Anyone who has climbed one of the various mountains in Alaska knows the view at the top is worth savoring for a while.
The Cook Inlet Academy girls basketball team could not agree more.
In 2010, the CIA girls won their first Peninsula Conference crown since 1988. The Eagles followed up an undefeated regular season in the conference with another crown in 2011. If area coaches are right, CIA is not yet ready to give up its perch.
Rustin Hitchcock, in his third year leading the Eagles, will have to make up for the loss of four seniors.
“On the whole, we have more raw skill this year,” Hitchcock said. “We lose a lot in leadership and work ethic. Those will be big hurdles over the first couple of months.”
With Kelsie Leaf returning at center and Megan Bauder, who led CIA to a third-place finish at state while making the all-tournament team, returning at guard, CIA has plenty with which to build.
“CIA, to me, is the team to beat in our conference,” said Bea Klaich, who is starting her sixth year leading Nikolaevsk. “They did lose four pretty good players, but they played without those seniors at times last year and they still looked pretty strong.”
Klaich said her team should be in the mix, and opposing coaches agree. The Warriors finished third in the regular season last year and lost just one starter. They will be in the hunt for their first state berth since 1991.
“I’ll tell you what, the conference is going to be pretty strong this year,” said Ninilchik coach Rod Van Saun, starting his fourth season as head coach. “Nikolaevsk and CIA are both going to be veteran teams that are going to be right there.”
Reflexively, coaches around the league also are wary of the Wolverines. Ninilchik lost in the second-place game at the conference tournament last year, snapping its string of state berths at 19.
Last season, the Wolverines had a brand-new starting five. This season, the team is already way ahead of that, returning four of five starters.
Seldovia was the team that beat Ninilchik in that second-place game last year, but the Sea Otters lost Class 2A state all-tournament player Sarah Geagel to transfer. Mark Janes takes over the girls program this year.
“Sarah O’Leary is quite a player, so you can’t count them out,” Van Saun said of Seldovia. “And with Bristol Bay, anything could happen.”
Lumen Christi dominated boys action last year, finishing undefeated in the league and then pounding CIA 62-46 in the tournament title game. The Eagles then lost to Bristol Bay 67-32 in the second-place game to miss a berth to state.
According to coaches, there is no clear-cut favorite this year.
“Our conference will be tough top to bottom,” wrote Nickolas Finley, who takes over for Keith Presley in Ninilchik, in an email. “Every conference game will be a battle.”
Justin Franchino won the conference title in his first two years at the helm. He returns the tall and talented David Reischach, but must make up for the loss of three seniors.
“Lumen Christi returns some good players,” Franchino said. “Nikolaevsk also is an up-and-coming team.”
Steve Klaich enters his 23rd year leading the Warriors, who must replace two starters.
“I think it’s going to be a great season,” Klaich said. “There are a lot of teams playing well. I don’t think anybody’s a clear favorite.
“There will be a lot of good basketball because there is a different style between the teams.”
The boys half of the Southcentral Conference gets a Seldovia team back this season, and still keeps Nanwalek.
The following is a closer look at the Peninsula’s Peninsula Conference teams:
Cook Inlet Academy girls
Now that CIA has figured out how to get to the top of the conference, Hitchcock would like his squad to be the best in the state.
“We went to team camp and did a lot in the offseason,” Hitchcock said. “We know what level we have to raise our game to, to match that top class of teams.”
Shooting guard Keely Powers joins Leaf and Bauder as returning starters. Hitchcock expects sophomore guard Nicole Moffis, sophomore center Meghan Powers, junior guard Darlene Bunts and junior forward Cara Davidson to step up into expanded roles this season.
CIA will mix all that experience with a fair amount of youth. Hitchcock said the team has six freshmen this year. He said getting the right mix of youth and experience could take awhile.
But with the Eagles’ press, wins should keep rolling up.
“We have the athletes for it,” Hitchcock said of the press. “While we’re missing some experience, I think everybody will get up to speed really quickly.”
Cook Inlet Academy boys
The Eagles attack starts with Reischach, who is 6-foot-2.
“David is one of the most versatile players I’ve ever had,” Franchino said. “He also has one of the most natural shots I’ve ever seen. He has the ability to go underneath and shoot outside.”
Franchino also is happy to welcome senior center Levi Grinestaff back to the program. Grinestaff was out-of-state last year, but Franchino said his 6-4 frame has filled in nicely.
After that, Franchino has a number of players that he said will make this season’s team deeper than last season’s. Those players are junior guard Koebryn Mlynarik, post player Keefe O’Dell, junior guard Braden Chumley, freshman forward Riley Smithwick, sophomore forward Zac Taplin, junior post player Scott Habermann and senior guard Jacob Boudreaux. Sophomore guard Blake Riley will help the team once he recovers from injury.
“It’s the biggest team I’ve ever had,” Franchino said. “Ball control will be our biggest challenge. We should win the rebounding battle every night.”
Franchino also said the team is dedicating its season to Mike Lyons, the CIA music teacher who died in early December. Franchino, a 2002 CIA grad, said he has fond memories of Lyons teaching him the trumpet when he was in sixth grade.
Kevin Seville returns for his fifth year as the boys coach in Nanwalek. The Eagles lost two starters from a team that finished sixth at the conference tournament.
The returning starters will be senior forward-center Jace Evans, sophomore guard John Romanoff and junior guard Antone Ukatish.
Three new players join the Nanwalek squad this year: Xavier Romanoff, Tim Ukatish and Nicholi Ukatish.
“I hope one strength we will have is the surprise factor of teams not knowing half of the squad,” Seville wrote in an email.
He also said the team should be fast.
“Unfortunately with speed comes experience, so we will be learning as we play,” he wrote.
Each year, there is an eighth-grade basketball tournament the weekend before Thanksgiving featuring the Peninsula’s small schools. By winning that tournament the last two years, the Warriors have stamped themselves as a program on the rise.
And with about 15 total students in the high school, that young talent has a chance to come in and start getting varsity experience as eighth-graders. This year, Klaich has 10 players on the team. Five will be eighth-graders and none are seniors.
The returning starters are junior guard Neonila Kojin, sophomore center Nianiella Dorvall, sophomore forward Sophia Kalugin and freshman Kilina Klaich, who started as an eighth-grader.
“Obviously, we have a young, inexperienced team,” Bea Klaich said. “We’ve got our sights set high and we know we’re going to have to work hard.”
Eighth-grader Serafima Kalugin, a guard, will move into the starting lineup. Depth will come from eighth-grader Nadja Gordeev and sophomore Hina Kulikov.
“We’re working really hard in practice on defense,” Klaich said. “We take a lot of pride in being pretty aggressive, and hopefully we won’t get into foul trouble because we love being aggressive.”
With no players over 6-0, Klaich will rely on speed.
“We don’t have any big, inside presence,” Klaich said. “With our speed and ballhandling, we should do really well on the perimeter.”
Returning starters are junior forward Eric Mametieff, junior guard Blake Klaich and junior post player Anatoli Fefelov.
Sophomore guard Anthony Yakunin and junior forward Frank Holub will step up into the starting lineup, while senior guard Andre Tipikin also will log a lot of varsity minutes.
Due to depth issues, Klaich is happy to welcome eighth-graders Neil Gordeev, Jonah Fefelov and Nicetas Lasiter to the team.
“With a smaller team, keeping ourselves out of foul trouble and getting in condition will be critical,” Klaich said.
Van Saun continues to build the program. The Wolverines lost three seniors, but none of those players had been in the program for four years. Ninilchik will go three years without graduating a player that has been in the program for four years.
“That’s of major significance,” Van Saun said. “It takes a long time to rebuild when there are no players in the program for four years.”
Four of the five starters return. Those players are junior guard-forward Kaylee Smith, junior guard Esther Ehlers, junior forward Alisha Ehlers and sophomore center Jessica Rogers.
“We’re still young, but we’ve got relatively good height and size,” Van Saun said.
Providing depth will be sophomore guards Lilly Kelson, Lyndsay Appelhanz and Kaylee Kittenhan.
“I think we’re going to have a well-balanced team the can execute plays and that understands the game,” Van Saun said. “Those starters have one year of experience. They’re ready to come in and compete this year.”
Not only will Ninilchik not lose a senior this year, but Van Saun also has a large group of players ready to hit the program from the junior-high ranks next year.
In Finley, chalk up another basketball find by the Leman family.
Dan Leman won eight Class 2A state titles as coach of the Ninilchik girls. Finley was playing collegiate basketball at Eastern Oregon University, where he met former Ninilchik players Amanda Matson and Whitney Leman, who is Dan’s daughter. Whitney asked Finley if he would like to come up and fish with Dan.
While fishing, Finley grew to like the community and came back after finishing his education to help Keith Presley coach. After two years assisting Presley, including one year where the Wolverines went to state, Finley is now the head coach.
The Wolverines lose two starters from a team that finished fourth in the conference in the regular season last year.
The returning starters will be junior guard-wing Billy Riley, junior wing-post Jack Wheeler and senior guard-wing Justin Klapak.
Finley wrote in an email the strength of his team should be depth and toughness, while the weakness will be experience.
The Wolverines have a ton of other players that will see varsity time this year. They are sophomore wing-post Dakota Peterson, junior post Jayke Cooper, junior post Ryan Bear, sophomore guard-wing Tyler Thorn, sophomore post Robert Delgado, freshman guard Tristan Combs, freshman guard Sam Mireles, sophomore guard-wing Allen Wilson and freshman wing Sebastian Appelhanz.
Susan B. English girls
Janes will coach the girls and boys teams in his first year at coach. He wrote in an email that he played basketball as a kid, and with a kid on the boys team, he decided to get into coaching.
“Being a small town, I guess it was my turn,” he wrote.
Other coaches are always wary of the Seldovia girls and boys, when the school has enough players to field a team, because the players there all have a reputation as gym rats.
The Sea Otters again lived up to that reputation last year by having a combined team with Nanwalek and placing second at the league tournament.
O’Leary and Cheala Hilts return from Seldovia, while Nanwalek will contribute Tania Romanoff, Elaina Peterson, Shoshana Huntsman and Ivana Ash.
“We will be getting together to practice a few times before our games,” Janes wrote.
Susan B. English boys
The boys team is back in Seldovia after a period where there were not enough boys in the high school to field a team.
As recently as 2008, though, the Sea Otters qualified for state and finished fifth behind the powerful post play of Levi Harkness.
Considering the young talent Seldovia has, those state-qualifying days may not be too far off. The Sea Otters will have a team of five eighth-graders and three freshmen.
Those eighth-graders won a junior high tournament featuring the Peninsula’s small schools, but Janes knows it is a big jump to high school.
“We are realistic about our chances, but want to compete hard in every game,” Janes wrote. “We have a lot of natural talent but are young. Should be a challenging year and a great opportunity to gain experience.”
The team also will draw two players from Fort Graham.
Anyone who has climbed one of the various mountains in Alaska knows the view at the top is worth savoring for a while.