The basketball coaches from Kenai Central and Soldotna are not saying it’s going to be easy. They’re also not complaining.
In the realignment that goes into effect this season for basketball, Kenai and Soldotna will be the smallest schools in the Class 4A division.
Kenai is listed at 542 by the Alaska Schools Activities Association, while Soldotna is at 521 in the 20-team division. Seven of the other schools in the league are below 1,000 students, while the rest are above 1,000, with East topping the scales at 2,197.
“It’s going to be rough, no doubt about it,” Kenai Central boys coach Ken Felchle said. “But nobody’s feeling sorry for us because we are the smallest schools.”
Both Kenai and Soldotna have shown the ability to compete at that level. Both the Kenai boys and the Soldotna girls qualified for state last season, and for the Stars it was a second-straight trip.
In the 2009 Class 4A state tournament, the SoHi boys made it all the way to the finals before losing 55-52 to Dimond in overtime.
No boys team from the Peninsula has ever wore the 4A crown, but the Kenai girls won it all in 1991, and SoHi followed with a title in 1993.
“It’ll be the same challenge we face every year,” SoHi boys coach Matt Johnson said. “The pool of kids we work with isn’t quite as large, but I kind of like having a bit of that underdog role.
“We’ve been lucky enough to get to state, and I think that’s pretty special when we’re going against schools that are three or four times the size we are.”
With Skyview and Homer out of the Northern Lights Conference, the league is down to Kodiak, Colony, Wasilla, Palmer, Kenai and Soldotna.
In the past, SoHi and Kenai had to play bigger schools Kodiak, Colony, Wasilla and Palmer just once. Now, they face a home and away game with each team in the league.
Johnson points out that facing those teams twice gives the Peninsula teams a chance to boost their Winning Percentage Index.
The top two teams from the NLC tourney make the state tournament automatically. There are two other state berths available to the two teams that don’t qualify in their conference tournaments but have the highest WPI.
The biggest challenge for Kenai and Soldotna will be consistency. Bigger schools can reload quicker because the classes are so large.
Kenai and Soldotna will get great cycles of kids, as the Kenai boys did last year in qualifying for state, but then lose four of five starters and face a rebuilding project.
Of course, when a cycle reaches a high point, as it is doing with the Soldotna girls, the new format is perfect.
Kenai girls coach Stacia Rustad was part of the state title team in 1991.
“It can be done, and my personal opinion is that Soldotna has a great opportunity this year,” Rustad said. “They have a lot of tools and talent, and they have depth.
“They’re going to be a contender.”
The Stars return all their starters from a team that finished 22-6 last year, and took second at the NLC tourney and sixth at state.
“I think this is great for us this year and probably next year,” Soldotna coach Doug Blossom said. “I think we’ll compete well at that level.
“I expect a lot out of them this year. If I was hand-picking a team to go to state, I’d pick a group like this with all the juniors and seniors.”
Blossom said he thinks his team will be one of the top five in the state, along with Wasilla and Colony. The Warriors have taken the last two state titles, and were runner-up the year before that.
Kodiak also figures to be tough, returning post player Hannah Wandersee and getting Jerica Nelson, an NLC first-team guard who transferred from Colony. Palmer also has shown early in the season it won’t be a pushover.
Both Johnson and Felchle said all the boys teams in the conference will be tough. Felchle said he thinks Colony is probably the deepest, but both were impressed by the play of Kodiak in the Powerade/Al Howard Tip-Off at SoHi.
The Kodiak boys return four of their top five scorers from last season, including Austin Frick, who was averaging 19 points per game heading into the weekend.
The following is a closer look at the Peninsula teams:
Kenai Central girls
Rustad enters her fourth season having lost the majority of the scoring off a team that went 17-9 and took second in the now-defunct Southern Division.
Returning starters are seniors Cassie Ross and Sydney Taylor, while junior point guard Justice English also got a lot of varsity minutes last year.
“We are teaching a lot of the younger kids a lot of information in a very short period of time,” Rustad said.
Junior Caitie Steinbeck also starts, and senior Carly Norvelle was starting until she was lost to injury. Sophomore Hannah Barcus has filled that starting role thus far.
Also providing depth with be sophomore Allie Ostrander and freshmen Sarah Every and Hannah Drury.
Rustad said the strength of the team will be defense.
“We do have some athletes, and we do have some speed, and defense will be key for us,” Rustad said. “Rebounding will be the other key.
“Those are two things we can focus on because other teams can’t dictate how we play defense or how we box out.”
The biggest challenge will be replacing all the lost scoring.
“My kids play hard for 32 minutes,” Rustad said. “They may not be the biggest, fastest, most talented, but they will get on the floor and scrap and do whatever it takes to keep us in the ballgame.”
Kenai Central boys
Entering his fourth year at the helm of the Kards, Felchle faces the loss of not only four starters, but two other main contributors.
Shane Spalding, a 6-foot-6 senior, started last season, while seniors Wyatt Fitt and Josh McKee saw substantial minutes.
“They are the captains of our team,” Felchle said. “Whatever success we have has to start with them.”
Senior Kirk Kibling also has been starting for the Kards, while the other spot has been rotating between Garrett Berg and J’Von O’Neal.
Felchle also has been surprised by the progress of 6-2 Gugliellmo Battistelli, a foreign exchange student from Italy.
“The kid knows basketball,” Felchle said. “Since I’ve started coaching, I haven’t seen too many kids pick up things as quickly as he has.”
Even when he was loaded with talent last year, Felchle said his new mantra as a coach is not to set big goals, but to get his team focused on things like working hard in practice each day, supporting one another and keeping the experience positive.
“We’re not judging success based on wins and losses,” Felchle said. “Our goal is to get better every day. If we do that, no matter what happens, the season will have been a success for us.”
Felchle said his team’s strength thus far has been defense. He said offense will take some time.
“We had three legitimate scorers on the floor at all times last year — any of them could score in double digits on any night,” Felchle said. “Our struggle right now against quality teams lies in our ability to score.”
Entering his second season, Blossom is in a position to reap the benefits of leading a team of mostly sophomores and juniors to state last year.
Returning starters are seniors Kaillee Skjold and Heidi Westerman, and juniors Kelci Benson and Julie Litchfield. Junior Katelynn Kerkvliet or senior Natalie Kress fill the other starting spot based on matchups.
Juniors Makayla Wong and Kiana Hendricks also see significant minutes off the bench.
Blossom also said assistants Jenni Stenga and Heidi Skjold do a great job getting the team in shape.
“Our conditioning allows us to play aggressive defense and press,” Blossom said. “This year, the girls are pushing the ball up the floor, as well.”
Kaillee Skjold already has committed to the University of Fairbanks, and Blossom said Skjold has been doing a great job distributing the ball this year, making the Stars even tougher to stop.
“We’re older and more confident, and I think that makes a big difference,” Blossom said. “I think teams intimidated us at times last year.”
Entering his fifth year, Johnson returns a pair of starters from a team that went 14-12 overall last season and finished third in the NLC Southern Division.
Senior guard Cory Carver and junior guard Colton Young are the returning starters. Senior Noah Fowler also had significant varsity minutes last year.
But even though the Stars don’t return a ton of experience, Johnson said the bench is long.
“I think we’re deep this year, that’s one of our strengths,” he said. “Hopefully, we don’t have to put a ton of pressure on those guys with the experience.”
Daniel McElroy, a 6-5 junior, also has started, as has junior Austin Kruse and senior Preston Penrod, a transfer from Skyview.
Johnson said he thought last year’s team got worn down as the season progressed. This year, he has been playing 10 players to keep that from happening. Other key players are seniors Jared Tovoli and Josiah Martin, junior Max Conradi and sophomore Nate Spence.
“They are kids who gave gotten significant junior varsity minutes,” Johnson said. “They battled with the varsity kids in practice. This should not be a huge shock to them.”
Johnson said his coaching staff also provides an edge in player development. Bill Withrow and Mark Tuter both have previous varsity coaching experience at Soldotna.