The 2011 Southcentral Conference tournament proved how much parity existed on the girls side last season.
Anchorage Christian Schools, the No. 3 seed coming into the tournament, edged No. 1 seed Seward for the tournament title. No. 2 seed Nikiski was knocked out before reaching the second-place game. Instead, No. 4 seed Cordova lost to Seward for the right to go to state.
Seward coach Curtis Berry and Nikiski coach Scott Anderson see a similarly tight conference this year, although both are wary of the strides the young ACS team made at the end of last year.
After winning the conference, the Lions went on to place fourth at the Class 3A state tournament. ACS has also added standout transfer Sarah Geagel from Seldovia.
“I expect they will be good because they have almost everyone returning,” Berry said. “They also added Geagel. She’s a player that will definitely strengthen them.”
Berry returns four starters from a team that finished fifth at state. Senior Chelsey Clarke, the MVP of the Southcentral Conference, returns, as does Meg Berry, a first-team all-conference selection as well as a member of the state all-tournament team.
“Seward has a lot of girls back and they’re well-coached and work hard,” Anderson said. “ACS is usually pretty tough, and they were all freshmen and sophomores last year so they’ll be good.
“Cordova has its best two players back. It’s actually a pretty balanced conference.”
Anderson takes over for Lee Moore, who moved out-of-state and took his first-team all-conference daughter, Makenzie, with him. The Bulldogs do return a first-team all-conference player in senior Savannah Griffel.
On the boys side, Seward won the Southcentral Conference last year and finished fourth at state, but the Seahawks were hit hard by graduation. The Seahawks lost six seniors, three of whom were starters.
Graduates Keenan Prochazka and Andrew Buchanan combined for 47 points in Seward’s 61-58 victory over ACS in the Southcentral championship game. Prochazka was the league MVP and Buchanan landed on the first team.
“It’s definitely going to be a rebuilding year,” Seward boys coach Dan Krier said. “We’re going to be inexperienced. Hopefully, we can find some people to score. I think we’ll play pretty good defense.”
Both Krier and Nikiski boys coach Reid Kornstad agreed the ACS is the conference favorite. After losing the Southcentral crown to Seward, the Lions went on to win the Class 3A state championship.
“ACS will be very strong, and Grace and Nikiski will be improved,” Krier said. “I think outside of ACS, the league should be pretty balanced.”
Kornstad lost two starters from last year, but he said his team should be better than last year’s last-place squad.
“We have more potential than we’ve had probably in the last four years,” he said. “A lot of things need to come together by regions if we expect to be competitive, but I’m excited about our potential.”
The following is a closer look at the Kenai Peninsula’s Southcentral Conference teams:
Anderson’s elevation from junior varsity coach means the program retains continuity.
“Lee was leaving, my wife was going to be the JV coach, and I’d developed a relationship with the girls so I wanted to continue what I’d started,” Anderson said. “I didn’t want to quit on them.
“I wanted to continue working with them to make them better people and better basketball players.”
In addition to losing Makenzie Moore to transfer, the Bulldogs lost two starters to graduation.
The two returning starters are point guard Griffel and senior guard Dylan Holloway.
Senior Koey Dixon, a guard, will move into the starting lineup. Senior post player Kinsey Martin also will start after recovering from an injury. Junior Sienna Wallis will fill in for Martin while she is recovering.
Also seeing time in the starting lineup will be freshman forward Rachel Thompson and sophomore post player Alyssa Darch. Junior Taylor Holloway, a guard, won’t be available until January.
“They really hustle and work hard on defense,” Anderson said. “Those seniors have played a long time together. They actually have a lot of experience, like Savannah has been playing on varsity since she was a freshman.”
In addition to bringing along the younger players quickly, Anderson said the challenge will be replacing the scoring of Makenzie Moore.
“My wife and I have been preaching to them that if all five score 10 points per game, that’s great,” Anderson said. “They all have to pick up the slack and look for opportunities to be scorers.”
Kornstad begins his 13th year at the helm with three returning starters.
Senior Colton Anderson returns at point guard, while senior Lucas Herrin returns as forward. Junior guard Stephen Hartley also returns.
Another starter will be sophomore forward Jesse Eide. The other starter will be either junior forward Lincoln Johnson or senior guard-forward Sayyid Parrish.
Key bench players will be junior guard Dylan Griffith, senior guard-forward Jordan Taylor, sophomore guard Jacob Carlson, senior guard Kaden Spurgeon and sophomore forward Jared Wallis.
Sophomore Seth Carstens also will provide depth when he returns from injury in January.
Kornstad said the sweet jumper of Anderson and the rugged inside play of Herrin should give opponents problems.
“The combination of those two boys should be difficult to stop when they figure out how to play together,” Kornstad said. “We’ve already seen it sometimes at practice. They look pretty impressive but they still have a lot of work to do.”
Kornstad said he is excited with the talent the bench brings, particularly the intensity of Spurgeon, who recently won a state wrestling title. He did say the bench must work on skills, particularly ballhandling.
“The biggest hurdle for us, like any team, is coming together and trusting one another,” Kornstad said.
Berry, headed into his fourth year as head coach, said the pressure is off of his team after its trip to state last year.
“Last year, the focus was on wanting to make it to the arena,” Berry said. “This year, these seniors have been together for five or six years, and really want to concentrate on enjoying the game.”
The lone graduated starter is Emily Draper. Berry said she was the emotional leader of the team and will be missed.
Returning starters are center Clarke, shooting guard Meg Berry, senior forward Jessica Stallings and senior guard Catie Zweifel. Berry and Clarke have started for four years on varsity, while Stallings has started for three.
The fifth starter will be junior Tessa Adelmann, a forward who started at times last year.
Despite all the experience, Curtis Berry said his team will have to adjust to having Zweifel at the point instead of Draper.
“We are going to feel a little out of sorts for a while,” he said.
He also said his team is not deep.
“That can be a weakness,” he said. “It’s going to be a strong uphill battle staying conditioned. There’s a mental and a physical challenge to playing so many minutes.”
Depth will come from sophomore forward Ashley VonBorstel, freshman Emily Brockman, freshman Jasmine Perea, freshman Kiana Clemens and sophomore Ashley Whiteshield.
Now in his ninth year as head coach, Krier knows where a good team starts.
“Hopefully, the seniors learned senior leadership from watching those guys last year,” Krier said. “We’ve found out in the last five or six years that senior leadership is the key to the success of the team.”
The returning starters are junior post player Jalen Terry and junior point guard Jeff Buchanan. Stepping into the starting lineup will be senior forward Logan Clemens, senior guard Jayna O’Leary and sophomore forward Matt Moore.
Key players off the bench will be senior guard Gabe Stovall, freshman guard Michael Marshall, junior post player Jon Thomassen and junior guard Jesse Wolfe.