Even though this is the first year the Class 1A state basketball tournament will be held at the Alaska Airlines Center, the Nikolaevsk girls and boys basketball teams have had the goal of returning there all season.
Both the Nikolaevsk girls and boys qualified for the Class 1A state basketball tournament last season, but that is not when they were at the Alaska Airlines Center. The building wasn’t even open yet.
After taking second place at the Mixed 6 state volleyball tournament in mid-December, the Warriors hustled over to the Alaska Airlines Center to watch the University of Alaska Anchorage men’s basketball squad.
“Partly, we wanted the students to see college basketball,” said Nikolaevsk boys coach Steve Klaich. “We also wanted them to get familiar with the facility, and set the goal to return to play in that beautiful facility.”
When March Madness Alaska tips off with a full day of 1A action Saturday, the Warriors will make good on their goal. The Nikolaevsk girls play Akiak at 5:10 p.m., while the Nikolaevsk boys face Noorvik at 6:50 p.m.
Klaich and his wife, Nikolaevsk girls coach Bea Klaich, decided to emphasize fundamentals at the middle-school level and have watched that pay off in high school.
The girls, coming off a third-straight Peninsula Conference crown, are making a fourth-straight trip at state. The boys will be back at the state tournament for a second-straight year after having been absent since 1997.
“This started in middle school,” Bea Klaich said. “This kind of thing doesn’t happen overnight.”
For Bea Klaich, this has been a particularly gratifying year because the Warriors returned just two starters from last season and lost two players who went on to play college ball.
Making an undefeated run through the conference and losing just twice all season means Klaich has developed a program and not just a team.
The only thing that has eluded the program is a championship.
Nikolaevsk finished fifth at the Class 2A level in 2012, second at the Class 1A level in 2013 and won the consolation tourney at the 1A level last season.
Gone are the days when just making the trip to Anchorage knocks everybody’s socks off.
“I’ll never forget the first time we made it to state — we had five eighth-graders on the roster,” Klaich said. “Almost all of them, except for a couple, had never been to the Sullivan (Arena), and the look on their face was priceless.”
Now it’s more shocking if the Warriors lose in the first round, as they did last season in a 43-42 decision to Buckland.
“We definitely learned a lot,” Klaich said. “I don’t feel like we overlooked them, but we knew we were a good team, and we thought we would get through that game and obviously we didn’t.”
Nikolaevsk captains Kilina Klaich, a senior, and Serafima Kalugin, a junior, were both starters in that game and have come back this season with a vengeance.
Kalugin has averaged 14.1 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, while Klaich puts up 6.1 points per game and 4.2 assists per game.
“They’ve both led by example and hard work,” Bea Klaich said.
Junior Megan Hickman and freshman Vera Fefelov were the first off the bench last season and have stepped into the starting lineup this season. Hickman gets 9.1 points per game and Fefelov gets 6.5.
The big question was the fifth starter, and junior Nadejda Gordeev has returned from an injury last season to fill that position. At 5-foot-11, she pulls down 6.2 rebounds per game.
Taking into account injuries and players that had a year off, Klaich had seven new girls playing this season.
“It took time to get us clicking,” she said.
But a 40-22 victory against Cook Inlet Academy in the Peninsula Conference championship showed the Warriors are humming an all cylinders.
Nikolaevsk lost just one game at the 1A level this season — to defending state champion Newhalen.
Klaich said a seeding committee did a lot of research to try and keep powerhouse teams from meeting early in the tournament, and Newhalen is on the other side of the bracket.
Of course, none of that matters if the Warriors can’t top Akiak. Klaich said she has heard Akiak is a fast team that likes to press, much like the Warriors. However, the coach has also heard Akiak doesn’t have the same height as Nikolaevsk.
“My approach is one game at a time,” said Klaich, who will take her team to watch the UAA women play Friday night. “I don’t like to look too far into the future.”
The Nikolaevsk boys also lost their first game at state last year, but recovered nicely to win two games before losing the consolation final.
Sophomore Nikit Fefelov and juniors Jonah Fefelov, Felemon Molodih and Neil Gordeev all played major roles on last season’s team and played in the Peninsula Conference tournament like they are hungry for more this season.
Nikit Fefelov hit 19 3-pointers in the tournament, including five in one quarter. Jonah Fefelov and Molodih both played solid defense, with Fefelov hitting seven 3s and Molodih connecting on five.
Gordeev is the team’s most athletic player, according to Klaich, and he showed that athleticism on offense and defense as the tournament went along.
Nikit Fefelov leads the squad with 14.6 points per game, while Molodih has 12.3, Gordeev has 11.7 and Jonah Fefelov has 9.4. Gordeev also averages 10.4 rebounds per game.
Freshman Kalenik Molodih also showed the maturity he has gained through the season with his ball-handling and rebounding.
“This has to be the most unselfish team I’ve ever coached,” said Klaich, who has been the coach at Nikolaevsk for 26 years. “They’re so generous on the court, getting one another good shots by moving the ball.”
Nikolaevsk finished 13-8 overall, losing twice to Seldovia and Cook Inlet Academy in the regular season. The Warriors then lost to CIA in overtime in Thursday’s semifinals and went behind by 11 in the first period of Saturday’s second-place game before claiming the win.
“Each game of the tournament, I gave the kids one thought, one goal to work on,” Klaich said. “Going into that final game, I said it all boiled down to heart and how badly we wanted to win this game.”
Klaich said consistency made the difference. He said his team was good in spurts all year, but always had periods of inconsistency until the tournament.
The coach has heard Noorvik has good balance and plays aggressive defense.
“It should be a great game on Saturday,” Klaich said.