There will be two Class 1A state tournament boys slots and two state girls slots up for grabs at the Peninsula Conference tournament, which runs today through Saturday at Lumen Christi in Anchorage.
The top three teams on the boys and girls sides have all shown they are very close during regular season play. Throw in other teams desperate to extend their seasons, and a wild tournament is shaping up.
On the boys side, Birchwood Christian has the top seed, while Lumen Christi is No. 2 and Nikolaevsk is No. 3.
“Nobody in the conference is right with us, other than those two,” Nikolaevsk head coach Steve Klaich said.
But the coach is quick to point out the other games will not be easy.
“I think Ninilchik, Wasilla Lake, even Nanwalek have enough kids that they could be sleepers,” Klaich said.
The top three seeds on the girls side are No. 1 Ninilchik, No. 2 Lumen Christi and No. 3 Nikolaevsk.
“Between us, Lumen and Niko there is not a lot of separation,” Ninilchik head coach Josh Demlow said.
Just like on the boys side, though, there are no games off.
“Both Birchwood and (Cook Inlet Academy) have been working really hard,” Nikolaevsk head coach Bea Klaich said. “The girls will have to work for it. They’ve definitely both improved a lot.”
The Nikolaevsk boys, who open with No. 6 seed Nanwalek today at 3 p.m., have been to state for four straight seasons. Each time, they have made it by winning the second-place game.
The Warriors were 10-2 in the conference, or 10-4 if double jeopardy games are included. The losses to Birchwood and Lumen were both single games that counted for double losses. Both those losses came because of terrible quarters.
“We need to play consistent,” Steve Klaich said. “We cannot have any bad quarters.”
Klaich said his team can’t rely on stars. That consistency will only come if everybody on the team does their part.
The Ninilchik boys won the last two Class 1A state and Peninsula Conference titles, but were hit by heavy graduation losses after last season.
The fourth-seeded Wolverines open with No. 5 Wasilla Lake at noon today. Ninilchik has an 8-6 record in region play, with losses coming to Nikolaevsk, Birchwood and Lumen.
“We struggled so much this year just getting our entire team on the court at the same time,” Demlow said. “With sickness, injuries and eligibility issues, we’ve had so many struggles this year.
“I feel like when I have all nine of my guys, we are competitive with anybody.”
The good news is Demlow will have all his guys for the tournament. The question is for how long. He said another problem Ninilchik has had is foul trouble.
But with everybody on the team improving, especially big guys Jake Clark and Tristan White, Demlow likes his team’s chances.
The Cook Inlet Academy boys enter with an 0-14 record in the conference and must play top seed Birchwood.
Coach Ryan McMilin said his team has improved this season, but due to the height disadvantage against Birchwood, his team would have to play perfect to win. McMilin likes the matchups better after the first-round game, though. With improved shooting plus great performances from junior Hunter Moos and freshman Isaac Johnson, a tourney run is possible.
“This season has been a big steppingstone,” McMilin said. “I knew it would be. We’ve got to continue to build through this tournament.”
The Ninilchik girls earned the No. 1 seed by going 7-1 in the league, losing only to Nikolaevsk, and will open Thursday at 5 p.m. against the Birchwood-CIA winner.
The Wolverines are working on a string of two straight state appearances, including the 2016 conference crown. Reach further back, and Ninilchik won eight state titles between 1996 and 2006.
“I told the girls we did what we needed to do in the regular season, but we need to go into the postseason not taking anything for granted,” said Demlow, who coaches the girls and boys. “If they want to win, they’ve got to work for it every day.
“That’s kind of been our motto for the season. They’ve gotten a lot better and have been playing some pretty darned good basketball lately.”
With DeeAnn White, Olivia Delgado and Madi Cooper, Demlow loves his team’s advantage on the inside. In particular, White is averaging 20 points and 13 rebounds.
“She’s having an incredible season,” Demlow said. “When we play big schools, she rises to the challenge.”
Including double jeopardy games, the Nikolaevsk girls were 5-3 to earn the third seed and play No. 2 Lumen today at 5 p.m. today.
A double jeopardy loss to Lumen by just three points was the difference between the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds, because the Warriors split with Ninilchik.
But Nikolaevsk now has a proud tradition, with six straight trips to state and four conference titles in the last five years, to inspire confidence.
“I had a chance to talk individually tonight with each of the girls at practice while they were working on their free throws,” Bea Klaich said. “They feel pretty good about it, but they know it will not be easy.”
Klaich said ball security will be key when the Warriors push the pace. The coach’s daughter, Kristin, is the lone senior on the team and will be counted on for leadership.
No. 5 seed CIA plays No. 4 Birchwood at 1:30 p.m. today. The two teams split this season as the Eagles, who won a state title in 2013 and had a string of nine straight state appearances snapped in 2016, finished 1-7 in the league.
Eagles coach Josh Hawley said his team’s lone senior, Breona Delon, was missing in the last game against Birchwood, so it will be nice to have her back.
Hawley said the game will come down to the basics, like taking care of the ball, grabbing defensive rebounds and getting everybody involved in the offense.
Junior Adara Warren has been the main scorer for CIA this season, but Hawley said the focus lately has been to get the whole team involved on offense. He said team intensity is great on defense, now that needs to translate to the offensive end.
“I think we can be right there,” Hawley said. “I think we can be the Cinderella team of this tournament, but I know Birchwood wants that too.
“I do know we’ll have five girls back next year, and with how much they’ve improved this year, we won’t be ranked this low next season.”