This time last year, the Nikiski girls basketball team was facing a scoring crisis. Leading scorer Bethany Carstens went down with a knee injury minutes into the most important game of the season to that point, leaving the Bulldogs in a jam.
Fast forward to today, and the team is back together and looking for a championship that slipped away.
Nikiski begins their championship march anew tonight at 6 p.m. at Colony High School with a quarterfinal matchup against the Houston Hawks on opening day of the 2018 Southcentral Conference tournament.
The Bulldogs begin as the No. 2 seed following a 10-2 conference run this year. Anchorage Christian went 12-0 in the conference and receives a first-day bye as the Lions await the winner of todays noon matchup featuring fifth-seeded Seward and fourth-seeded Homer.
The top two teams qualify to the Class 3A state tournament, giving Friday’s semifinals extra importance as the winners of each punch their ticket to the big dance. A third team could go to state on an at-large berth based on the Win Percentage Index (WPI) standings.
Last year, Carstens had led Nikiski to the No. 2 seed (only after a tiebreaker favored ACS for the top seed) with a 23-3 regular season mark, averaging 21 points per game, over 40 percent of the team’s scoring.
But suddenly, the Bulldogs were facing life without their star player, who ended up suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament, a medial collateral ligament tear and a fractured femur on a routine layup in a Southcentral tournament semifinal against Grace Christian.
“It was a big blow and it took a while to recover from that,” Anderson said earlier this season.
With Carstens fully healed for another tournament run, the Bulldogs appear to be back to full song. Carstens hasn’t fallen off too much, averaging 19.2 points per game this year.
However, the season has not been perfect either on the injury front. Nikiski was dealt a blow this year when point guard Kelsey Clark, an experienced veteran presence, went down with a knee injury Jan. 13 against ACS. Clark hasn’t seen any game minutes since then, but Anderson said the senior is ready to go in time for the tournament.
The following is a closer look at today’s opening matchups:
Homer (4) vs. Seward (5), Thursday 12 p.m.
A year after finishing 2-10 in the conference — the Mariners only had three wins all season — the Homer girls have made big strides with a 5-7 Southcentral mark and a 9-13 overall record.
Seward, meanwhile, has endured a rebuilding year after losing several key seniors. The Seahawks went 4-8 against region competition this year.
The two teams split a pair of conference meetings this year. Seward knocked off Homer at home 48-42 before the Mariners took vengeance last week in a dominating 52-22 win in Homer.
As two remaining players from the 2016 state runner-up squad, seniors Alyssa Cole and Maggie Box have helped guide the young Mariners team this year, and have gotten help from sophomore Rylee Doughty and junior Rylyn Todd.
Seward has had to rely on the physical talents of 5-foot-10 forward Coral Petrosius and point guard Ashley Jackson. Petrosius has presented a tough time for opponents in the paint this year, while Jackson has routinely been a scoring threat from deep.
The Seahawks are currently riding a six-game losing skid, while Homer has won two in a row and three of their last six.
Nikiski (2) vs. Houston (7), Thursday 6 p.m.
The Bulldogs should have an easy opening day against the winless Houston girls, who went 0-12 in conference play this year and 0-24 overall. Nikiski beat Houston twice this year with scores of 59-22 and 64-23.
Nikiski’s only losses this year have been two conference games to ACS, a narrow loss to Class 4A opponent Lathrop in a holiday tournament, and an endowment game to 4A school Soldotna, putting their overall mark at 19-3.
A quarterfinal win tonight over Houston would place Nikiski into a Friday semifinal against the winner of Grace (8-4 in conference play) and Redington (3-9). Nikiski was a combined 4-0 against Grace and Redington this year, winning each game by at least 18 points.
Seward (5) vs. Nikiski (4), Thursday 1:30 p.m.
The Nikiski boys have shown glimpses of the team that went to the big dance two years ago, and after a 7-5 conference run this year, could pull a surprise.
However, the Homer and Nikiski boys tied with identical conference records, and the Mariners won the tiebreaker based on results against common opponents. As the fourth seed, the Bulldogs were placed on the same side of the region bracket as the top-seeded ACS boys, who went undefeated in region play this year.
Seward locked up the fifth seed with a 4-8 run in conference play and 7-15 overall, and could prove to be a thorn in Nikiski’s side. Nikiski won both meetings with Seward this year, but not by much, prevailing 48-41 in Seward and 57-50 in Nikiski last Saturday to cap the regular season.
Both squads have relied on heavy run games this year, as speed has often dictated the pace of play between the two sides. Nikiski’s strong inside game, led by seniors Cody Handley and Ian Johnson, has given opponents fits, while junior Jace Kornstad has provided a dangerous scoring threat from beyond the arc. Seward features 6-foot-6 senior Zen Petrosius, a regular leading scorer for the Seahawks, and sophomore Connor Spanos, a potent guard.
Homer (3) vs. Redington (6), Thursday 4:30 p.m.
The Homer boys enter the tournament as the darkhorse, holding a realistic outside shot of gaining a spot in the conference title game and the automatic state berth that comes with it.
While ACS and Grace blasted away from the rest of the pack in a battle for Southcentral Conference supremacy, the Mariners won the “best of the rest” category and claimed third in the regular season standings. Homer won a tiebreaker for the third seed over Nikiski after finishing with identical 7-5 records.
In two games this year, the Mariners beat the 1-11 Redington Huskies twice with scores of 74-42 and 63-39. A win would advance Homer to a Friday semifinal against the winner of Houston and Grace Christian. The Mariners went 2-0 against Houston but 0-2 against Grace this year.
Homer features a deep lineup of experienced hands, starting with senior guard Koby Etzwiler. The cast also includes seniors Jordan Beachy and Joel Carroll and juniors Seth Adkins and Japheth McGhee, the latter of which stands at 6-foot-4, giving the Mariners some post presence.