Eyoab Knapp and Clayton Beachy.
Southcentral Conference tournament
At Seward High School
Game 1 — Nikiski vs. Houston, 8:15 a.m.
Game 2 — Homer vs. Grace, 12 p.m.
Game 3 — Kenai vs. Redington, 3:45 p.m.
Game 4 — Seward vs. ACS, 7:30 p.m.
Game 5 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 8 a.m.
Game 6 — Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 11:45 a.m.
Game 7 — Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 3:30 p.m.
Game 8 — Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 7:15 p.m.
Game 9 — Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 8:15 a.m. (4th place)
Game 10 — Game 7 loser vs. Game 8 loser, 12 p.m. (3rd place)
Game 11 — Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 3:45 p.m. (Championship)
Game 1 — Kenai vs. Redington, 10 a.m.
Game 2 — Nikiski vs. Grace, 1:45 p.m.
Game 3 — ACS vs. Homer, 5:30 p.m.
Game 4 — Houston vs. Seward, 9:15 p.m.
Game 5 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 9:45 a.m.
Game 6 — Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 1:30 p.m.
Game 7 — Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 5:15 p.m.
Game 8 — Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 9 p.m.
Game 9 — Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 10 a.m. (4th place)
Game 10 — Game 7 loser vs. Game 8 loser, 1:45 p.m. (3rd place)