At last year’s Alaska School Activities Association Class 2A basketball tournament in Anchorage, the most glaring numbers on the Nikolaevsk girls team roster were the ages. The team had no upperclassmen and six eighth-graders.
The squad surprised some folks by winning its first game at the tournament against Tok before dropping two consecutive games and finishing fifth.
This year, only three juniors — Nianiella Dorvall, Kikilia Kojin and Sophia Kalugin — make up the older upperclassmen part of the team, which has qualified for the 1A state tournament, its second consecutive state berth. The eighth-graders last year? They are now freshmen with state experience.
“Definitely, getting our feet wet last year will go a long way for our girls, wherever they end up playing,” Nikolaevsk coach Bea Klaich said. “Whether it be West (High School) or the Sullivan Arena, the court is the same, and our focus is playing the game.”
Klaich said the experience last year was a lot to take in for the team, which had never qualified for a state tournament.
“The first time they walked in the Sullivan Arena I could just see their awe,” Klaich recalled. “They’ve never seen anything like it. But they overcame it and they got hungry because of it. They want more this year.”
The Nikolaevsk girls, along with the Cook Inlet Academy girls, will be the two teams representing the Kenai Peninsula at the 1A state tournament this year, which will tip off on Saturday with 16 teams competing in first-round play at two locations — South High School and West High School.
After a rest day on Sunday (which does include a skills competition), Saturday’s winning teams will advance to the winning bracket, and the other half in the consolation bracket.
The Warriors finished this year’s regular season — the first in 1A competition — with a 20-3 record, and ultimately ended up as the Peninsula Conference tournament champions, beating CIA in a tightly contested 28-27 match.
But, it’s been two weeks since that game.
“At first, I was wondering how I’m going to keep my girls motivated, but actually it’s been a great thing,” Klaich said. “They’ve been working hard at getting better and focusing on the small things to get better. They’re just taking it one game at a time, and we’re hoping we can outwork our opponent.”
Nikolaevsk will begin its state tournament at West High School with a 1:15 p.m. matchup Saturday against Yakutat, a team that has won the 2A state title three consecutive years from 2007 to 2009. The Warriors dominated Yakutat en route to a 65-26 victory back in January.
“We have a lot of respect for Yakutat. They have more experience than us, but playing them in the Rex Rock tourney in Point Hope was good,” Klaich said. “Anthing can happen in tournament play, and they’re going be tournament ready.
“They like to press, and that’s one thing we’ve been working on the last couple weeks.”
Sophomore Kilina Klaich and freshmen Serafima Kalugin, Megan Hickman and Kayla Stafford will be a force on the offensive front, along with Sophia Kalugin and Nianiella Dorvall.
The Cook Inlet Academy girls squad qualified for their seventh straight state tournament berth, but are still looking for that elusive state championship. The Eagles finished the regular season with a 17-5 record, and will begin their state tournament with an 8:45 p.m. game with Buckland on Saturday at West High School.
After consecutive third-place finishes, the team came oh-so-close last year when Tikigaq slipped by CIA in the final minute to beat the Eagles 47-45 in the girls 2A state title game.
“You typically learn more in defeat than in victory,” said CIA coach Rustin Hitchcock. “There is a sense of hunger and development we have from last year, and we’ve tried to stray away from resentment. But the fact is that Klawock is the road to the championship.”
Klawock, the No. 1 seed from the Southeast Conference, and a perennial title contender, could possibly play CIA in Monday’s quarterfinal round if both teams win on Saturday.
“All throughout the year the polls have shown us, Klawock and Nikolaevsk as the top three,” Hitchcock said. “We’ve executed and have had a plan, and I really like where we’re at.”
Now, CIA had put together a three-year reign as Peninsula Conference champions, but that was snapped by Nikolaevsk this year in a tight 28-27 game on March 1, perhaps signaling a changing of the guard. CIA defeated Lumen Christi in the tournament’s second-place game by a score of 51-29 to punch their ticket to the 1A state tournament.
On Saturday night, the Eagles will face an opponent they have never seen before — the Buckland Sissauni, the top seed from the Northwest Arctic Conference. Buckland has been a 1A team for years now, unlike CIA, which is experiencing its first year in the smallest schools category.
“The good thing is that a common opponent is Noorvik,” Hitchcock said. “From what we know (about Buckland) they’re a guard-heavy team that runs a press, like us, so that’s kind of familiar.”
The best thing that CIA has going for them right now is the two-week rest between the Peninsula Conference tournament and the first day of the state tournament.
“Right now we’re mainly trying to heal up from the season, because we’ve had a lot of injuries,” Hitchcock said. “We’re still on the road to recovery, but we’ll have fresh legs at least.”
CIA is missing three starters from last year’s 2A championship-contending team. Kelsie Leaf and Keely Powers both graduated, and Powers’ younger sister Meghan transferred to Skyview this season.
The good news is that senior guard Megan Bauder and junior forward Nicole Moffis are still around, and along with senior Cara Davidson and sophomores Ashleigh Hammond and Madison Orth, the squad should present a formidable challenge.