In Class 3A high school hoops competition, most seasons see a regular heirarchy of a top team or two, a middle mix of contenders and one or two bottom rung squads.
With three teams out of seven in the Southcentral conference earning a ticket to the “big dance” in March, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for that middle group to step up and snatch a spot at state.
That’s why this year’s Southcentral conference tournament in Homer is once again expected to be wild as every basketball team looks for glory in either the championship game or the crucial third-place matchup.
The general consensus among coaches points to ACS and Grace Christian as the favorites on both the boys and girls side, but lurking in the shadows is a middle group consisting of Seward, Homer, Nikiski and Cordova, any of which could jump up and surprise folks.
The following is a closer look at the Peninsula teams:
The Homer girls have already gotten off to a hot start this year by toppling 4A school Soldotna on the opening day of the Kenai River Challenge tournament in mid-December.
First-year head coach Chad Felice may not have known before the game that the Homer girls don’t often beat their bigger rivals to the north, but he soon found out after the game.
“Just watching these girls go out and play like a team, that’s the big deal to me,” Felice said after the game.
Felice took on the head position for the Homer girls this year after coaching in New York state for 12 years as a middle-school coach and varsity assistant in Port Byron.
“It’s similar in size to Homer, and I’ve watched tape of other teams, but that’s about all we have in common,” Felice said.
Felice hails from the hoops-crazy region near Syracuse, home of the NCAA-champion college team, so he knows a little about the culture of the sport. Felice said winning the conference tourney on the Mariners’ home court would be a nice state sendoff.
“Winning regions at home would be pretty special,” he said. “We want to finish atop the league, go to state and make some noise.”
Felice said one of the early strengths of the team is defense. With three players listed at 5-foot-11 or above (topped out by 6-foot senior Celeste Fairbanks), the Mariners aren’t exactly lacking on size or height. Fairbanks is one of three seniors on the team, along with Larson Fellows and Shelby Alexander.
While the defense is coming along nicely in the early going, Felice said the offense is a work in progress, as he has introduced in a new, up-tempo style.
“They’re not running anything that they’ve learned last year,” Felice said. “It takes them a while to get comfortable with it, but when they run the fastbreak, they run it well.”
Juniors Madison Akers, Aurora Waclawski and sophomore Mariah Hendrickson ran portions of the new offense and contributed chunks of points in early tournament play.
Add to the mix junior Kayla Stafford — a transfer from Nikolaevsk — and the Homer girls seem to be on the right track. Stafford helped the Nikolaevsk girls team to state appearances the past three years, including a runner-up finish at the 1A tournament in 2013.
“We just hope to play good fundamental team basketball, and then get ready for regions,” Felice said about the end-of-year goals. “Regions is at home for us this year, which is a plus.”
The Homer boys are also getting a new coach in Nate Creel, who is taking over from Mark Casseri.
“We’re still just trying to play together,” Creel said. “Even though we have a lot of older guys on the team, for some of them it’s their first year playing. We’re looking for that unity.”
Creel lived and graduated from Petersburg, a small town about 160 miles southeast of Juneau, and this season is his first in Homer.
“I really think we’ve got a shot,” Creel said. “We’ve got nine seniors this year, so it’s just until we can get a full team, we haven’t seen what we can do yet.”
Listed on the varsity roster are eight seniors and one freshman (guard Jordan Beachy), so the experience and maturity levels are not something that Creel is concerned with.
The only thing that has had him worried early in the season are a few ankle injuries, sustained in practices. But once the medical concerns are dealt with, Creel said the Mariners are capable of having a big season.
“It’s really exciting, especially for this group of seniors,” Creel said. “They get to show the home fans what they can do.”
Also like the girls team, the Homer boys are not lacking vertical supremacy. Senior center Sheldon Hutt tops out at 6-foot-7, while seniors Ben Knisely and Patrick Rainwater are both listed at 6-foot-3.
Hutt is slated to be the team’s main post player, while seniors Brandon Beachy, Drew Brown, Filip Reutov and Kenneth Schneider will be directing the offense as forwards and guards.
Last year, the Nikiski girls secured their first state berth since 2009 with a runner-up result at the region tournament, but fell out after two days with losses to Mt. Edgecumbe and Valdez.
“I look back at that state tournament, and I feel like we played well but didn’t shoot well,” said coach Scott Anderson. “We got matched up with teams that were playing really well, and I think the experience of being there was big.”
Anderson returns for his fourth year coaching the Nikiski girls, which is looking a bit different this season.
The only two players that got time as starters from last year’s state squad are senior Rachel Thompson and Allison Litke. Thompson is the only full-time starter back from last year, as Litke started in about half of the games.
The rest of the players? Anderson said they are a mix of JV players and fresh faces.
“They’re all fairly athletic, not big, but fast, so I think a lot of it will come down to the belief on the girls part,” Anderson said. “Typically when they get along well, they’re going to have some success.”
Senior post player Chena Litzen, guard Haley Riddall and guard Ariana Parrish round out the rest of the current starting lineup.
With no conference games under their belt just yet, the Bulldogs have already come up big early in the season, winning the Holland America tournament in Sitka in mid-December. With three teams ending the tournament with a 2-1 record, the tiebreaker went to Nikiski, who allowed the least total points in the three games.
“I think that really showed a lot about who we are,” Anderson said.
The biggest thing that could have done is instill the confidence needed for such a young group of players. Combined with the hunger incurred after going two-and-out at the state tournament last March, the Nikiski girls could be dangerous when spring break rolls around.
“I told the girls, I think we’re gonna play our best ball in March,” Anderson said. “I hope as the season goes along we can grow and be in position to compete well.”
Anderson added that he also is looking forward to competing against an old friend, former Nikiski coach Ward Romans. Romans took the head coaching position for the Grace girls team this year, but already holds an impressive resume of state championships with the Nikiski girls, winning eight titles from 1992 to 2006.
“Basically the Nikiski girls team went to state every year with him,” Anderson said. “He built up a really solid program, he’s a good friend of mine, and I kind of jokingly wish he was in a different region, so I didn’t have to play him.”
On the boys side, Nikiski is looking to snap a much longer state-less streak. The Bulldogs have not been to the big dance since 2002. That year also broke a long drought of not making state that went back to 1996.
“That’s the plan,” said coach Reid Kornstad about the Bulldogs’ postseason goals. “These guys are a quality bunch and they have a great chance.
“If we can shoot it well in key games, they’ll have a chance.”
The boys have gotten off to a decent start, going 2-2 in Sitka with wins against Craig and conference opponent Houston at the Holland American tournament. Kornstad said he felt good about the weekend, adding that after seeing the action from the sideline, he believes this current crop to be one of the most even teams that he’s ever coached.
“They are learning how to compete on the court,” Kornstad said. “They’re very competitve, but learning to compete with the skills they have. They have a good feel for the game, and have good chemistry amongst this group. I think we have several guys that could be in double figures on any given night.”
Sullivan Jackson and Brady Malston return as two starting seniors, and both are joined by senior bench players Ben Carstens, Garrett Dohse and Nico Castro. A supporting cast of juniors include Cade Anderson, Sam Taurianen, Luke Johnson, Javon Pamplin, Nathan Carstens and Hunter Holloway.
Kornstad said the little things are what count in important matchups during the season, and it has been the little things that the Bulldogs have been working on in practice.
“We have some goals that are related to shooting percentage and turnovers,” Kornstad said. “If we can get off enough shots in practice to raise our percentage to acceptable levels and hang onto the ball, we’re gonna be competitive.”
Nikiski opens its conference schedule at home with a Jan. 10 matchup with Homer.
The other Peninsula team that earned a state berth at the 3A girls state tournament last spring have gotten off to a steady start in 2014.
The Seward girls topped Homer on the final day of the Kenai River Classic tournament, just two days after the Mariners pulled an upset on Soldotna. If common opponents are to be studied, then it’s a sure sign that the Seahawks are looking for a fifth straight state berth.
“We’re hoping to get a unit together to make another run at it,” said coach Mark Clemens.
Clemens said he is unsure of how the Southcentral conference will stack up this year, but he believes the road to the region title will go through ACS.
“We’ll see what happens, but there’ll be good competition on an equal playing field,” Clemens said. “Last year, it was one powerhouse with all the other teams pretty even.”
With four seniors on the current varsity roster that have been to the big dance every year, experience and maturity will be a big help. Maria Jackson, Tori Stallings, Jasmine Perea and Kiana Clemens represent the senior class. The four players step into the role recently vacated by graduated starters Ashley VonBorstol and Laura Kromrey.
Other key players such as juniors Jessica Honebein, Iris Anderson, and freshman Ayla Lipanskas add depth to an already stout lineup.
The Seward boys missed the cut to state last year with a region semifinal loss to Houston, but with three returning starters coming back this season, coach Curtis Berry is feeling confident of getting the team back to the state tournament.
“I feel good about our team, and I always will whether we win or lose,” Berry said. “I don’t have any qualms with what we’re doing right now. We just need to figure out a way to get points on the board.”
The current starting five on the roster include seniors Michael Wolfe, Michael Marshall and Alex Pahno, and juniors Paxson Berry and Ronnie Jackson. Coach Berry said he is tinkering with the offensive schemes, as the athleticism of the Seahawks often leads to fastbreak points but Berry said that will only go so far.
“I’m more focused on progressive goals, ones that we can measure, because I don’t feel that long term goals are that realistic if you don’t see how you’re getting to them,” Berry said. “We don’t want to put it out there in the atmosphere and think by magic we can get there.”
Wolfe, Marshall and Pahno often lead the Seward offense with speed, outworking and outsprinting their opponents with dizzying moves, and Berry said sometimes that can work against them.
“We will play up-tempo the whole game,” Berry said. “Sometimes we out tempo ourselves, make turnovers that are costly, and we lose track of our patience.
“You have to be able to go hard without the ball, and make sure you’re in control with the ball.”
The Seahawks get rolling in their conference schedule with a Jan. 2 matchup against Cordova.