For three long years, the Wasilla girls basketball team has held a stranglehold on the Class 4A state championship crown, and the Warriors have certainly been the class of not only the Northern Lights conference, but the entire state.
Last season, the Warriors posted a perfect 30-0 season record en route to the state title, beating the Dimond Lynx 43-27 in the championship game.
The Colony Knights, Kodiak Bears and Palmer Moose also all present a tough challenge, so that means Soldotna and Kenai Central have their work cut out for them. Again.
The good news for all the teams in the NLC is that Wasilla lost a good chunk of its core of starting seniors from last year, and so for the first time since 2010, the conference and state race seems to be wide open.
“I really think in our region, Kodiak will be the team to beat,” said SoHi girls coach Doug Blossom. “And maybe us.”
The Soldotna girls suffered at the hands of Wasilla twice last season — a 54-35 loss and a 48-22 loss — but Blossom said the Warriors look to be back down on earth again.
The Stars went 5-5 in conference play last year, while the Kardinals went 0-10. Both Blossom and Kenai head coach Stacia Rustad hope to improve on that, and early season games at the Kenai River Challenge tournament last weekend showed improvement.
“I know we have the toughest region in the state,” Rustad said. “I expect Kodiak and Soldotna to be battling for the top, as well as the Valley schools.”
On the boys side, Kenai went 1-9 and finished last during the regular season, while the Soldotna boys were the fourth seed and ended up taking third in the tournament, but did not qualify for state. Champion Palmer and runner-up Colony took the two automatic boys state berths.
This season, it will again be difficult to get to state on both the boys and girls sides. Beginning last season, a new qualification process for state was implemented, giving only two girls teams and two boys teams from the NLC an automatic state berth. With two spots from the Cook Inlet Conference, and one each from the Southeast and Mid Alaska conferences, that left two additional at-large berths using the Winning Percentage Index.
The following is a closer look at the girls and boys teams from Soldotna and Kenai:
Back in March, the Stars were set on their way to the state tournament after getting in on a WPI berth — one of two — but were knocked out only a day later after it was realized that two Southeastern Conference games were missing, and after the calculations and permutations were redone, the Lathrop Malamutes took Soldotna’s spot.
Blossom said the experience lowered his trust in the WPI rankings, adding that his squad played top talent more often than Lathrop. The Stars faced a 4A team six times more than the Malamutes last year.
“I don’t think it was fair to the kids the way it went down,” he said. “I think it’s made this team hungrier, so they’ve been working harder. We’re not even going to talk that far down the way, because we’re just taking it one game at a time.”
The SoHi girls lost three starting seniors from last year — Kaillee Skjold, who now plays for the UAF Nanooks, Heidi Westerman and Natalie Kress.
But returning this year are a couple of gems.
Julie Litchfield, Katelynn Kerkvliet, Makayla Wong, Kiana Hendricks and Kelci Benson are the five seniors on the team, and Blossom said they will all be getting a lot of time on court.
Litchfield may hold the biggest expectations. The 5-foot-8 senior recently was admitted to George Fox University — a Division III Christian school in Newberg, Ore. — to play basketball.
Lindsey Keener — a George Fox and Kenai Central alumni — has taken up assistant coach duties this year as well, along with Guy Hayes. Keener was a part of the 2009 George Fox basketball squad that captured the D-III national championship.
Blossom said Litchfield is tough, athletic and a great teammate.
“She was a tossup between soccer and basketball, and she was getting no help from the soccer schools,” he said
Blossom noted that the connection between Litchfield and Keener may pay dividends in the future, and with the height of the 6-foot-0 Kerkvliet at center and the deadly perimeter shooting of Benson, this year’s team is looking like a very complete group.
Blossom also said Hendricks, juniors Skylar Shaw and Haley Miller, and sophomore Lindsey Wong will be getting minutes off the bench.
“Their attitude and continuity is different,” Blossom said. “The chemistry is different from last year.”
Because the SoHi girls volleyball team did not qualify for the state tournament, which they did in 2012, Blossom said that has opened up more time in the gym to focus on basketball.
“We have a goal,” Blossom said. “We’re not talking about it a lot right now, but we all know where we want to end up at.
“I told them, I don’t want to be playing our best ball in December. I want to be playing our best ball in March.”
A quick look at the Soldotna boys roster will tell fans at least one thing. Opponents will be dealing with some size this year.
Nine of the 12 varsity starters are 6-0 or above, topped by 6-5 senior Daniel McElroy, who is primarily a post player.
“He’s improved a ton since last year,” said SoHi boys coach Matt Johnson. “He’s going to stand out this year, and he’s got a presence on both ends of the floor.”
Joining McElroy for the senior class is Colton Young, Austin Kruse, Max Conradi, River Calloway and Sam Deatheridge.
Johnson said the junior class holds some serious threats as well. Brooks Furlong, Nathan Spence and Drew Fowler will be adding much-needed depth, as well as sophomore Dylan Kuntz.
“Right now we’re a good defensive team,” Johnson said. “Offensively there’s some potential, some room to grow. It’ll be a fun year to see them develop.”
The depth will be crucial for a team that lost star players Cory Carver, Preston Penrod and Noah Fowler from the 2012 squad. Last year, the Stars were an efficient perimeter team, able to keep up with teams like Colony from 3-point land.
If SoHi can find a rhythm in its outside shooting, the post game will open up for opportunities for players like McElroy, said Johnson.
After two straight years of losing star power, the Kenai girls team has a very young look.
Coach Rustad said even when dealing with inexperience, there is a whole lot of work ethic on the team.
“Coaches (Craig) Jung and (Tim) Sandahl are encouraged,” Rustad said. “This group of young ladies wants to be better. They want to win, they want to be good basketball players, and they’re willing to put in the time to make that happen.”
Veteran players Justice English and Caitie Steinbeck lead the team as the two seniors, but they have plenty of backup.
Junior Hannah Barcus, sophomore Hannah Drury and junior Allie Ostrander were able to get varsity minutes last season, and now they solidly hold varsity spots. The speed Ostrander has acquired from running cross-country has allowed her to help direct the offense as a point guard along with English, while Barcus and Steinbeck have been an integral part of Kenai’s stingy defense, which allowed 89 points across three games at the Kenai River Challenge tournament last weekend.
“We expect that it’s going to be a lot of ebb and flow,” Rustad said. “There’s going to be a lot of positives, and there’s going to be times that we’re going to struggle.”
The Kards lost Sydney Taylor, Cassie Ross and Carly Norvelle to graduation in the spring, but Rustad has embraced the challenge.
“Part of that is exciting, because we don’t know yet what we’re going to be,” Rustad said. “I think there’s potential in our freshman and sophomore class. It’s going to be exciting to see them flourishing this season, and to see who steps up to the plate and gets it done.
“Last season we were 0-10, and that’s hard. It’s hard on me, it’s hard on these players, we’re not accustomed to losing that much. So all our season goals that some of the girls put up are to win some ballgames during regions. That’s what we’re preparing for.”
The Kenai girls will get their conference schedule going when school resumes in January, starting with the Colony Knights.
The Kenai boys are also experiencing a loss of their top star players, losing guards Wyatt Fitt, Josh McKee and 6-foot-6 post player Shane Spalding.
“Those guys will certainly be missed, but the group this year can certainly play to the expectations I have for them,” said Kenai coach Ken Felchle.
Trevor Shirnberg, Vlad Glushkov and Miles Jones represent the senior class this year, but Felchle mentioned that freshman Josh Jackman has the potential to be an all-around threat.
“Josh has already played very well for us this year, and he’s just a part of a group that can win a lot of games,” Felchle said. “I know we lost a lot of players last year but this group is hard-working, they have a great attitude, and we’re hoping to be playing our best and winning games by the region tournament.”
Junior Wren Norwood represents the tallest player on the team at 6-foot-2, so the Kards don’t have quite the height that other teams may have, but when Kenai beat an improved Nikiski bunch 58-48 on Friday at the Powerade/Al Howard SoHi Tip-Off tournament, Felchle felt that his team could still get the job done.