As the Kenai Peninsula's students return to school following the holiday break, so too the peninsula high school basketball teams return to the hardcourt.
Some of the peninsula's Region III/4A teams were busy over the break -- the Soldotna girls are 8-0 after a successful trip to a tournament in San Diego -- while others used the time off to improve after feeling things out with a couple of games before the break.
Soldotna's quick start and roster packed with veteran players has the Stars marked as the girls team to beat on the peninsula in the early going.
"Soldotna may be the best in the region, period," said Kenai Central coach Jim Beeson. "They have everybody back. They're going to be very good.
"The other three in our half (of the region, Kenai, Skyview and Homer) will all be good ... but Soldotna's head and shoulders above everybody in our half. It's going to be a dogfight after that."
In the boys Region III/4A competition, a clear front-runner has yet to emerge from the field.
"I don't see a real heavy favorite like Kenai was last year," said Skyview coach Dave Blossom. "Although we were all competitive with Kenai, this year, anybody on the peninsula is going to be capable of beating each other on any given night.
"There are a couple of teams people think are stronger, us being one, Homer being another, but Kenai's right there with us, and Soldotna has plenty of senior experience. They have to be contended with."
The peninsula's teams, as well as basketball fans, will get a good opportunity this weekend to see how things stack up. Skyview High School will host the Peninsula Challenge, featuring girls teams from Skyview, Soldotna, Homer, Kenai, Nikiski, Seward, Palmer and North Pole.
The SoHi Tipoff at Soldotna will feature boys teams from Homer, Kenai, Skyview, Soldotna, Kodiak, Monroe, Nikiski and Palmer.
Both tournaments get under way Thursday. For start times, see Page B-2.
Head coach: Mark Mahan (2nd year)
2001-2002 regular season record: 7-15 (1-9 Region III/4A)
Key returning players: Bailey Lowney, Soph.; Caitlin Crandall, Sr.; Sara Thompson, Sr.; Amanda Morawitz, Jr.; Channing Setterquist, Jr.; Rose Sinnhuber, Sr.
Outlook: The Mariners have essentially the same players as last year, but they won't have the same team as last year.
Homer lost just one senior, a nonstarter, from last year's squad. The Mariners return 10 players from a team that lost the first two games in the region tournament.
However, those players are already showing this year how much they learned last year. This past weekend, Homer picked up a third-place finish at the ACS/Pepsi Invitational.
"We've come a long way since last year," Mahan said. "We're starting to gel a little better."
Mahan said the strength of the team will be speed and shooting. As for a weakness, Mahan said his squad lacks a lot of tall players.
KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS
Head coach: Jim Beeson (4th year)
2001-2002 regular season record: 18-4 (8-2 Region III/4A)
Key returning players: Erin Smith, Sr.; Erica Smith, Sr.; Anna Hall, Sr.; Dallas Baldwin, Sr.; Breezy Saltzgiver, Jr.; Sarah McLeod, Sr.
Outlook: The Kardinals ran their way to a fourth-place finish at the state tournament a season ago, but Beeson said this year's squad has been hit hard by graduation at the guard position.
"That's going to be the place where we struggle," Beeson said.
While Kenai turned every game into a track meet last season, Beeson expects his squad to be slowing things down this year.
"We're not nearly as quick," Beeson said. "We're big, but we're not going to be able to press as much. It's going to be more of a half-court game."
The Kardinals started 1-3 prior to the holiday break, defeating Region III/4A foe Kodiak before losing three games -- by a total of 13 points -- on a swing through Fairbanks.
"In the past, we've had three weeks before we played a game, so the break was a good thing for us to have some time off, and to practice some," Beeson said.
Head coach: Wade Marcuson (1st year)
2001-2002 regular season record: 5-17 (2-8 Region III/4A)
Key returning players: Christina Colvin, Sr.; Jenny Carpenter, Sr.; Kari Faigle, Sr.; Anne Verba, Sr.; Laurel Creel, Jr.; Sammy Dalebout, Jr.; Amanda Fay, Jr.; Lindsay Gephardt, Jr.; Sara Garrant, Jr.
Key Newcomers: Jessica Hiler, Sr.; Anna Blake, Fr.; Anna Bonebrake, Fr.
Outlook: "What I'm looking for is to have a full squad that can give good minutes," Marcuson said. "I'm hoping to utilize the bench for scoring as well as the starters, and keep the girls fresh throughout the game."
With nine players returning from last year's squad, the pieces already are in place for Marcuson to be able to do that.
"We've played five games, and our kids are getting better every game," Marcuson said.
Marcuson said the Panthers aren't a tall team, but there are any number of players capable of handling the ball and shooting from the perimeter, which should prevent opponents from collapsing on Carpenter in the paint.
Head coach: Mark Tuter (3rd year)
2001-2002 regular season record: 14-8 (5-5 Region III/4A)
Key returning players: Jennifer Senette, Sr.; Erin Wolfe, Sr.; Lauren Christensen, Sr.; Rachel Besse, Sr.; Jenna Syverson, Sr.; Hillary Zobeck, Sr., Amy Breakfield, Sr.
Key newcomers: Stacey Foster, So.; Brittany Howard, So.
Outlook: With a potent outside game to match their strong inside game this year, the Stars appear to be loaded for bear -- or Panther, Kardinal or Mariner, as the case may be.
"It's pretty much a veteran team we're sticking with," Tuter said. "Our strength that last few years has always been inside, but we're moving the ball around well, and shooting well."
The Stars already have eight games, all wins, under their belt, including a four-game sweep of the Aztec Holiday Classic in San Diego, giving Tuter a good idea of where his team's strengths lie, as well as what the squad needs to improve.
"I like getting games in early in the season. You can see where you stand, and what you need to work on," Tuter said. "A tournament where you play three, four games in a row gets you ready for regions."
Head coach: Billy Day (7th year)
2001-2002 regular season record: 5-17 (2-8 Region III/4A)
Key returning players: Steven Stead, Sr.; Adam Crum, Sr.; Matt Mahan, Sr.; David Drake, Sr.; Jon Adams, Sr.; Cody Smith, Sr.; Josh Luebbert, Sr.; Byron Turner, Sr.; Ben Kuhns, Sr.; Justin Petersen, Sr.; Amon Winne, Sr.
Key newcomers: Steven Goldsen, Jr.
Outlook: The Mariners started out their season with three losses at the Service Tipoff Tournament, but Day was encouraged by the play of his senior-laden group. He said the squad should fare much better than it did last year.
"I think a year of maturity, a year of getting beat up encourages you to put in a little more work in the off-season," Day said.
Day said this year's team should be pretty deep. Just as important, the unit also will be cohesive.
"I think we're the type of team that's going to continue to progress as the season goes on," Day said. "We've been together a long time. This same group has played together since junior high."
Homer also will have the advantage of playing the region tournament on its home floor, a place where Day said the pep band gives the Mariners an edge.
KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS
Head coach: Rich Bartolowits (4th year)
2001-2002 regular season record: 15-7 (7-3 Region III/4A)
Key returning players: Caleb Schooley, Sr.; Ian Foley, Sr.; Nick Barnes, Jr.; Steve Steiner, Sr.
Key newcomers: Dean Schinn, Sr.; Cole Chappell, Jr.; Dakota Craig, So.
Outlook: Bartolowits said Kenai's current challenge is to get a group of talented newcomers to mesh with its four returning players.
"I think we've got some good talent coming up. We're just trying to put the chemistry together right now," Bartolowits said.
The Kardinals weren't shy about taking shots from 3-point land last season, when they made the trip to the Sullivan Arena for the big show, and Bartolowits said that while the outside shot still would be in the arsenal this season, the Kardinals also will be working on establishing their inside presence.
"We've still got good perimeter shooters, and we're working on getting our game going to the inside a little more," Bartolowits said.
Head coach: Dave Blossom (3rd year)
2001-2002 regular season record: 10-12 (3-7 Region III/4A)
Key returning players: Matt Travers, Sr.; Kaleb Shields, Jr.; Adam Cooper, Jr.; Ryan Geller, Jr.; Garrett St. Clair, Jr.; Adam Kosydar, Sr.; Matt Mataresse, Sr.
Key newcomers: Andrew Smith, Jr.; Chris Cushway, Sr.
Outlook: While the Panthers lost their three top players from a season ago, Blossom still has seven athletes to call on with varsity experience. Blossom said one of the keys to Skyview's improvement will be the development of the juniors on the roster.
"A big part of our strength is in our juniors," Blossom said. "They don't have as much experience at the varsity level, but they're getting better all the time."
Skyview has opened with a 4-1 mark, and while all four wins have been against 3A teams, the Panthers' lone loss was a close one against Region III/4A power Palmer.
Head coach: Bill Withrow (2nd year)
2001-2002 regular season record: 3-19 (1-9 in Region III/4A)
Key returning players: Tommy Turnbull, Sr.; Caleb Sizemore, Sr.; Ricky Simpson, Sr.; Cody Michal, Sr.
Key newcomers: John Gomulak, soph.
Outlook: The Stars have started off their season 2-5. This isn't exactly great guns, but Soldotna is already almost to last year's win total.
Withrow was pleased with the strides the team made at last weekend's ACS/Pepsi Invitational, where it went 2-1.
Soldotna will be battling a lack of size this year.
"We preach and stress fundamentals and hustle," Withrow said. "The kids are starting to figure out that they can box out much bigger players if they work on getting in the proper position."
Boxing out is just one of the areas that Withrow thinks will be greatly improved due to experience.
"Last year, we weren't battle-tested," Withrow said. "Now we've seen everything you can expect playing at the varsity level."
Clarion reporter Jeff Helminiak contributed to this story.
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