Recent history says berths to the Class 4A state tournament are hard to come by for central Kenai Peninsula basketball teams.
The job isn’t about to get any easier.
The Northern Lights Conference is now guaranteed two slots to state rather than three because of a rule put into affect by the Alaska School Activities Association for the 2011-12 season.
“It’s always a challenge for a Peninsula team to get one of the state berths because we are smaller schools,” Kenai Central boys coach Ken Felchle said, comparing the Kardinals, Soldotna, Homer and Skyview to NLC counterparts Colony, Palmer, Wasilla and Kodiak. “We are competing against schools that are much larger.”
The top two teams in the NLC tournament will advance to state, but the third-place finisher only moves on if its Winning Percentage Index is first or second among the state’s nonautomatic qualifiers — essentially creating two “at-large” berths.
WPI is a formula calculated by victories and strength of schedule, among other factors.
Although the change means one less guaranteed berth for the NLC, which belongs to Region III, it also opens the possibility of the conference getting four teams through.
Region III produced last year’s state champion on the girls side — Wasilla.
“People cannot question how powerful Region III is,” Kenai Central girls coach Stacia Rustad said. “Without a doubt there will be another Region III school in there. And there’s a possibility that two of us could sneak in.”
The system adds importance to the regular-season conference schedule because teams must build strong WPIs to protect against the possibility of a third-place finish at the NLC tournament.
A look at last season’s tournament shows how the change could impact Peninsula schools.
The SoHi girls were the only area team to qualify for state on either side, and the Stars got through with a third-place finish after dropping an early round game in the double-elimination format.
The Kenai Central boys have advanced to the third-place game three consecutive years, knowing a victory would propel them to state.
Now it’s finish first or second at the tournament, or rely on the formula.
“It’s going to be a harder road than it’s ever been,” Felchle said.
Added SoHi boys coach Matt Johnson: “There’s never an easy route. It’s definitely going to be more difficult, but you can only control what you can control.”
Coaches on both sides agreed that the Matanuska-Susitna valleys hold the conference’s best teams.
Wasilla sets the standard on the girls side, while Palmer, Colony and Wasilla figure to be strong on the boys side.
“We are looking to the Valley teams,” first-year SoHi girls coach Doug Blossom said. “Not to overlook the teams here, but if you can compete with Colony and Wasilla, you are probably going to be able to compete with anyone.”
The following is a closer look at Peninsula teams in the NLC:
Blossom, a longtime assistant for the SoHi boys, replaces Mark Tuter as coach of the girls.
No stranger to central Kenai Peninsula basketball, Blossom also served as an assistant for the Skyview boys before he arrived at SoHi. He is eager to step into a head job.
“I have the utmost respect for Mark (Tuter). He left a very sound program, so there are some big shoes to fill,” Blossom said. “But I am excited to get an opportunity to do it.”
The first-year coach has a young but talented squad, featuring a combined seven sophomores and juniors who will see significant playing time after guiding the team to state a year ago.
Leading the way is junior post player Kaillee Skjold, who was a first-team all-conference selection in 2010-11. Also expected to make large contributions are sophomores Julie Litchfield, Kelci Benson and Katelynn Kerkvliet; and juniors Heidi Westerman, Natalie Kress and Makayla Wong.
Blossom said he is an offensive-minded coach but wants the Stars to be tenacious on both ends of the floor.
“I think the girls have really bought into it,” Blossom said. “We are going to play really aggressive and go after other teams.”
The Stars finished 15-11 last season and advanced to state thanks to a third-place finish at the conference tournament.
SoHi lost three key players from that squad — Kaili Sholin, Becca Satathite and Jessie Duke.
Blossom said the goal this season is a return trip, with expectations rising in 2012-13.
“I think it’s made them hungry,” Blossom said of last year’s trip to state, where the Stars went 0-2. “We want to get back there this year, but we have even higher goals next year.”
Johnson returns to the helm after an up-and-down 2010-11 season, when the team hovered around .500.
The Stars finished second behind Kenai Central in the NLC Southern Division and were eliminated in the postseason shy of state.
Last season, SoHi relied heavily on outside shooting, stringing together big runs at times but going cold during others.
This year, Johnson said the team has more chemistry and possesses a good basketball instincts.
Although the Stars lost seven seniors — including guards Zach Jackson and Robbie Smithwick — some top contributors return.
Among them are seniors Tanner Fowler, Evan Withrow and Garrett Bosick, and junior Cory Carver. The team also welcomes back Jake Darrow and Josh Jansen, both of whom were with the team as underclassmen before moving away.
“We’ve got some kids who can run, and we’ve got some kids who can shoot,” Johnson said, adding the team hopes to control possession more than it did last season.
SoHi defeated Seward 66-46 behind Withrow’s 25 points Sunday. The Stars hit nine 3-pointers in the game.
Johnson said he liked the team’s effort.
“I expect us to be improved from last season,” the coach said.
Kenai Central girls
Rustad will rely heavily on a trio of seniors in her third season at the helm.
The Kardinals fell one game shy of state with a 17-9 record in 2010-11, and much of the talent from that squad is gone.
Rustad is without first-team all-conference post player Raquel Young, point guard Allie McGahan, 3-point specialist Stevie Dunlap and role player Samm Kelley. All of them graduated.
Stepping into the spotlight are returning seniors Bailey Beeson, Morgan Wensley and Carolyn Kiefer.
“We know that leadership is there. We know that modeling work ethic is there,” Rustad said. “There are lot of positive things going on even though we only have three returnees who will be on the floor for us.”
Kenai Central also will play a different brand of basketball than it did a year ago.
Last season, the team’s offense was built around Young in the post, but this season the Kards are small. Rustad said much of the offense will come from the perimeter.
Rustad expects strong seasons from Sydney Taylor, Carley Norvelle, Justice English and Cassie Ross.
“People are going to see a little bit different basketball from us this year,” Rustad said. “We are excited to get on the floor and see what we have. Our personnel is much different than it’s been in the past.”
Kenai Central boys
For Felchle, depth is the biggest concern entering 2011-12.
Eleven of the 13 players listed on last year’s roster were juniors and seniors. Not only did that give the team experience, but it provided Felchle with a deep pool of talent from which to draw.
It won’t be like that this season as a slew of newcomers enter the fray.
“Our top six guys are really good, but the huge advantage we had last year was our depth. We were very, very deep,” Felchle said. “The new guys that we have are decent basketball players, but there is a learning curve. There are things we do that they aren’t familiar with — the speed of varsity ball compared to junior varsity and the strength, too — so they are playing catchup and are working really hard.”
Lost to graduation from a team that finished 14-12 overall and 7-3 in the conference were Kai Risung, Richie Ziehmer, Tanner Landry, Tyler Spalding, Tyler Glidden and Lincoln Wensley.
That leaves a starting rotation made up of four seniors — AJ Hull, Colton Hayes, Bo Reilly and Joe Sandahl — and junior Shane Spalding.
Rounding out the roster are Alex Springer, Josh McKee, Ethan Oliver, Ethan Blough, Wyatt Fitt, Kirk Kibling and Levi Hansen.
Felchle said they all must step forward.
“We can’t win with five or six guys,” the coach said. “We have to have contributions from the new guys coming in, and that’s going to be the biggest challenge. But there is no doubt those guys will contribute.”
First-year coach Kyle McFall inherits a team that didn’t win a conference game last season under Eric Pomerleau, the school’s athletic director.
McFall, who grew up in San Diego and is spending his first winter on the Peninsula, is a former middle school coach. He also helped out with the Skyview football team last season.
“I thought it might be a nice opportunity,” McFall said. “I worked out with the team a few times and it’s a good group of girls, so I chose to do it.”
The Panthers never found a groove last season, and McFall isn’t entirely sure what to expect this year.
Skyview lost two key players in Jaxon Hill, who graduated, and Mary Hauptman, who chose to participate in cross-country skiing.
Making up the starting five are Stefany Malatesta, Mekinna Halverson, Chelse Ahlers, Bri Pearson and Sam Reynolds.
McFall implemented new systems on both sides of the ball and said he expects a learning curve.
“Our season goal is to jell as a team, run the offense with consistency and avoid turnovers,” he said. “Eventually we want to establish a tradition of success at Skyview, and that starts with small successes each game. Hopefully we can build on that.”
McFall credited first-year junior varsity coach Damaris Craig for helping out at the varsity level.
Wi th all but two of its players back, Skyview is loaded with experience under coach Jesse Settlemyer.
Of the 10 athletes listed on the Panthers’ roster last season, seven were juniors and another was a sophomore.
Skyview’s only departures were Nic Madrid, who was a starter, and Nick Symonds, who was a role player.
The Panthers were a streaky team last season, capable of hitting outside shots, but were inconsistent on both ends of the floor.
With its top shooters back in Albert White, Jordan Jones, Jordan McNamara and Richard Reynolds, the team has potential on offense.
DJ Diaz and Colt McDonald, a pair of 6-foot-4 post players, return to anchor the team down low. Skyview finished fourth in the NLC Southern Division last season.
The Mariners look to improve after a tough 2010-11 in which their lone conference wins came against Skyview.
It didn’t reflect in the win column, but the Mariners were competitive in most games last year and figure to be improved.
While coach Mark Casseri lost Jonathan Jester and Mack Wood to graduation, he welcomes back seven seniors — including 6-7 center Devon Kennelty.