With 32 total teams between the boys and girls Class 1A state tournaments converging on Anchorage this weekend, there’s not a lot of room for mistakes and poor play.
Although the tournament officially begins today at the Alaska Airlines Center, the 16 opening-day games serve only to set the brackets for championship play. Half the field (Wednesday’s winners) will begin their title quests Thursday while the other half (Wednesday’s losers) will have to settle for competition for a consolation prize.
Of the 16 teams in the boys and girls tournaments, only four enter seeded, while everyone else is unseeded. The top four boys teams are Noatak, Kake, Shishmaref and Tanana, while the top four girls squads are Scammon Bay, King Cove, Davis Ramoth and Aniak.
Two peninsula teams made the big dance this year, the Nikolaevsk boys and the Ninilchik girls. Both teams stamped their ticket to state by winning the Peninsula Conference tournament second-place game, held one day after the championship game. Both squads lost the region tourney title game and had to win the second-place game in order to continue their season at state.
The Ninilchik girls begin their tournament run today at 8 a.m. against the No. 3 seed Davis Ramoth School, based in Selawik, while the Nikolaevsk boys get their state tourney under way today at 5 p.m. against the No. 2 seed Kake, a Southeast favorite.
After defeating the Nikolaevsk girls 36-22 in the region second-place contest, snapping the Warriors’ six-year streak of state appearances, Ninilchik head coach Josh Demlow said the last 10 days leading into state have been some of the strongest practices he has seen with the team.
“I couldn’t be more happy with where we’re at right now,” Demlow said. “The last couple days have been the most competitive and driven that we’ve had all season long. I haven’t seen more motivation and more energy in every sprint, every suicide (drill), every detail has been pushing themselves as hard as they can.
Ninilchik is making its third consecutive state appearance. Demlow said while a state title would be the utmost achievement for the team, the bottom line for the Wolverines is to play all out every game and keep improving.
Demlow said the 2017-18 Wolverines are a young bunch that have relied on two experienced veterans in senior Olivia Delgado and junior DeeAnn White. Delgado has been a steady presence for Ninilchik during the current three-year run of state appearances. The Wolverines were the state consolation champions after winning the Peninsula Conference tournament in 2016, then finished sixth overall last year after a runner-up finish at the conference tournament.
Demlow said the experience of those two starters has been crucial to getting the younger crop of starters up to speed this year, and added that Delgado made a big jump this year to becoming a vocal leader.
“It meant a lot to be able to make sure someone who has been a strong part of our team … gets to state her senior year and compete,” Demlow said.
After watching game tape of Selawik, Demlow said the key to getting Ninilchik’s state tourney off to a fast start will be to contain Selawik’s transition game.
“Our transition defense is super important,” he said. “We have a height advantage. We have three or four girls who are taller than their tallest player.”
At 6-feet even, White stands as Ninilchik’s tallest player.
“We’ve got to bring energy and play with intensity,” Demlow said. “We can’t control whether a shot goes in or not, but what you can control is how you work in the game and your hustle. That’s been my focus for the week.”
In the boys tournament, Nikolaevsk starts its state run matched up with the second-seeded team for a second straight year. Last March, the Warriors opened up with No. 2 Noatak, which is now the top seed this year, and beat them.
This time around, Nikolaevsk head coach Steve Klaich said the team’s philosophy begins with a common cliche.
“It’s one game at a time,” Klaich said. “We can’t be playing Saturday if we don’t take care of business on Wednesday and Thursday.”
Klaich said Kake is a senior-laden squad that features a core of “amazing” shooters, which will force the Warriors to be particularly diligent in defending the outside arc.
“I think the kids are up to the challenge,” he said. “We’re playing a tough team. We definitely have our work cut out for us.”
This year’s Nikolaevsk squad features an interesting mix of experienced players that have gotten minutes on the big stage with other teams. Senior Sage Stanish was a freshman on the Seldovia boys squad that won the 2015 Class 1A state championship, while junior J.D. Mumey played with the two-time state champion Ninilchik boys before transferring to Nikolaevsk this year.
Meanwhile, Peninsula Conference MVP Kalenik Molodih, a 6-foot-0 senior, leads the Warriors this year with 19 points per game, while no other teammate averages over 10.
Klaich said that sort of variety helped get Niko to the big dance for a fifth straight year.
“It’s been interesting this year trying to meld this group of players together,” Klaich said. “I think having that state experience gives us one more thing to look at. Hopefully it tips things in our favor.”
While Molodih has been the go-to guy for Nikolaevsk, junior Michael Trail leads the team in rebounding by a large margin.
Nikolaevsk had to sweat out two close wins over Lumen Christi at the conference tournament, winning a semifinal 45-43 over the Archangels and winning the second-place game 45-44. The Warriors made two big defensive stops in the final minute to stake their spot at state.
With 16 teams vying for eight championship bracket spots today, Klaich sees the weekend as anyone’s to take.
“I know (top seed) Noatak has a reputation for being the elite team this year,” he said. “However, I do think it’s wide open. After tomorrow, when we see the competition, the picture will be clearer.”