Although it's a new girls basketball season, the team to beat hasn't changed in the Northern Lights Conference.
"In this league it starts and ends with Wasilla," Kenai Central coach Stacia Rustad said. "That's the team everyone looks up to, to challenge themselves."
Wasilla is a force, playing in the conference's Northern Division along with Palmer, Kodiak and Colony. But who is the team to beat in the Southern Division, to which peninsula schools Kenai Central, Soldotna, Skyview and Homer belong?
Depends on who you ask.
"Kenai Central and Soldotna are both going to be formidable," Homer coach Dennis Welch said.
Skyview coach Eric Pomerleau, whose team has yet to play, took a more conservative stance.
"It's a tough league. There is just going to be some exciting basketball top to bottom," he said.
Here is a look ahead to the 2010-11 season:
Kenai Central coach Stacia Rustad lost three talented players and understands they can't be replaced.
So instead of pushing the remaining athletes to be like Samantha Hull, Lexi Beeson and Lieren Flanagan, she is seeking out their individual strengths.
"There's no replacing them," Rustad said of the trio, which started every game for the Kardinals last season. "With the girls we have returning, they have to find their own strengths. They will do that if we, as coaches, are doing our jobs."
"It's going to be a matter of people stepping up and finding their own niche, and we'll go from there."
The Kardinals, who last season won 19 games but fell shy of state, feature a talented post player in senior Raquel Young. She was a first-team all-conference athlete in 2009-10. The 5-foot-10 forward is leading the team in scoring early this season.
If the team is to reach state for the time since 2002, Young must play well.
"She really stepped up for us last year," Rustad said. "We anticipate her stepping up again this year and getting even better."
Kenai Central's remaining players with significant varsity experience are Morgan Wensley, a junior, and Allie McGahan, a senior. Another talented player, junior Bailey Beeson, has missed games due to a medical condition. Rustad hopes she will return soon.
Rustad also holds high hope for Carolyn Kiefer and Jordan Jackman.
"We are in charge of our own destiny," Rustad said. "The great thing is we have a bunch of young ladies who are willing to work hard, and if they continue to do that, we will win games this year."
The Stars feature four seniors, but much of what this team does begins and ends with a sophomore.
Kaillee Skjold, a 5-11 post player, leads SoHi into the 2010-11 season. The do-it-all athlete helped the Stars win three games in as many tries at the season-opening Atigun Inc./Powerade Kenai River Challenge, which rival Kenai Central won by virtue of a tiebreaker.
"She's a special player," SoHi coach Mark Tuter said following one his team's victories at the challenge. "She gets her teammates involved and she can take over offensively."
Seniors Alisah Kress, Kaili Sholin, Jessie Duke and Becca Satathite join Skjold, along with juniors Devin Hutchings and Savannah Smith. The rest of the players are freshmen and sophomores.
The Stars placed fifth at the Clarke Cochrane Christmas Classic in Ketchikan, finishing with a 1-2 record. The Kardinals defeated them in the third-place game.
Dennis Welch, who coached six seasons at Nome, assumes the helm at Homer.
His first goal? Simple.
"We're definitely trying to improve on last year," Welch said. "No doubt about that."
Welch takes over a team that he believes won just twice in 2009-10, returning three seniors -- Ashley Ketelle, Liz Needham and Krystal Edens.
The first-year coach will look to the trio for leadership and playmaking ability as he evaluates the rest of the squad, which he said is young.
"We're looking to them for experience and to guide the younger kids along," Welch said.
Welch couldn't say how his squad will compare to others in the conference because he hasn't seen every team play.
The focus for 2010-11 is defense, the new coach added, as well as playing with a positive attitude and improving each day.
"I'm hoping we can turn into a good defensive team," he said. "I think that's where it will start -- with our defense."
"We're hoping we get better every game, to improve every game, we would definitely like to improve our win total," he said.
Skyview welcomes a new coach along with the new season.
Eric Pomerleau is no stranger to the sidelines -- he coaches football at Skyview and also is the athletic director -- and now he's added girls basketball to his coaching resume. Pomerleau replaces Cary Calvert, who resigned before the season.
The first-year coach has already made one observation.
"We are a really young team," Pomerleau said. "But we're coming along."
The Panthers lost six seniors to graduation after finishing the 2009-10 campaign with a record of 8-14. Most notable among the losses is Casee Penrod, who was an all-conference player last season.
Pomerleau said senior Jaxon Hill is the squad's lone player with substantial varsity experience, though she will be joined by fellow seniors Katie Baker, Caity Marang, Rebecca Egan, Brittany Mercier and Jessica Saunders.
Mary Hauptman, a junior, will see action at point guard, while junior Stefanie Malatesta will assume a key role as a shooting guard.
Pomerleau's goal for now is to get the team playing fundamentally sound ball.
"You have a really young team and you play in maybe the best basketball league in the state of Alaska, so it's just a matter of getting your players used to playing at this level," Pomerleau said. "Our expectations are to get better every day and become a formidable basketball team."
Lee Moore guides the Class 3A Bulldogs once again, this year featuring a squad with two seniors, four juniors and three sophomores.
Senior Britany Tuttle will run the point, while sophomore Makenzie Moore figures to provide the bulk of the scoring as both an outside and inside threat.
Moore said the team is scrappy, but young, and hopes to peak midway through the season in the Southcentral Conference.
His emphasis early has been on defensive ball pressure, something he said the team will continue to focus on all season.
Teams can expect to face court pressure and an in-your-face style of defense when facing the Bulldogs, who also feature senior Angie Parish and juniors Dylan Holloway, Savannah Griffel, Koey Dixon and Kinsey Martin and sophomore Sienna Wells.
"We're a pretty scrappy team," Moore said following an early season loss to Mt. Edgecumbe. "We need to continue to get better on defense, and we should be all right."
With the majority of its starters back from a team that won 18 games, there is reason to be optimistic at Seward.
The Seahawks missed state by one game last season, falling by two points to Cordova in the conference tournament. Although the next step is for the team to advance to state, coach Curtis Berry doesn't want to look too far ahead.
"We don't want to get too carried away," the coach said. "Our goal right now is to take it one game at a time and play like each one is our final game."
Returning are starters Emily Draper, a senior, and juniors Meg Berry and Chelsey Clark. Fellow junior Maggie Fleming, who was hampered by a foot injury last season, also returns.
Curtis Berry said the team's depth is a strength, with players such as Jessica Stallings and Tessa Adelmann fighting for positions in the starting lineup.
"We're hoping to get some more experience under our belt with a few more wins," the coach said. "We want to win every game."
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