Photo by Kelly Sullivan/ Peninsula Clarion Cook Inlet Academy Eagle Ashleigh Hammond avoids a steal from Nikolaevsk Warrior Megan Hickman, Thursday at Cook Inlet Academy in Soldotna.

Photo by Kelly Sullivan/ Peninsula Clarion Cook Inlet Academy Eagle Ashleigh Hammond avoids a steal from Nikolaevsk Warrior Megan Hickman, Thursday at Cook Inlet Academy in Soldotna.

State preview: CIA girls getting healthy at right time

Cook Inlet Academy girls coach Kenny Leaf doesn’t know much about Wainwright, the Eagles’ opponent at 9:40 a.m. Saturday in the Class 1A state tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center.

But Leaf does know that his team is as healthy as its been all year, and that has him feeling good as CIA heads into a ninth-straight March Madness Alaska.

When former head coach Rustin Hitchcock, who led CIA to a Class 1A title in 2013, stepped down as coach in the offseason, it was destined to be a year of change for the program.

But injuries have resulted in far more change than Leaf imagined.

Junior Richelle McGahan missed the first part of the season with an eye injury, then came back and promptly sustained a hamstring injury.

Junior Kendra Brush broke a bone in her hand about a month and a half ago and has not played a game since.

Sophomore Danielle Hills also has spent the latter half of the season getting up to speed after an ankle injury.

All this led to the Eagles playing in the Homer Winter Carnival tournament from Feb. 12 to 14 with just five players, and then taking to the road for Peninsula Conference games against Lumen Christi and Birchwood Christian with just six players.

And one of those players was sophomore Kendall Taplin, who has been slowed by a knee injury.

“I think it stuck us together,” Hills said. “It was really hard to watch them out there playing with five players.

“It was hard to watch the team go through that.”

Senior co-captains Madison Orth and Ashleigh Hammond were two that were able to stay on the floor.

“I think it definitely made some of the younger players stronger and more confident in knowing what to do,” Orth said. “Ashleigh and I were still able to play and it built up mental strength in us knowing we could get through it.”

There were some trying times in the stretch, such as a 44-13 loss to Nikiski at the Winter Carnival tourney, a 36-28 loss to Birchwood Christian and beating Lumen Christi in a 19-15 game.

“It took us some time to figure out how to play with five players,” Hammond said. “I think it made me grow as a leader.”

Leaf said the stretch was tough, but at least it happened near the middle of the season. Birchwood Christian earned the No. 2 seed at the conference tournament only to get hit by injuries and have to go through the tourney with just five players.

With Hills and McGahan looking more and more like their old selves, CIA was able to wrap up second in the conference, and a state berth, with a 29-21 victory over Ninilchik.

“It’s pretty special,” Hammond said. “It makes you feel special to make it all four years of your high school career.”

Leaf, who had never coached basketball before the season, was recognized as the girls coach of the year in the conference.

He said that was a team award, shared with assistants Nicole Moffis and Chloe Kytonen, as well as CIA boys coach Justin Franchino.

“People who know the team know the technical ability of this team is due to the assistants,” Leaf said.

CIA is now shaping up as a dangerous team, with four players — Orth, Hammond, Brush and McGahan — having experience from the title run.

“The year we won state, we lost in the region final,” Orth said. “As long as you’re going — that’s what you play for. It doesn’t matter if you are the second seed.”

Leaf said he thinks McGahan and Hills are finally all the way back from their injuries. Brush will play, but probably off the bench as she works back into game shape.

But Leaf said Brush is probably the best shooter on the team, plus a great defender, so she will provide quite a boost off the bench.

The coach also said the team should be energized and focused due to getting a week off of school for spring break. He said Orth, Hills and sophomore Emma Lyons received academic awards from the conference, and the team is full of good students that spend energy on their studies.

Not much is known about Wainwright, but that’s typical for the 1A tournament.

“You just go in and expect it to be the best basketball in the state,” Hammond said. “They made it to state, so they must be a pretty good team.”

The key at state is to focus on your own team, and Leaf likes what he sees there.

“It’s like a new team that’s coming out of regions,” Leaf said. “We’re getting healthy at the right time. I’m ready to run all of my horses at state.”

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