In small-schools basketball, the bigger, the better.
The Alaska School Activities Association realignment for the 2012-13 season created a massive Class 1A division. The division, for schools with less than 50 students, has over 100 schools eligible, though not all field basketball teams.
Last season, the Peninsula Conference learned that it’s not just the Class 1A state tournament that got huge.
The Peninsula Conference can have up to 15 teams. Last season, six girls teams and nine boys teams played at the conference tournament, a 26-game, four-day affair.
“The conference has hired a tournament director, the conference grew so much when we went to 1A,” Ninilchik girls coach Rod Van Saun said.
The tournament will be held at the neutral site of Skyview High School. It will send two girls teams and two boys teams to state.
“Last year, we had it in Anchorage and we didn’t get the fans we normally get,” Van Saun said. “I think we’re going to have a fantastic turnout and a good tournament.”
The big question is which four teams will head to state.
On the girls side, the consensus in the early season is on Cook Inlet Academy and Nikolaevsk.
Both teams snapped up the conference’s state berths last season, with Nikolaevsk stopping CIA’s run of conference titles at three in the championship game. The two then played in the Class 1A state championship game, with the Eagles posting a 43-39 victory in three overtimes.
The Eagles lost three starters, but coach Rustin Hitchcock has more than proven his ability to reload in his first four years at the helm. He took third, third, second, then first at state.
If the early season is any indication, Hitchcock has reloaded again. Nikolaevsk didn’t lose any players from last season, and CIA lost to the Warriors 27-26 in the opening game of the season.
“Nikolaevsk didn’t put its best foot forward, but we hung around and had a chance to win,” Hitchcock said. “That says a lot.”
Both Hitchcock and Nikolaevsk coach Bea Klaich said there are many good programs in the conference, and also some teams about which nothing is known, so it is definitely too early pencil in a CIA-Nikolaevsk championship game.
“It’s a fun rivalry,” Klaich said. “It’s not malicious in any way. We have fun playing them and they make us a better team.”
The two state berths on the boys side are wide open. Last year, the two state berths went to Lumen Christi and Birchwood Christian in a barnburner of a tournament.
“It’s going to be a great conference,” Nikolaevsk coach Steve Klaich said. “The end-of-the-season tournament is going to be at Skyview and it’s going to be a battle for the two spots.”
The CIA boys served notice they will be a contender by winning the Cook Inlet Classic.
Eagles coach Justin Franchino has been in the conference title game all four of his years, but has turned that into a state appearance two times.
Last year, the Eagles reached the title game, then lost that and the second-place game. CIA returns three starters from that squad.
“We know what we have,” Franchino said. “We have the ability, talent, heart and potential to win regions.”
But Franchino also knows he will have plenty of competition on the Peninsula, and that doesn’t even include some solid programs off the Peninsula about which little is known at this point.
Klaich has a young, athletic team which will improve over the course of the season. Ninilchik has two returning starters, and two freshmen creating a buzz around the conference. Nanwalek will have five seniors playing, and Seldovia returns all five starters.
“I love being in this region,” Franchino said. “This region is deep and always competitive.”
The following is a closer look at the Peninsula schools in the Peninsula Conference:
Cook Inlet Academy girls
The two returning starters for Hitchcock are senior Nicole Moffis and sophomore Richele McGahan.
Moffis made the all-tournament team at the conference tourney, along with junior Madison Orth, who will move into the starting lineup. Moffis also was on the all-tournament team at state.
“Our guard play will be our strength,” Hitchcock said. “Our weakness will be learning to cover up our (personnel) losses with everybody, instead of having players try to step up and play the roles of players we lost.”
Other returners moving into the starting lineup will be junior Ashleigh Hammond and sophomore Kendra Brush. Hitchcock noted those players are battle-tested, with Brush playing a big role in a comeback win at state over Buckland.
After the starting five, the Eagles have four freshmen — Emma Lyons, Danielle Hills, Kendall Taplin and Jayne Hanna.
Hitchcock said each freshman has specific strengths, but all must work on rounding their games.
“The freshmen are going to have to contribute, because we can’t play five,” Hitchcock said.
Cook Inlet Academy boys
The Eagles have gotten faster in their chase for another state berth.
“We definitely lost some size and it changed what we are,” Franchino said. “We’re not a team that will pound it inside.
“We are based on speed, and more speed.”
The returning starters are senior Mylon Weems, junior Riley Smithwick and sophomore Timmy Smithwick.
Timmy Smithwick and Weems were second-team all-conference last year, while Smithwick also made the conference all-tourney team.
Seniors Caleb Lyons and Riley Solie move into the starting lineup. Franchino is happy Solie and his brother, sophomore Jeffrey, moved back into the area this year.
Depth inside will come from senior Adam Uchtman and freshman Brady Hammond, while sophomore Andrew Hammond and freshmen David Barlow and Noah Leaf also can expect minutes off the bench.
While Timmy Smithwick can go on scoring binges, the Eagles don’t want to rely on that.
“We’re looking to share the ball,” Franchino said. “We think everybody on the floor can score. We say the best shot is the easiest shot.”
Franchino, a CIA grad who won state titles as a player in 1999 and 2002, and as an assistant in 2005, also said a key part of the team is his assistants, Mike Kytonen and Matthew Moffis. He said both also are CIA grads and are not paid for the hours they put in.
Kevin Seville is in his sixth year at the helm of Nanwalek. This year, the school is combining with Fort Graham to form a team.
Last season, Nanwalek played about a dozen games in the regular season and went winless. Nanwalek was able to go 1-2 at the conference tournament.
John Romanoff, a second-team all-conference and all-conference tourney performer last year, and Xavier Romanoff return as starters.
Michael Anahonak, from Port Graham, also will start. The other two starters will be Tim Ukatish, who took a year off from basketball, and Jay Greene. Greene returns to Nanwalek after attending school Outside last year.
The bench players will be Joshua Evans, Larry Ukatish and Nicholi Ukatish.
“A strength I see in our team is the fact that we have five seniors playing on the team this year,” Seville wrote. “A big weakness for our program is the fact that we do not have a full-sized gymnasium and the team takes a little time to adjust to the size of a regular floor, and the speed with which the game is played.”
For Bea Klaich, now in her eighth year at the helm, it’s full steam ahead in pursuit of the first state championship in any sport for Nikolaevsk.
“Nikolaevsk has never won state in anything, but we’re taking it one step at a time, one game at a time,” Klaich said.
Not only do the Warriors return everybody from last year’s runner-up squad, but they also have won a small-schools, middle-school tournament on the Peninsula for four straight years.
“Everybody has been to camp this summer, some as many as four camps,” Klaich said. “I told them they can’t expect to not do anything and get better.”
The returning starters are senior Nianiella Dorvall and Sophia Kalugin, junior Kilina Klaich, and sophomores Kayla Stafford and Serafima Kalugin.
Dorvall was the MVP of two tournaments last season, and also made all-tourney teams at the conference and state tourneys. Sophia Kalugin was the MVP of the conference, and made the all-tournament team at state. Stafford and Kilina Klaich also made the all-tournament team at conference.
“We still need to work on a few things,” coach Klaich said. “Our defense is solid and will help us.
“On offense, we still need to get more aggressive.”
The Warriors have depth for a small school. Sophomore Megan Hickman and senior Kikilia Kojin return. Eighth-graders Kristin Klaich, Vera Fefelov and Anastacia Dorvall also join the squad.
Everybody on the roster made it into the scoring column during an early season win against Ninilchik’s JV.
“It’s nice having a balanced team,” Klaich said. “We don’t build our offense around one person.
“On this team, everyone is a scoring threat. The other team can’t focus their defense on one person.”
Steve Klaich returns for his 25th year as the coach. Klaich renews the chase for a state berth, which he last nabbed in 1997.
Last season, Klaich had a team that was right there. The Warriors lost to eventual conference champion Lumen Christi by one point at the conference tournament.
Klaich lost four starters from that team. Senior Anthony Yakunin is the only returning starter.
Freshman Nikit Fefelov and sophomores Neil Gordeev and Jonah Fefelov return and move into the starting five. The final starter is junior Jaruby Nelson, who moved in from Homer.
Sophomore Felemon Molodih also moved in from Homer and should see a lot of time off the bench.
The roster is rounded out by sophomores Nicetas Lasiter and Greg Trail, and freshmen Kalenik Molodih, Sergey Yakunin and Anfim Kalugin. Klaich said all have the potential to contribute this year.
“We have a more balanced team this year,” Klaich said. “They’re very athletic, but they’re in the process of learning to play together.
“Once they learn to play together, they should be a competitive team.”
While Klaich expects the team to grow together this year, asking anybody on the team to grow would be too much, so he said the team will give up height in some games.
Rod Van Saun, in his fifth year at the helm in Ninilchik, continues with a youth movement.
All five starters return — sophomores Krista Sinclair, Alanna Goins, Melissa Ehlers and Jordan Finney, and junior Melissa Clark. Clark was second-team all-conference, while Ehlers made the conference all-tourney team.
That returning starting five were the only players on the roster until sophomore Krystal Robuck joined the team in mid-February, so the group got plenty of playing time.
“If you count up the years of experience, they’re still very inexperienced compared to teams they have to play,” Van Saun said. “I’m really excited about this team. Together, I think they have a bright future.”
Van Saun welcomes senior Jessica Rogers back to the program, and also said freshmen Tatiana Cooper and Mikayla Clark will give some good minutes.
With Sinclair at point guard and some size down below, Van Saun said all the elements are there for a good team. The question remains experience.
“I have really dedicated kids and it is exciting and fun to coach them,” Van Saun said. “It’s a tough prediction.”
An injection of youth to a solid core of players has optimism blooming in Nickolas Finley’s third year as head coach.
The Wolverines return starters Tyler Thorn, a senior, and Sam Mireles, a junior, from a team that went 12-12 in the regular season and 2-2 in the conference tournament.
Also returning to the team is senior Robert DelGado, who will start. Returning off the bench will be junior Sebastian Appelhanz and sophomores Caleb Appelhanz and Alex Koch.
The two freshmen creating a buzz will start — guard Tyler Presley and 6-foot-6 post player Austin White. Freshman Matt Bartolowits also joins the team.
“Our team is young, but full of energy,” Finley wrote. “We have a ton of dedication from young kids to get better, the most dedication we have had in a long time.
“The willingness to learn is a big strength of our team, we have guys that are excited to be here and want to learn.”
Finley wrote that both Presley and White want to play basketball in college. The coach told both that this means tons of hours in the gym, and the coach said both have put in the work in the gym and the classroom.
“Tyler and Austin have done an unbelievable job of pushing themselves in the offseason, and the result is them making an immediate impact on our team as freshmen,” Finley wrote.
Tiffany Haller takes over the Sea Otters program this year.
She said her husband, like Haller a graduate of Seldovia, is helping out, but couldn’t apply to be coach because he couldn’t travel with the team.
“We have had a bit of a ‘revolving door’ with the girls coaches the past few years, and I wanted to give the girls some long-term stability,” Haller wrote in an email. “I want to develop a program that the school and our close-knit community can be proud of.”
Haller has a strong tradition on which to build, and last year’s team did not win any games, but showed enough heart to win the sportsmanship award at the conference tourney.
The returning starters are senior captain Alexandria Swick and sophomore Marina Chissus, a second-team all-conference performer last season. Senior Chaela Ogle-Hilts was part of the team that went to state when she was a freshman, and returns to the starting lineup. Other starters will be sophomore captain Olivia Turner and sophomore Jenna Crosby.
Freshman Gavin Elvsaas returns to the team after playing as an eighth-grader. Rounding out the team are freshman Violet Mitchell, eighth-grader Axcenia Waterbury and senior Aydana Omar, an exchange student from Kazakhstan.
“We are very well rounded,” Haller wrote. “We have some GREAT shooters as well as ballhandlers, and a desire to win.”
She said the weaknesses of the team are youth, inexperience and a lack of height.
Mark Janes, in his third year of coaching the Seldovia boys, returns all five of his starters.
That group is juniors Chance Haller and Seth O’Leary, and sophomores Aidan Philpot, Calem Collier and Dylan Waterbury. Philpot was second-team all-conference last season.
The team is rounded out by returning sophomores Robert Waterbury and Tim Haller, and newcomers sophomore Austin Crosby and junior exchange student Souleymane Sidebe, who is from Mali.
Last year, the Sea Otters were seventh in the league in the regular season, and took sixth at the conference tournament.
Janes wrote in an email that this group of boys has now played together for five years and was successful in junior high. Size and youth has kept them from recapturing the success of junior high.
“The Otters will still be young and will give up some size to most teams in the region, but they now are mostly sophomores and juniors with two years of high school experience and should show great improvement over the past year,” Janes wrote in an email. “They have the talent to upset any of the teams in the region.”
Janes said the Otters have a balanced lineup of good ballhandlers. There are four players that have scored in double digits in all games this season.
“With our size, we will give up some advantage working under the boards, but we are growing every day,” Janes wrote.