By JEFF HELMINIAK
When the Peninsula Conference tournament starts today at Cook Inlet Academy, it will take an upset to keep the CIA and Nikolaevsk girls from qualifying for the Class 2A state tournament.
On the boys side, however, almost anything goes in the battle for the two state berths. That point was driven home Monday when Ninilchik, the No. 5 seed, took down No. 1 seed Lumen Christi 63-51 in Ninilchik.
There has been no such parity on the girls side. The Eagles, the two-time defending conference champions, finished the conference season without a loss. They won all of their conference games by over 10 points.
Nikolaevsk, meanwhile, played CIA close in a nonconference game at the Nenana Invitational Tournament. The only two losses for the Warriors in conference play came to the Eagles.
CIA opens against No. 4 Lumen Christi today at 5:15 p.m.
"Lumen is on the rise, and Bristol Bay can always come to town and surprise someone," CIA girls coach Rustin Hitchcock said. "We're not looking past any of the games, but we've set the table to make a successful run to state."
Also helping keep the Eagles from overconfidence are two recent losses to Anchorage Christian Schools and Seward, the two powers of the Class 3A Southcentral Conference.
Hitchcock said his team has to improve its half-court offense to play with elite teams.
"We're executing too good," Hitchcock said. "We're too patient. We're giving up open opportunities in favor of ball control, and in the long run, we're not putting points on the board."
The Eagles will be led by seniors Kelsie Leaf and Keely Powers, and junior Megan Bauder. Hitchcock also said the team's success often seems to hinge on the play of sophomores like Megan Powers and Nicole Moffis.
With CIA's first player off the bench set to miss the tournament, and a number of players on the team coming down with illness, Hitchcock said the freshmen will be important in the tournament, too.
Nikolaevsk girls coach Bea Klaich will look to lead the Warriors to state for the first time since 1991. Nikolaevsk has never won the conference title.
"Our goal has been to get to state," Klaich said. "This is definitely a golden opportunity.
"We have not beaten Bristol Bay or Lumen Christi by a huge margin, so we are not overconfident."
Klaich is performing a delicate balancing act with her young team. She starts two eighth-graders, a freshman and two sophomores, so she wants her team to be confident, but not too confident.
Of course, if this young group breaks through and makes state, the sky is the limit in years to come.
"We've got a pretty even approach to scoring," Klaich said. "In my starting lineup, any of the five can score. It's going to have to be teamwork."
If the Eagles and Warriors are able to make their way to Friday's championship game, CIA is not a sure thing. Both Hitchcock and Klaich said that Nikolaevsk matches up well with CIA.
The Nikolaevsk boys also have earned a No. 2 seed. They are seeking their first state appearance since 1997 and also have not won a conference title.
"It's got the potential to be a really special tournament," Nikolaevsk boys coach Steve Klaich said. "The kids are working really hard and they are really excited."
Nikolaevsk opens play today at 7 p.m. against No. 7 seed Nanwalek.
"At this point, I think it's wide open," Klaich said. "If we play well, we can compete with anybody. I know the other teams are strong too, and I think between the top five teams it's wide open.
"Nanwalek and Seldovia have enough talent to surprise somebody too."
Andre Tipikin has been having some huge scoring nights, but Klaich said Blake Klaich will have to do some scoring, too. The coach also said Anthony Yakunin and Anatoli Fefelov must step up.
CIA, the No. 3 seed, opens with a 3:45 p.m. tilt today against No. 6 seed Seldovia. The Eagles are looking to return to state after missing the big dance last year.
The Sea Otters are a young squad that CIA boys coach Justin Franchino said will be a definite threat in a few years. Even so, in this conference, Franchino is not overlooking anyone.
"I think a lot of teams this year are rebuilding," Franchino said. "With that inexperience comes a lot of inconsistency. We've seen that all season long. Everyone is losing to each other."
Franchino is the first to admit that his team has been inconsistent, but he takes solace in the fact that his team has stepped up in big moments, such as the run to the Nenana Invitational Tournament title.
CIA's go-to guy is David Reischach. Franchino said scoring is easy for Reischach, but his most important work will come on defense.
"When we're playing defense well, we don't think there's a team in the region that can beat us," Franchino said.
Franchino also said big man Levi Grinestaff needs a solid tournament, and Koebryn Mlynarik needs to provide another threat from the outside.
The final Wednesday boys game is No. 4 seed Bristol Bay against No. 5 seed Ninilchik.
As evidenced by its Monday upset of Lumen, which has a first-round bye, the Wolverines and first-year coach Nickolas Finley are on the rise. The team started the year 1-9 and is now 11-11.
"I attribute the improvement we have made to having a great group of kids," Finley wrote in an email. "We are finally starting to play as a team and when we do that we can compete with any team.
"Also, I am a young coach and it took me a bit to understand how to coach the group we have."
Finley said the Wolverines' roster also is back to full strength. After starting the season with seven players due to injury and academic trouble, everyone is now back.
The coach said Justin Klapak will be the key player in the tournament. He is the team's lone senior and a defensive stopper.