Last year, the small-schools basketball teams on the peninsula cleaned up, with Ninilchik winning Class 2A girls state, Cook Inlet Academy defeating Ninilchik for the Class 2A boys state crown and Nikiski taking home Class 3A girls state hardware.
This year, the peninsula's small schools appear poised for more of the same.
The Ninilchik girls took their third straight state crown last season. Senior Whitney Leman has been a big part of all three, making first-team all-state as a freshman, then earning Class 2A Player of the Year honors as a sophomore and junior.
The Wolverines lost three starters from a year ago, but coach Dan Leman expects them to be in the hunt for a fourth straight state title.
"We beat a lot of teams last year by 30, 40, 50 points," Leman said. "We lost a good part of that when we lost three seniors.
"We're still a good team this year. I've been telling them, 'We don't need to win every game by 30, 40, 50 points to be successful. Five points still counts as a win. That's the kind of team we have."
The Cook Inlet boys lost just one starter off their team, but it was Class 2A Player of the Year Justin Franchino.
Just as big of a loss may have been Tim Keener, who won his second state title and Class 2A Coach of the Year honors before leaving the Eagles after last season.
CIA graduate Max Vavilov, who played under Keener and was an assistant last year, takes over at CIA.
"(Keener) is like a bank of basketball knowledge," Vavilov said. "I'm just trying to keep up.
"I think one of his major skills is adjusting to things on the court when things aren't working. That's one of the things I'm trying to figure out how to do. It comes with experience."
The Nikiski girls lost four of their starters from their championship team, but return senior Karen Rabung, a second-team all-state player last season. Foreign exchange student Hisa Miyari also has filled a gap at point guard in Nikiski.
However, Nikiski coach Ward Romans said he would give Seward the favorite's tag. The Seahawks won the District 3/3A tournament last year, and have a deep and talented lineup this year.
As for the Class 3A boys, Nikiski made it to state last year, but lost all five starters from that team.
Both Nikiski coach Reid Kornstad and Seward coach Rob Hassen are excited about the potential of their teams, but both coaches tout Anchorage Christian Schools as the favorite in the district.
The following is a closer look at the peninsula's teams.
DISTRICT 3/3A GIRLS
Head coach: Ward Romans (14th year)
Key returners: Karen Rabung, sr.; Katie Floyd, sr.
Key newcomers: Hisa Miyari, sr.; Lynzie Ellis, jr.; Krystal Gladden, soph.; Kathryn Coveyou, soph.
Outlook: Rabung is the only returning starter, but as a second-team all-state player she provides plenty to build around.
The pleasant surprise has been Miyari, a foreign exchange student.
"She's stepped in and filled the role of point guard, allowing Katie to slide to shooting guard," Romans said. "(Miyari) is an incredible kid. She's so coachable.
"Whenever you bring a new kid into the program, you don't know how that player will fit in. She's been an incredible addition to the chemistry of the team."
Although Romans likes the team's chemistry, he said Miyari still doesn't have a lot of experience with the other players.
"We're a little rough around the edges, but I'm excited about the potential of where we could be in March," the coach said.
Head coach: Roger Steinbrecher (8th year)
Key returners: Willow Hetrick, sr.; Tara DeRuwe, sr.; Ann Linville, sr.; Michelle Dieckgraeff, sr.; Breanna Bardarson, jr.; Emma Seigel, jr.; Lisa Steinbrecher, jr.; Krista Boulden, jr.
Outlook: The Seahawks lost three starters from last year's team, which took the district championship and sixth place in the state tournament.
However, Seward has still managed to get off to a 4-0 start this year due to the immense amount of experience that returns.
"We had a lot of people that played a little here, a little there, that are ready to go," Steinbrecher said. "They've put in their time.
"We have seniors that have been around for quite some time. Now they have a chance to play. It's their turn."
Steinbrecher said Seward must take care of the ball to excel. If the Seahawks do take care of the ball, defenses could be hard-pressed in figuring out who to stop.
"We're pretty balanced all the way around," Steinbrecher said. "Scoringwise, nobody is sure who's going to be leading."
DISTRICT 3/3A BOYS
Head coach: Reid Kornstad (4th year)
Key returners: Rustin Hitchcock, sr.; Kevin Gerke, sr.; John Rooper, sr.; Jeremiah Taylor, jr.; Miles Jorgenson, jr.
Key newcomers: Jani Lemmityinen, sr.
Outlook: The Bulldogs won a region title and took sixth in the state last year, but lost all five starters from that squad.
Kornstad said certain players, like David Holloway, can't be replaced, but also said that all hope is not lost.
"This group of guys has played more in the off-season than any other group I've coached since I've been at Nikiski," Kornstad said. "They played spring league, fall league and have consistently showed up to open gym since August."
All this playing together has given the group a basketball acumen that Kornstad is finding extremely easy to coach.
"They actually, top to bottom, can be more offensive than last year's team," Kornstad said. "Nobody is as explosive as David individually, but as a team we're very explosive."
Of course, Kornstad said the team also must learn to match its offensive intensity with defensive intensity.
Head coach: Rob Hassen (2nd year)
Key returners: Jonah Swiderski, sr.; Bart Elhard, sr.; Doug Jones, sr.
Outlook: With a year under his belt in Seward, Hassen expects continuity in the head coaching position to start to add up to more victories.
After finishing last season 4-6 in the conference, the Seahawks are off to a 2-5 start this season.
"We've been playing a lot of 4A teams at the moment," Hassen said. "We expect to have a much better year this year.
"For the players, a second straight year under the same system will make a huge difference."
Hassen also said height should play in Seward's favor. The Seahawks have five players over 6-foot-2.
"As long as the players stay focused and work hard in practice, we shouldn't have any problem," Hassen said.
DISTRICT 3/2A GIRLS
COOK INLET ACADEMY EAGLES
Head coach: Greg Bell (2nd year)
Key returners: Miranda Zindel, sr.; Jessica Hall, sr.; Mandy Evans, sr.; Katie Zimmerman, jr.; Alyse Bell, soph.; Ashley Smith, soph.
Key newcomers: Morgan McConnell, jr.; Lindsay Bauder, fr.; Stephanie McNutt, fr.
Outlook: The Eagles took third in the district last year. With one starter lost off that team, Bell is hoping for a move up to at least second place, which would mean a berth at state.
"It's the same old thing," Bell said. "We've had such a hard time with Ninilchik and Seldovia. I know (my players) can do it. They've just got to get over that mental hump."
If CIA is going to get over that mental hump, this would be the year to do it.
"All the girls have played together quite a bit," Bell said. "The seniors have spent all four years playing together."
The Eagles have the potential to fill it up from the outside. Bell said developing an inside game would make the team even more dangerous.
"Miranda (Zindel) has worked really hard and improved drastically on her toughness in the middle," Bell said. "Jessica Hall also is really coming along underneath. She's not a real big girl, but she's powerful."
HOMER CHRISTIAN SCHOOL KNIGHTS
Head coach: Nita Ward (1st year)
Key returners: Anna Keim, jr.; Shelby Seymour, sr.
Key newcomers: Jana Porter, fr.; Christy Case, sr.; Larissa Cullenberg, soph.; Courtney Walker, soph.; Julia Haakenson, soph.; Christa Hemstreet, fr.
Outlook: After not amassing a lot of wins last year, the Knights started out this year with three straight losses at the Cook Inlet Classic.
However, Ward said the team took many positive steps during the tournament.
"The camaraderie between the team at that tournament was awesome," Ward said. "I was really pleased with the girls.
"Win or lose, they played hard, stayed focused and had a lot of fun."
Ward said the team hasn't spent a lot of time playing together, but that the team has a sharp mental focus that should help it gel quickly.
"I feel honored to be their coach," Ward said. "They'll try and go hard no matter what."
NIKOLAEVSK SCHOOL WARRIORS
Head coach: Brent Keene (2nd year)
Key returners: Sara Bailey, soph.; Nikki Melkomukov, soph.; Sonia Reutov, soph.; Larisa Martushev, soph.
Key newcomers: Olivia Tipikin, fr.; Ksenia Efimov, fr.; Lekonita Yakunin, fr.; Anya Yakunin, soph.
Outlook: The Warriors started off their season with a three-point loss to Homer's C team.
"We had eight players last year, but we lost a couple that moved," Keene said. "But we've got a strong group coming in.
"We'll still be building this year, but we'll be considerably better than last year. If some of the younger girls can step up and improve by the end of the year, we should be competitive."
NINILCHIK SCHOOL WOLVERINES
Head coach: Dan Leman (13th year)
Key returners: Whitney Leman, sr.; Kelsey Deiman, sr.; Mia Johnson, sr.; Amanda Matson, jr.; Katie Moerlein, jr.
Key newcomers: Kendra Moerlein, fr.; Emily Woods, soph.; Louran Wolford, fr.
Outlook: Although the Wolverines lost three starters off their state championship team, Whitney Leman, the two-time Class 2A Player of the Year, has them thinking state title again.
Of course, one player does not a team make.
"We're going in knowing a lot of teams are going to look to shut Whitney down," Dan Leman said. "We've got the players to add some kind of balance to combat that."
The Wolverines will need that balance because Dan Leman said over half of Ninilchik's schedule is outside of Class 2A.
In addition to being a little on the young side, the Wolverines also lack height. Leman said Ninilchik's tallest player is 5-foot-9.
"We're going to have to get it done on defense," Leman said. "That's what it's all about. That part doesn't change."
SUSAN B. ENGLISH SCHOOL (SELDOVIA) SEA OTTERS
Head coach: Dan Beck (2nd year)
Key returners: Jaime Geagel, sr.; Amelia Dillon, sr.; Amy Gruber, soph.
Key newcomers: Ashley Darin, jr.; Emily Hanes, fr.
Outlook: The Sea Otters lost just one starter from last year's squad, which finished second in the district and advanced to the state tournament.
The key for Seldovia again this year will be the big three of Geagel, Dillon and Gruber.
Beck said the team should be strong on the inside thanks to Dillon and Geagel, who can also pop outside and knock down the 3-ball.
"We lost our point guard from last year, so we need to figure out who is going to be doing our ballhandling," Beck said.
DISTRICT 3/2A BOYS
COOK INLET ACADEMY EAGLES
Head coach: Max Vavilov (1st year)
Key returners: Luke Myers, sr.; Calder Hillyer, sr.; Jacob Peterson, sr.; Kyle Nettles, jr.
Key newcomers: Andy Hall, soph.; Blake Gabriel, soph.; Brian Beeson, soph.; Jeremy Franchino, fr.
Outlook: The Eagles lost just one starter from last year's state championship team, but it was Justin Franchino, the Class 2A Player of the Year.
However, CIA went 3-0 at the Cook Inlet Classic and appears prepared for another solid year.
"With this team this year, there are so many weapons we have, no one person has to carry the load," Vavilov said. "We can really spread things out. People will have to focus on different players at different times."
Of course, a wealth of talent can be a double-edged sword.
"The biggest concern is how we're going to gel as a team," Vavilov said. "It's important that we work on team chemistry first.
"I think when we find that, and we're finally united in our goal for this year, and everybody accepts their role, we're going to be hard to stop."
HOMER CHRISTIAN SCHOOL KNIGHTS
Head coach: Mark Halpin (1st year)
Key returners: Shaun Seymour, jr.; Micaiah Ellert, jr.; Peter Resetarits, jr.; Jamie Arndt, jr.; Javan Halpin, soph.; Jeff Fraley, soph.
Key newcomers: Eric Tutt, fr.; Christian Resetarits, fr.
Outlook: The Knights lost three starters from last year, so some early season growing pains can be expected. HCS has started out 0-4.
But Halpin said the team should have a quick learning curve.
"We have some young players that have worked very hard in the off-season," Halpin said. "They're very committed to doing well.
"We have a very committed attitude and work ethic. When you combine those, it usually results in doing things well during games."
Last year, the Knights got the majority of their scoring on the inside. This year, Halpin said the team will be depending a lot on jump shots.
"We try to work from the inside out, but the matchups will determine how competitive we can be on the inside," Halpin said. "There needs to be a balance."
NIKOLAEVSK SCHOOL WARRIORS
Head coach: Steve Klaich (14th year)
Key returners: Peter Tipikin, jr.; Stephan Nikitenko, jr.; Denis Basargin, sr.; Danny Kuzmin, jr.
Key newcomers: Jason Kratsas, sr.
Outlook: The Warriors are being labeled as a team to watch because they finished third in the district tournament last year and lost just two seniors to graduation.
Tipikin and Nikitenko are expected to be one of the best guard tandems in the league.
Klaich also said the team sports four seniors, seven juniors and a sophomore, so experience should often be in the Warriors' favor.
They key to Nikolaevsk's success could be the development of an inside game. Klaich said 6-foot-4 junior Jake Bailey and 6-4 sophomore Anecta Kalugin will be pivotal in this area.
"We're starting to enjoy playing and practicing on the big court," Klaich said of a new gym that was completed at Nikolaevsk about a year ago. "The kids are really benefiting from having (the gym)."
NINILCHIK SCHOOL WOLVERINES
Head coach: Chris Hanson (2nd year)
Key returners: Steven Miller, sr.; Jason Schollenberg, jr.
Key newcomers: John Paul Russo, jr.; Lucas Loggins, jr.; Vincent Kruzick, jr.; Cody Hatfield, jr.
Outlook: After last year's district championship and runner-up showing in state, the Wolverines must find a way to replace four key and graduated players.
"We lost an awful lot, and we can't replace some of the players we lost," Ninilchik coach Chris Hanson said. "But then again, we've got a pretty hard-working team.
"Our work ethic is certainly better. If our kids continue to be willing to work, we'll have a good season."
The Wolverines will look to deploy the intense defense that worked for them last season. The big change will be on offense, where Ninilchik can no longer rely on the immense scoring abilities of Buck Kvasnikoff.
"Our players, early last season, depended on Buck and we started out rough because of that," Hanson said. "Already at this point in the season, that aspect is much stronger. We're more balanced.
"Overall, we're a little deeper than last year."
SUSAN B. ENGLISH SCHOOL (SELDOVIA) SEA OTTERS
Head coach: John Gruber (5th year)
Key returners: Nick Oliveira, sr.; Tom Bowdon, sr.; Charles Pulliam, jr.; Chance Collier, jr.
Key newcomers: Colton Collier, fr.
Outlook: The Sea Otters had a middle-of-the-road season last year, but with just two seniors lost to graduation, Gruber said the team is poised for a better finish this year.
"All the kids that are back are fairly experienced," Gruber said. "We had a couple of years of playing together and I think we're a little stronger than last year physically."
The Sea Otters had better be fairly strong physically, because they have a tough schedule. Seldovia will play at the Heritage Christian Tournament, which will have three Class 3A schools. Seldovia also will face off against Homer's varsity and Nikiski's varsity.
"We play one of the tougher schedules we've had in years," Gruber said.
Clarion reporter Will Morrow contributed to this story.
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