Kenai Central boys basketball coach Ken Felchle believes his team can win the Southern Division in the Northern Lights Conference if its plays to its full potential.
That doesn't necessarily mean he considers the Kardinals favorites as the 2010-11 season kicks into full gear.
"SoHi is the No. 1 team before someone knocks them off," Felchle said. "The bottom line is they are the team to beat until someone proves them wrong."
Soldotna reached the Class 4A state tournament for the second season in a row last year, but enters this season without many of the athletes who got the team there.
Skyview has more experience -- and a talented newcomer in Nick Madrid -- and figures to be stronger after a winless 2009-10 season. Homer lost six of its 10 players, but the Mariners have the luxury of hosting the Northern Lights Conference tournament.
Then there's Kenai Central, an experienced squad that finished one win shy of state a year ago.
Although most coaches said it's too early to establish a pecking order, many predicted a competitive battle for the top spot.
"It's wide open, to be honest," SoHi coach Matt Johnson said.
In the Northern Division, the power figures to stay with Wasilla, although it faces formidable competition in Colony, Kodiak and Palmer.
This much is certain:
"It's going to be a fun year," Skyview coach Jesse Settlemyer said.
That's the theme this season for coach Ken Felchle and his experienced Kenai Central boys basketball team.
The Kardinals are coming off a 2009-10 campaign in which they finished 14-12 and fell one win shy of the 4A state tournament, but they return a senior-laden squad with high expectations.
"We can't use the excuse of being young. We are an experienced team, we have players who have been there," Felchle said. "We expect the next two years to be strong seasons."
Although the Kards lost a pair of key contributors to graduation -- Billy Keifer and Bryson Lowe -- they return six seniors as well as five juniors.
Among the seniors are Tyler Spalding, Tanner Landry, Richie Ziehmer and Lincoln Wensley, and Felchle expects strong seasons from all of them.
Junior guard AJ Hull, who poured in 23 points in a victory over Petersburg on Tuesday, will be a focal point of the offense. He will receive support in the backcourt from seniors Kai Risung and Landry, juniors Bo Reilly and Colton Hayes and sophomore Shane Spalding. Joe Sandahl, a junior, also will see extensive playing time.
Expect an up-tempo style of play from the Kards.
"We'd like to get out and push the basketball," Felchle said. "Our guards like to get out and run, and we have post players who run the floor well."
The Kards aren't at full strength because starting center Tyler Spalding, who is 6-foot-5, is out with an ankle injury.
Felchle expects the big man to return in January. Until then, the coach added, other players must pick up the slack.
"We can't use that as an excuse," Felchle said.
Rounding out the roster are sophomore Wyatt Fitt, junior Alex Nason and senior Tyler Glidden.
Kenai Central recently finished 1-2 at the Clarke Cochrane Christmas Classic in Ketchikan, splitting its first two games before falling 53-52 to Philomath (Ore.) in a game for fourth and sixth place.
Felchle said the squad must focus on one game at a time as the season moves forward.
"We need to take a step back and deal with each individual game," Felchle said. "If we aren't focused on what's in front of us, we will never get to where we want to be."
The coach isn't tempering his expectations, either.
"We would like to be the No. 1 team in the South and get to state," Felchle said. "But it's going to take a team effort to get to where we need to be."
If history repeats itself, the Soldotna boys basketball team is in for an exciting season -- or at least an exciting postseason.
After defeating Kenai Central to earn third place at the Northern Lights Conference tournament a year ago, the Stars concluded the campaign at state by playing three overtime games in a row.
SoHi defeated Dimond in overtime in the first round, lost to powerhouse Wasilla in double overtime in the second round, then was eliminated by Colony in another overtime loss in the consolation bracket.
"It was nuts," third-year coach Matt Johnson said.
Now the 2010-11 season under way, and Johnson's squad looks a whole lot different.
The Stars lost five seniors, including Boomer Blossom, who is redshirting at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Also graduating were captains Blaine Carver and Dylon Story, as well as Tyler Hahn and DJ Stilchen.
All of them logged significant playing time.
"I think this season, it's really redefining the team," Johnson said.
Despite losing that talent, the Stars have seven seniors on the roster. Leading the way are veterans Zach Jackson, Robbie Smithwick and Ross Skjold. Johnson said all of them will see increased duties this season after serving as role players a year ago.
Johnson expects the trio to lead the team on -- and off -- the court.
"They have been around long enough to understand the expectations," he said.
Throw in juniors Evan Withrow and Garrett Bosick, and Johnson believes the team has enough talent to make another appearance at state.
SoHi has won the Northern Lights Conference Southern Division championship the past two seasons, advancing to state both years, and the coach wants to continue that trend.
Prior to the back-to-back berths, the Stars hadn't qualified for state since 2001.
"We are trying to build a tradition of winning," Johnson said.
Johnson will give his players freedom on offense, but he said the team will pride itself on playing strong defense.
The Stars prefer an in-your-face, pressure defense, though Johnson admitted, "It's a work in progress."
"Everything we do is keyed with our defense," Johnson said.
SoHi visits Skyview at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 4.
A year after finishing winless, there is hope at Skyview.
Sure, the Panthers have nowhere to go but up after losing every game in 2009-10. More importantly, they may have the talent to do it.
Skyview welcomes senior Nick Madrid, a 6-foot-1 shooting guard who transferred from a school in Arizona. Second-year coach Jesse Settlemyer called Madrid an "excellent shooter who is a good leader."
Since the squad had just three seniors last season and struggled to score consistently, Madrid's arrival is timely.
"I feel really fortunate," Settlemyer said. "He's a huge addition for us, just lucky to have him."
Fellow senior Nick Symonds, who also plays football, gives the Panthers a versatile athlete who can play any position. Settlemyer said the two-sport star will see time in the backcourt, but also will play in the post.
Symonds is a good defender, too, Settlemyer added.
"He's going to play just about everywhere," the coach said.
Settlemyer said Skyview's primary goal this season is simply to be competitive, something he believes will happen if the squad continues to work hard in the weight room as well as on the court.
After what he called a "really good offseason," Settlemyer believes his team will be in close games with most squads on the peninsula.
"We think there is going to be a lot of exciting basketball this season," Settlemyer said. "Our expectation is to compete with everybody."
The team participated in a tournament in San Diego this past week and resumes action at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 4 at home against SoHi.
Homer looks like an entirely new team.
The Mariners lost six of 10 players from a 2009-10 squad that was eliminated with two consecutive losses in the Northern Lights Conference tournament.
On top of that, the squad has just two players with significant varsity experience. Two others split time between varsity and junior varsity a year ago.
Not surprisingly, the team has been inconsistent early this season.
"We've had some peaks and valleys," fifth-year coach Mark Casseri said.
Casseri said Homer's top player is Jonathan Jester, who joined the program as a junior.
"He's a hard-working young man, a very intelligent young man," Casseri said. "He has high aspirations, and there are a lot of good things going for him."
What Homer has going for it this season is the fact it hosts the Northern Lights Conference tournament, determining which teams advance to state.
Casseri isn't worried about Homer's regular-season record as much as its showing at the postseason tournament, which will be played on the Mariners' 94-foot court, larger than the courts on which most teams playing during the regular season.
"It's all about the tournament," Casseri said. "And I'm sorry, 94 feet is 94 feet. We can grind teams down here."
Longtime coach Reid Kornstad admits his Class 3A Bulldogs need to improve if they hope to remain competitive in the Southcentral Conference.
He also understands it's a long season, and peaking at the right time is what matters most.
"I don't know that any team has as much room to improve as ours," Kornstad said, alluding to the fact his squad also has a lot of potential. "I expect that we will be that team at regions that, hopefully, nobody wants to play because we will have improved."
A year after finishing at the bottom of the league, Nikiski brings back a young team that includes just three seniors. The Bulldogs will be without guards Brando Wik and Bob Seater, players who anchored the backcourt a year ago but have since graduated.
Kornstad called senior Stefan Krogseng the team's "best leader," while he said senior Sam Taylor is its most talented athlete.
Taylor is a speedy 6-foot guard who is willing to do anything for the team, Kornstad said, and he continues to improve.
"When he learns to bring some consistency on the dribble-drive, he is going to be tough to handle," Kornstad said. "And as soon as he finds his range from the 3-point line, that combination will make it difficult on other teams."
Rounding out the squad is senior LJ Covey, junior Colton Anderson and sophomores Lincoln Johnson, Stephen Hartley, Lucas Herrin and Dylan Griffith.
Four players listed on the roster for the season-opening SoHi Tip-off are currently not eligible for various reasons, Kornstad said.
The excitement was evident in Dan Krier's voice.
Seward's coach has his team off to a 3-1 start and nearly every player is back from the 2009-10 team, which finished 9-13.
The Seahawks return four athletes who started on a consistent basis a year ago. They also have the services of Keenan Prochazka, who missed last season with a torn ACL.
"We are very optimistic," Krier said.
Don't blame the coach for his enthusiasm. In Prochazka, the Seahawks have a player who can score in huge bunches. He poured in 30 points on eight 3-pointers in an early season game against Homer.
"We really missed him last year," Krier said.
The Seahawks lost Nick Dipiero and Ryan Sawyer, but they return key players Andrew Buchanan and Michael Thorn, both seniors.
With Buchanan and Thorn joining Prochazka, Krier is confident the team will be successful.
"That's the key -- we've got three senior leaders," Krier said.
Krier also expects good seasons from seniors Jared Lindquist and Carlos Perea, as well as juniors Jayna O'Leary, Logan Clemens and Mica Dunn.
Jeff Buchanan is another promising player, Krier added, as is Evan Pullins, a starter last season.
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