Basketball teams on the Kenai Peninsula have begun their seasons and their quest to be the top team in their conference. Nikiski, Skyview, Homer and Seward represent the central Peninsula teams in the Southcentral Conference, and all harbor some level of ambition of making it to the state tournament in March.
The Seward girls squad is the only team that qualified to state last season, having won the SSC championship, but fell out with two losses in the Class 3A state bracket.
Homer and Skyview are new to the Southcentral Conference this season, having competed in the Northern Lights Conference as 4A schools in recent years, but they have moved down a level due to student population changes. The addition will surely add some spark to the region.
This year, all four schools will again field a total of eight teams, and three will feature a coaching change. Brent Keene will take over as the Homer girls head coach, and Seward will feature coaching changes for both teams, as Curtis Berry transitions from the girls team to the boys, and Mark Clemens will fill the gap on the girls squad.
The following is a closer look at the teams.
Reid Kornstad returns as coach for the boys team once again, as he has for the past decade and a half. He’ll be coaching a team that is looking for its first state berth since 2009.
“Our short-term goals are understanding where we are, both offensively and defensively, and learning where to be on court that will give us the most success,” Kornstad said. “Our long-term goals, of course, is what everybody wants to do — that’s make a run at the state tourney. I think it’s possible.”
The Nikiski boys squad this year will feature a plethora of names that have found success in other sports. For example, senior Stephen Hartley, junior Seth Carstens, and Jesse Ross are starters on the football team, and from the wrestling team, senior Lincoln and freshman Luke Johnson have decided to play ball.
“We have a bunch of seniors working together, working hard, and they are decent athletes, and a few of them that haven’t played their entire high school career are in the mix this year,” Kornstad said. “It helps our team, they add an element of toughness to our team. If you’re a wrestler, it adds some mental toughness, so we’re learning and getting comfortable in our roles. I look for some big improvements in the weeks to come.”
Kornstad said if there is a weakness to improve on, it’s limiting turnovers. After that, shooting a higher percentage of field goals.
“That comes with getting comfortable on the offensive side,” he said.
The Bulldogs will be without Lucas Herrin and Colton Anderson, two top scorers from last year that graduated, but the athleticism of the current roster could make up for that, according to Kornstad.
Only three state berths are available for the Southcentral Conference, and Kornstad points to Anchorage Christian Schools as an automatic qualifier, but is looking forward to perhaps nabbing one of the other two spots.
“ACS has very good players that are extremely difficult to handle,” he said. “They’re the team to beat, and after that it should get interesting. It’s a dogfight for those two spots.”
On the girls side, Scott Anderson returns to coach for a second year, which has the team feeling comfortable.
“We have a lot of girls who don’t have a lot of varsity experience, they’re kind of learning on the go how to compete and stay in the game,” Nikiski coach Scott Anderson said. “What we’re seeing is these girls having to grow up fast and play at that varsity level that they don’t have a lot of experience at. We’re excited to try and get better as the season goes along.”
The Nikiski girls won the 3A state championship in 2006, but haven’t been back since finishing fifth in the 2009 tournament.
“It’s hard to get girls in the gym because they’re playing volleyball or soccer during the offseason, and we encourage them to do other sports,” Anderson said. “But, basketball is a skill-driven sport and if you don’t have the ability to dribble and shoot, I mean, you can play defense all you want but you’re not going to win championships.”
The girls team graduated one of its top scorers last year in Savannah Griffel, but several others will be returning.
Junior center Alyssa Darch is back, along with senior Sienna Wallis, sophomore point guard Rachel Thompson, senior Ashley Epperheimer and sophomore Emily Lynch.
Anderson said the start of this season will help the team because of the strength of the schedule. North Pole, Mt. Edgecumbe, Service, Dillingham and Eagle River are stronger schools that have challenged Nikiski and will continue to do so.
“We like that, because we’re not so much worried about wins and losses at this point in the season,” Anderson said. “We’re more concerned about improvement and working towards that region tournament.”
The Skyview Panthers enter as a new challenger in the conference, and the boys team could be a potential darkhorse.
“We’ve had some good practices so far,” Skyview boys coach Jesse Settlemyer said. “We’ve been kind of a collective group, we have a lot of people to fill the box score. It’s not just one person, we’re working together as a team.”
Settlemyer begins his fourth year at the helm of the Skyview boys team, and his eighth overall year as a basketball coach, and “team” is the biggest aspect that Settlemyer stresses. With such losses as Jordan Jones, DJ Diaz, Albert White and Richard Reynolds to graduation, and Preston Penrod transferring to Soldotna, the boys squad will need some players to fill that role.
Settlemyer mentioned there is a large group of new players at Skyview, but declined to point out specific talents. He is, however, excited to see how the team fares against different competition.
“We’re excited to play schools that will be in the same population range,” he said. “Southcentral has always been a strong basketball conference, and the new teams are looking strong.
“We’ve always played teams like Homer and Nikiski, and have had competitive games with them.”
The Skyview girls will look to improve from a year ago, and second-year coach Kyle McFall said this season has some potential.
“It’s going to be a learning experience,” McFall said. “We want to go into regions playing the best ball of the season, and once at regions, anything is possible.”
Tentative starters on this year’s team include junior forward Sam Reynolds, junior Meghan Powers (transferring from Cook Inlet Academy), Sierra Link and Camilla O’Toole, who suffered a knee injury last year. Also, Makinna Halverson, Dallas Derflinger and Nicole Tromblee are in the starting lineup mix.
“There’s a little more excitement this year, but we still need to beat Homer and Nikiski and those schools,” McFall said. “Defensively, we’re the same as last year, but offensively we’re different.”
McFall stressed that the team needs to be patient if it wishes to accomplish its goal of a state berth.
“Looking at Homer, Nikiski and Seward, all three of those schools have established themselves as being competitive. We need to focus on the schools on the Kenai Peninsula and continue to improve over the year.”
In the wake of coach Curtis Berry’s move to the Seward boys team, Mark Clemens will guide the Seward girls team.
Clemens was the boys junior varsity coach for the previous four years, and said he is willing and excited to keep the girls team on a winning path.
“We have a good mix of returning players and new faces, so it depends on other schools and what they have,” Clemens said.
Seward is not moving conferencewise, but Clemens said it will be interesting playing Skyview and Homer in the Southcentral Conference for the first time.
“We’ve always played them, but not in the same region,” he said. “They’re a little bigger than us, but it depends on what you get dealt with.”
Seward lost Meg Berry, Chelsey Clarke and Jessica Stallings to graduation last year, but senior Tessa Adelmann and junior Ashley VonBorstel are two returning players with enough experience to keep Seward in the state conversation. The Seahawks last won a state title in 1998, but after winning the Southcentral Conference last year, dropped out at state after two straight losses to Galena and Craig.
Clemens said in order to make it back to state for a third consecutive year, the team will need to stay confident in its abilities.
“I have a lot of confidence in their abilities, they have the talent to do it,” Clemens said. “But as the old saying goes, we’re taking it one game at a time.”
The team is competing in the Lady T-Bird Classic in Anchorage this weekend for its first competition of the season.
Curtis Berry, last year’s girls coach, will make the switch and take over the boys team this season. Berry coached the Seward girls to the Southcentral Conference championship and the state tournament last year, but said that he felt the timing was right to make an adjustment.
“There’s a lot to that. I thought that we did a really good job with the girls last year,” Berry said. “My daughter graduated, which was a small part of the decision, and I’m going to miss the girls team. I just felt that when the position came open that it was time for a change, and those four years that I spent with the girls team, I felt that we hit our goals.”
Berry has been a basketball coach for the better part of a decade now, and will use that experience to hopefully ignite the Seward boys. The last year the boys squad qualified for the state tournament was 2009.
“We’re small, we don’t have a big inside presence, but we hope to be able to move the ball well,” Berry said. “We’re excited about our prospects. This is a good group of kids, and they’re really willing to go the extra mile.”
Jalen Terry, a key player from last year’s team, transferred to Anchorage Christian Schools this year and will not be returning, but senior point guard Jeff Buchanan is returning, along with junior Matt Moore and sophomore Michael Marshall. Michael Wolfe, a sophomore, recently moved from Oregon and could help the team.
Berry said he thinks ACS will be a strong contender in the SSC, along with Grace Christian and Cordova.
“The (Cordova) coach always seems to get the maximum out of the team,” he said. “We hope to be a team that other teams don’t hope to play in the pressure situations.”
The Homer girls will be receiving an experienced hand in the form of coach Brent Keene, a retired teacher who has been working with the boys team for the last few years. Keene takes over for Deb Lowney, and has been coaching in Alaska since 1971, beginning in Ninilchik, and also has experience as a football coach, before he moved to the Homer basketball program as a coach and as a referee as well.
“I’m interested in getting the girls program back to their winning ways,” Keene said. “I’ve coached a lot of young kids, and you’re never too old to learn.”
Keene said the current team is young, made up of many freshman and sophomores, with a few upperclassmen leading the way. Homer last made the trip to the state tournament in 2006.
“It’s going to be a rebuilding year and a learning process,” Keene said, who also said there are 11 freshmen on the team.
Keene said the tentative starting lineup consists of seniors Hailey Oliver, a center, Miranda Beach and Alisha Eisenhauer, in addition to juniors Maggie Koplin and Tayla Cabana.
Homer will be competing in the 3A Southcentral Conference for the first time, having dropped down from the 4A Northern Lights Conference, and will be playing a different set of teams for the top spot in the SSC.
“We don’t have to bang heads with the big schools anymore, so it’s a more equal playing field,” Keene said. “That being said, this region still is no cakewalk, they still have some good teams. We’ll see how the challenge works out.”
Keene is quick to say that he doesn’t consider Homer as a frontrunner in the conference. The Mariners will be in Anchorage this weekend for the Grace Christian Tournament.
The Homer boys will be coached by Mark Casseri once again, and in recent early season games have shown some potential. Jeremy Tedesco led the JV team in the recent SoHi Tipoff tournament a week ago, and with the help of Keene in recent years, have improved in strength.