Twelve basketball teams will converge on Soldotna High School for three days of prep hoops action, as the 2013 Northern Lights Conference basketball tournament is set to tip off today.
Six schools, each with a boys and girls team, will attempt to hoist the region trophy on Saturday, but to get there, they will need to get through the new bracket system, which was changed from last year due to two schools — Skyview and Homer — dropping down to the 3A level. The new bracket is not so forgiving as last year’s double-elimination format. A loss on Thursday means you play in the consolation game on Friday. A win means you advance to play either the No. 1 or 2 seed, which will spend Thursday resting with a bye.
The top two teams in the girls and boys divisions from the NLC tourney make the state tournament automatically. In each division, there are two other state berths available to the two teams that don’t qualify in their conference tournaments but have the highest Win Percentage Index. The WPI ranks the strength of a team based on a formula that consists of such stats as winning percentage, opponent strength and the combined season records of opponents.
The Wasilla girls (10-0 in conference play) and Kodiak girls (6-4) will receive a bye today, as they are the top two ranked girls teams. The Colony boys (10-0) and Palmer boys (7-3) will receive byes as the top boys squads.
Both of Soldotna’s teams are seeded fourth for the tournament, while Kenai’s teams are both sixth seeds.
Kenai boys vs. Kodiak, 3 p.m.
The bad news for the Kenai boys — they went 1-9 in conference matchups this season. The good news — their one win was against Kodiak, a 52-38 victory.
“We have actually proved that we can play with almost anyone,” coach Ken Felchle said. “We’ve played everyone in the region, although we haven’t played with Colony for a couple halves, so that’s the team that will be tough to beat. But first, we need to beat Kodiak.
“We feel that we have a good chance against everyone else. In our heads, we’re playing against the one team we beat during the season, but we got to have a good game plan going into the tournament.”
Felchle said he is happy that his team is on the side of the bracket that it is, because if Kenai beats Kodiak today, the Kards will face up with No. 2 seed Palmer on Friday, before a potential matchup with Colony on Saturday, if circumstances play out ideally. Last year, Kenai defeated Kodiak in the NLC third-place game, and earned its way to the state tournament on the merits of their WPI.
“We have a nothing-to-lose attitude,” Felchle said. “If we can play loose like we did last week, we can win.”
A student of structure and planning, Felchle decided to let the Kards play fast and furious in their last regular-season game on Thursday, beating Nikiski 67-45. Felchle said they might use that tactic with Kodiak, a team that employs a fast pace.
“They are certainly one of the fastest teams,” he said. “They’re size is easiest for us, and matter of fact, we’re bigger than they are, our size plays to our advantage, so as long as we keep their guards in front and control the boards, we can win.”
Felchle also noted that senior forward Shane Spalding did not play in either of Kenai’s games with Kodiak this year, and his height could make a big difference.
“Prior to this last week, we probably were averaging 38 points a game,” Felchle said. “ You’re not going to see teams score 38 points this week. Our defense can be good, but it’s not that good. We’re going to have to make an outside shot (on offense), so we’re going to have to shoot, and make sure they’re good quality looks. We got to let it fly.”
Kenai girls vs. Colony, 4:45 p.m.
The Kardinals ended their season without winning a conference game, which leaves them sixth in the NLC rankings. With a team like the third-seeded Colony Knights standing in the way, Kenai will have to come up with something on the offensive front.
Throughout the season, the Kards have frustrated opponents with a fiery defense, but turnovers and inconsistent play on the offensive side have hurt them.
Senior guard Sydney Taylor has led the Kards through it all, along with seniors Justice English and Cassie Ross and junior Carly Norvelle. If those team leaders can contain players like Colony’s Mary Klapperich and Izzy Tweed, an upset may be in the works.
Soldotna boys vs. Wasilla, 6:30 p.m.
The biggest threat the Stars will have to deal with in this game is Dane Kuiper, a 6-foot-6 sophomore guard that did not play in Soldotna’s win against the Warriors earlier this season. The two teams split this year in their conference matchups.
SoHi boys coach Matt Johnson knows that if his team can stay out of Kuiper’s way and slow him down on the offensive end, they have a shot at dealing the Warriors a loss.
“They have Dane, who’s a potential Division I shooting guard, but at the same time, Cory (Carver) has been playing well,” Johnson said of the senior guard. “The last month, month and a half, he’s really settled in. He puts pressure on himself, but I think he’s learned to not worry and enjoy it, he’s been a phenomenon on and off the court, and when the games on the line, he can step up.”
Carver has been red hot in recent games for Soldotna, including a 30-point effort against Palmer last Friday. Carver, senior Noah Fowler, junior Colton Young and junior Daniel McElroy have been the core of the SoHi boys squad this season.
“We have, throughout the year, been constantly battling down to the wire, and when it gets tight, these kids trust each other and execute down the stretch,” Johnson said. “Hopefully we do well, (Wasilla) is a good team, both games this year were tight, but it’s a game we’re heading into confident. Wasilla is a younger team, and we’re more experienced, so hopefully that’ll work to our advantage at the end of the game.”
Johnson said this year’s tournament field is one of the deepest he’s seen, which should naturally produce close, exciting competition, and if anybody is accustomed to close games, it is the SoHi boys.
“Colony is a handful, they’re deep, well coached, a senior-heavy team, so we’ll have our hands full if we play them,” he said. “Palmer is playing much better, they could challenge. Kodiak is scary on any given night.”
Soldotna girls vs. Palmer, 8:15 p.m.
The Soldotna girls team shares a 5-5 conference record with Colony, but were relegated to the fourth seed because of their position on the WPI rankings. SoHi split its conference games with Palmer this season, losing out at home in the first game by a hair, but stopped the Moose in the Valley last Friday with a 43-32 win.
In that game, Soldotna senior Kaillee Skjold was held to only three points. It didn’t matter, as the SoHi defense held Palmer to only 11 points in the second half.
“It was just a big win for us, WPI-wise, because we still have a chance of taking first or second,” SoHi coach Doug Blossom said. “It would be nice to be on the opposite side of the bracket to Wasilla, but we got to take care of business no matter what.”
Blossom holds all the confidence in this team that he had since the beginning of the season, a team that he has coached to a 16-8 record, and a team that has qualified for the state tournament the past two seasons.
“We’re just taking it one game at a time,” Blossom said. “It’s one of the better matchups, and we just got to come out and hit shots and hit shots well.”
“If I could handpick our team, I’d pick these kids. They have really come through this year.”
When factoring in a third game against Palmer in the East Thunderbird tournament in December, SoHi actually edged Palmer 2-1 in the season series.
Soldotna had started the year off with a seven-game win streak, only to lose four in a row after that. When SoHi lost to Lathrop at the Dimond Lady Lynx tournament in early February, the Stars had dropped to an 11-8 record.
“We hit a bit of a brick wall in the middle of the season, but we have our style back and we’re ready,” Blossom said. “We’re playing good together as a team right now. All the losses this year were to top teams, like West Valley, Dimond and Lathrop, but we’re a better team because of that.”
The team has ended the regular season on a five-game winning streak, but, as Blossom mentioned, anything can happen in tournament basketball.
“Any team is due to slip up. It could be Wasilla,” he said. “Defense is on our side right now, and I think our chemistry is better right now than it’s been, except of course right at the start of season.”