In most sports and classifications in Alaska, it’s hard to duplicate many of the state experiences in the Lower 48, where over a hundred schools compete for the state title.
That’s not the case in Class 1A basketball.
In the reclassification that goes into effect this season, the Alaska Schools Activities Association counts 133 schools in Class 1A, although they all won’t field teams and that includes ESSS Schools which will combine to form teams. Class 1A schools have less than 60 students.
There are 21 schools in Class 2A, 21 in Class 3A and 20 in Class 4A.
The top 16 teams in girls and boys divisions from 1A will get together in March for the state tournament.
“I think it’s going to be the Holy Grail of Alaska basketball,” Ninilchik girls coach Rod Van Saun said. “There will be about 120 schools going for one state championship and approximately 20 schools each going for the other three.
“With 16 villages there, the arena should be packed.”
Ninilchik, along with Peninsula schools Cook Inlet Academy, Nanwalek, Nikolaevsk and Seldovia, will stay in the Peninsula Conference, which gets two state berths.
ASAA lists 15 schools in the conference, but the current estimate is that 10 will field boys teams and seven will field girls teams.
On the girls side, Cook Inlet Academy and Nikolaevsk represented the conference at state last season, with the Eagles finishing second and Nikolaevsk taking fifth.
CIA coach Rustin Hitchcock said holding onto the conference title for a fourth straight year will not be easy.
“Especially with Nikolaevsk, but everybody got a little stronger,” Hitchcock said. “It will be much tougher this year than in years past.”
The Eagles were able to beat the Warriors in the season-opening Cook Inlet Classic, but Nikolaevsk does return all its starters.
“In order to get to state, somebody is going to have to beat one of those two,” Van Saun said of CIA and Nikolaevsk.
On the boys side, CIA won the conference title while Bristol Bay snapped up the other state berth. That shows another wrinkle in the new alignment, because Bristol Bay was not small enough to move down to 1A and is no longer in the conference.
Justin Franchino, who has led the Eagles to conference titles in two of the last three years, welcomes all the new competition.
“Winning regions should be an accomplishment,” Franchino said. “When you have five or six teams, it’s still competitive, but not as competitive as when you have 10.”
Among the teams looking good early in the season is Nikolaevsk, which topped CIA at the Cook Inlet Classic. The Warriors are looking for their first state berth since 1997.
“We’re going to have some stiff competition,” Steve Klaich said. “I think it’s anybody’s game.
“And with some of the new schools, I have no clue what they are bringing. If we stay healthy, we should be in the mix.”
Many coaches were hesitant to make predictions because they had no idea what schools like Birchwood Christian, which finished third at the 2A boys tourney last year, would bring to the league.
“They say at 1A it takes one great player to win state, at 2A it takes two players, 3A it takes three players and 4A it takes four players,” Franchino said. “There could be a couple of players out there that we don’t know about that could really change things.”
The following is a closer look at the Peninsula teams:
Cook Inlet Academy girls
After finishing third, third, then second, at state, Hitchcock said he wants to break that pattern by skipping finishing second again this year, and taking the title instead.
Leading the way will be returning starters Megan Bauder, a senior guard, and Nicole Moffis, a junior forward.
Also starting in the middle will be senior Cara Davidson. The others rotating for playing time will be senior Darlene Bunts and sophomores Ashleigh Hammond and Madison Orth.
“We recognize going into every offseason that we have a target on our backs,” Hitchcock said. “Especially now, people are probably licking their chops because they think we’re vulnerable.”
But Hitchcock said his team has beaten teams it never beat before in offseason team camps. The Eagles will rely on speed and quickness to make up for a lack of height.
“If we stick to fundamentals, the lack of height shouldn’t be a problem,” he said. “They’ve been saying for four years that we lost a lot of height.”
Cook Inlet Academy boys
Franchino enters his fourth year with a team looking to build on its experience at state.
The Eagles went two and out at state, but Franchino said just getting that experience will be key for this year.
Returning starters are seniors Koebryn Mlyarnik and Braden Chumley, and junior Zac Taplin. Other key returners are seniors Scott Habermann and Keefe O’Dell, and sophomore Riley Smithwick.
Franchino also said first-year varsity players Mylon Weems and Caleb Lyons, a pair of juniors, and freshman Timmy Smithwick will contribute.
The coach said CIA will have a different look this year due to the graduation of star player David Reischach.
“Last year, everything went through David,” Franchino said. “This year, we will get to play more of a team game.”
The Eagles are a perfect example of how community is intertwined with basketball in 1A villages.
Kevin Seville has coached basketball there for five years, and this is the third straight year there has been a boys varsity.
This year, he has had the team go up into the woods and gather wood for the wood stoves of the elders in the village. Seville said many prefer to heat with a wood stove. He said the team has brought enough wood to last six or eight houses a couple of weeks, and said the team will continue to do this during the season as long as the snow doesn’t pile too high.
“We did that to show appreciation for what the community has done for us,” Seville said.
One thing the community does is provide bodies for scrimmages in the Nanwalek gym, which is only about half regulation size.
The Eagles only had five players to start the season.
“What were we supposed to do, scrimmage against a bunch of chairs?” Seville said.
Sophomore Xavier Romanoff and junior John Romanoff are returning starters, while freshmen Roderick Wilson III, Larry Ukatish and Joshua Evans filled out the starting five.
However, senior and returning starter Antone Ukatish and junior returning starter Tim Ukatish are expected back in the new year.
“Our strength is our tenacity and our chaotic play,” Seville said. “We seem to do better in an up-tempo game.”
The problem, he said, is that such a game can be hard to pull off for the whole game with only seven players.
Bea Klaich enters her seventh year coming off a state appearance and a runner-up finish in the league.
All five starters return — juniors Nianiella Dorvall and Sophia Kalugin, sophomore Kilina Klaich, and freshmen Serafima Kalugin and Kayla Stafford. Sophia Kalugin made the all-state tournament team last year.
The Warriors also bring back experience off the bench in freshmen Megan Hickman, Feodora Mameteiff and Nadja Gordeev. All those players are returners because, due to its size, Nikolaevsk is allowed to play eighth-graders.
The deep and young roster is rounded out by returning freshman Zoia Tipikin and newcomers Veronica Jones, a sophomore, and Elena Gordeev, an eighth-grader. Kikilia Kojin, a junior, also returns to the team.
“I’m really trying to challenge the girls to be the best they can be not just on the court, but also off the court as individuals,” Klaich said. “I feel like if they put all they have into the game, they can achieve their goal of returning to state, and do better at state.”
Klaich said the strength of her team will be balance. She said opponents will not be able to stop one player and win.
The coach said the weakness is a shuddering one for the rest of the league to contemplate — youth. For as much success as this group is having, it still includes no seniors and just two juniors.
“They’re a fun-loving group of girls,” Klaich said. “If there is a weakness, it’s that they have too much fun.
“Sometimes, they have to get their game faces on.”
In his 24th year at the helm of the Warriors, Steve Klaich is looking to lead his team back to state for the first time since 1997.
The injury bug that hampered the Warriors’ season last year may pay dividends this year, because injuries allowed bench players to gain more experience.
Thus, even though Nikolaevsk lost scoring machine Andre Tipikin to graduation, five starters return in seniors Blake Klaich, Eric Mametieff, Anatoli Fefelov and Frank Holub, and junior Anthony Yakunin.
After those players, the Warriors are young. Freshmen Neil Gordeev and Jonah Fefelov both saw time as eighth-graders. Klaich also will start grooming freshmen Greg Trail and Nicetas Lasiter, and eighth-grader Nikit Fefelov, for the future.
“Having four seniors and a junior, we should be one of the more veteran teams,” Klaich said. “It’s going to be a fast team, and we’ve got some decent size.
“We should be a good defensive team. Our emphasis in practice has been working on defensive skills.”
Van Saun enters his fifth year with a young team. The Wolverines roster lists seven freshmen, a sophomore, a junior and a senior.
Senior point guard and returning starter Kaylee Smith will lead the team.
“She’s the epitome of a great captain,” Van Saun said. “She’s positive and hard-working and she’s at everything.”
Junior Lyndsay Appelhanz and sophomore Melissa Clark also return.
Freshmen Krista Sinclair, Melissa Ehlers and Jordan Finney are already seeing time in the starting lineup. The other freshmen are Alanna Goins, Krystal Robuck, Robin Riley and Aurora Dell.
“I’m ecstatic that I have that many in one class that love to play the game,” Van Saun said. “They are all working hard.
“We are going to take our lumps, but the important thing is that we are learning each game.”
Second-year coach Nickolas Finley has three starters back from a team that finished the year 12-13.
The returning starters are senior Jayke Cooper, a post player, and seniors Ryan Bear and Jack Wheeler, who both play wing and post.
Finley wrote in an email that his key returners are juniors Robert Delgado and Tyler Thorn, and sophomores Sam Mireles and Sebastian Appelhanz.
He also has a ton of newcomers in juniors Hunter Keogh, Utuq Moto and Allen Wilson, sophomores Ethan Koch and Sevy Belmond, and freshmen Alex Koch, Caleb Appelhanz and Carl Eustice.
Finley writes his team has a lot of size, strength and energy. The Wolverines also are working hard.
He adds the key will be to get this group some experience and basketball IQ.
Susan B. English girls
The Sea Otters girls program is returning with Justin Derks at the helm.
Susan B. English boys
Mark Janes returns for a second year coaching basketball in Seldovia.
Last year, the Sea Otters played with a coed roster of six — an eighth-grader, two ninth-graders, two kids from Port Graham and a senior girl.
Janes writes in an email it was a learning experience, and the players earned respect during the process. According to Janes, when the players took the floor during their first game against Lumen Christi, the boys said, “Those guys have facial hair!”
The returning starters will be freshmen Calem Collier and Aidan Philpot and sophomore Seth O’Leary. Janes said that in a school with under 20 kids, every player is a key returner. That said, he also is looking for Dylan Waterbury to contribute.
“This will continue to be a building year for us,” Janes wrote. “We have a young team that is emerging but lacks some of the physicality to compete fully at the high school level.
“But we have some motivated kids, a supportive community and a lot of open community gym time.”