As the 2013 Northern Lights Conference tournament kicks off today at Soldotna, the Stars will take a moment in between Soldotna’s two games to recognize a former “Star” player — Molly Tuter — and have her jersey number, 34, retired in a special ceremony that will also commemorate Soldotna’s 1993 Class 4A state championship basketball team.
Tuter, who was a key player from the 1993 championship team, is back in her hometown for the first time in five years, and with her is the state championship basketball she stole from former SoHi coach Dan Gensel over 15 years ago. The ball, which Tuter had hoped would be featured in Soldotna’s sports trophy glass case in the school’s entryway, never made it in.
“We won the game, we cut down the net, and we get this basketball, and I had it for about two or three days and they said they were going to build a case like they had for the men’s sports,” Tutor said at SoHi on Wednesday. “They never built it, so I saw it in the janitor’s closet about two or three months later, and I said screw this and went ahead and took it. I gave it to Dan Gensel, our coach, and he said that they’ll have something built.
“About two or three years later, nothing was built, so I went over to his house and saw he had it there and stole it out of his house. I was thinking that he had more opportunities to win one.”
Gensel joked that it was a conspiracy between his wife, his daughter and Tuter.
“They took the ball and actually replaced it with an alternate ball that had been signed by a bunch of JV players,” Gensel said. “She smuggled it into my house and put in the glass case, and it took me a couple weeks to realize it was the wrong basketball.”
Tuter, still in possession of the ball, hopes to give it back to Gensel in exchange of one thing — an ear piercing for Gensel.
“Our freshman year, Dan Gensel said if we won state, he’d get his ear pierced,” Tuter recalled. “When we came back we had a celebration at the school and he got it pierced.
“He had to get it pierced, and he’s going to get it pierced again (Thursday) night. He just doesn’t know it yet.”
Gensel coached the Stars to the state championship in 1993, defeating none other than the Kenai Kardinals 46-37 as a fourth-seed team.
“Back then, it was brutal,” Tuter said of the competition between the two schools. “They had a lot of good female basketball players, like (current Kenai girls coach) Stacia Rustad and Mendy Benson. They had some really good ball players on their team, but so did we.
“We weren’t really supposed to be a state championship contending team, we weren’t supposed to be that good. But everything fell into place.”
The Kardinals had won the state championship two years prior, in 1991, and were primed to do it again. Lathrop was the No. 1 seed that year, but Soldotna had accumulated a 26-4 record and edged the Malamutes in a close semifinal. Kenai did the same with Chugiak.
“The championship game was fairly relaxed with coach (Craig) Jung and I,” Gensel said of the current Kenai girls assistant. “The pressure was intense in the semifinals, but between the two of us it was fine.”
Tuter’s memory of the game is vague — understandable after the success she had in the years to follow.
“I remember Melissa Smith hitting a 3-point shot, and I remember Marissa Moock making two layups,” Tuter said. “And I remember Jenny Schmidt making a 15-foot jumper. Other than that, I don’t remember a lot. I couldn’t even tell you if I scored any points or not.”
Tuter, a two-time Alaska Gatorade Player of the year (1992, 1993), also found success as a Division I college athlete, signing a letter of intent to play at Arizona State in the fall of 1993, where she spent the next four years collecting even more accolades.
“It was huge,” Tuter said. “You don’t really have a clue what Division I sports are like until you actually have the opportunity to do it. I was just hoping to survive.”
And survive she did. She was twice selected as an All-Pac-10 team member. She was third in career scoring with 1,374 points and is in the top three with career steals and 3-point attempts made, and she was selected for induction to the Arizona State University Athletic Hall of Fame in 2011.
From there, Tuter jumped at an opportunity to play for the Phoenix Mercury — one of only eight teams that competed in the inaugural season of the WNBA.
“The WNBA was a blast, but it just turned into a business,” she said. “It was the first year of the WNBA, and it was a great experience working with (coach) Cheryl Miller. To be able to have that experience was just amazing.”
After getting limited minutes in one season with the Mercury, Tuter decided to drop her playing days and challenge herself as a coach. Hired in June 1998 as an assistant coach at University of California Los Angeles, Tuter later became the youngest Division I head coach in the country when she took the head position at UC Irvine in 2004 at the age of 29.
Tuter had also been returning to Soldotna each summer to help with the Molly Tuter Gym Rat Basketball Camp for the Kenai Peninsula Boys and Girls Club, but since her coaching career ended in 2008, Tuter has not been back. Today will mark a good reason to get back to her roots.
“It’s such an honor to have my number retired, you really can’t put into words how you’re going to feel,” she said. “I had heard about three weeks ago, Dan (Gensel) called me about four or five times, leaving a message saying, ‘Hey I need to talk to you.’ I thought it was something bad, and so I called him back and he told me about it.”
When remembering her days as an athlete, Tuter said that the state championship playing at SoHi ranks up there with her letter of intent to play college ball and signing to play professional basketball.
“After we left, everyone was saying that the next team will be just as good as you guys, and we’re still waiting for a team as good as us,” she said.