Prior to this past weekend’s SoHi Tipoff, the Soldotna boys basketball team was on the minds of many people.
“I love SoHi’s team,” said first-year Skyview coach Red Goodwin. “They’ve got size, they’ve got speed, they have guard-play all the elements a coach loves.”
Kenai coach Jim Beeson recognized those talents as well.
“Certainly in our half, Soldotna is probably the top team,” he said. “You just look at them, they’ve got size and experience and Tony Besse is probably one of the better players, if not in our region, then in the state.”
So, when the Kardinals and Stars squared off in the second round of the tournament on Friday night, Beeson was hoping to use that matchup as a measuring stick.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to play with Soldotna. I don’t know,” he wondered at the time. “Tonight will answer some of those questions.”
When it was over, SoHi was still one of the top teams, but the parity in the Northern Lights Conference’s Southern Division was revealed, as all four squads advanced to the second round.
Kenai completed a mammoth comeback with a buzzer-beater in edging Soldotna and eventually pounded Homer for the championship, the Mariners beat Skyview by 18 and the Panthers then returned the following day, giving the Stars a run for their money, but still lost by only six.
“Anybody in our half can play with anybody on any night,” Beeson said. “It’ll be a dog fight to get” to state.
All four coaches are fully aware of this, yet still possess those aspirations.
And they’re all beginning the season under vastly different circumstances.
Chris Hanson is in his first year at the helm of SoHi, one year after the Stars finished around .500.
And although it’s his first season, he’s helped by the return of many valuable assets.
As Beeson said, Besse a senior standing at 6-foot-6 may be one of the state’s best players and he displayed his talents against Kenai when he followed up a missed layup with an energizing two-handed dunk.
Working the ball inside to him is senior Brook Carver, who not only has solid ball-handling skills, but can let it fly from just about anywhere beyond the arc, as he netted four 3-pointers in the loss to the Kardinals. Also patrolling the outside is senior Kelly Seggerman.
“I think we present a tough matchup for some teams,” Hanson said. “I think we have some very good guards and we’ve got some good big guys and we’ve got a couple of guys that can get to the rack.”
Kenai is also coming off a near .500 season in which it lost each of its first two region games.
Beeson, however, is optimistic with his sharpshooting ball club.
“I’ve been in Kenai for 19 years and this is the best group of just scorers that I can put on the floor at one time, that I’ve ever had since I’ve been here,” he explained. “I can put five people out there that can shoot the ball and shoot it fairly well.”
Homer coach Mark Casseri is in his second season as head coach and despite losing nine players from last year’s team to graduation, he is also openly confident.
“They come in now and they’re starting to believe in my system and I’m proud of them,” he said. “They’re working hard.”
And his goal?
“Making it to March.”
And as coach of one of the tallest teams on the Peninsula, Skyview’s Goodwin watched every one of the the Panthers’ 20 games last season on tape and sees vastly different team this year.
“Everybody goes to regions. And three out of eight go to state,” he said. “Do we have a shot? There’s no doubt in my mind, by March, we will have a shot at state. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
As for the Northern Division, coaches agreed Wasilla should be atop the standings while the rest of the teams will be competitive as usual.
“Personally, I think Wasilla’s got one of the top three or four 4A teams in the state,” Hanson said. “They had a lot of pieces to the puzzle, had a kid or two move in.
“Colony’s always tough. Palmer’s always big. And Kodiak’s got a great winning tradition,” he added. “There’s no easy games, really.”
Head coach: Chris Hanson (1st year)
Key returners: Tony Besse, sr; Kelly Seggerman, sr; Brook Carver, sr; Austin Roberts, sr.
Key newcomers: Chet Syverson, sr; Larsen Kohler, jr; Ryan Shelton, jr; Brad Blossom, jr; Liam Andrus, soph.
Outlook: While a consensus of coaches believe Soldotna should be one of the top teams in the region and easily advance to state, Hanson is just trying to get better with each game.
“We just have so many things to work on that we pick one or two each week and try to improve in those areas,” he said.
In Seggerman and Carver, Hanson has a talented tandem of shooters who can also work the ball inside to Besse. Then there’s Kohler.
“I think on any given night, we have three kids who can shoot it from beyond the arc very well Seggerman, Carver and Blossom and our best shooter comes off the bench, Larsen Kohler,” he explained. “I think on any given night, if half of them are on, we’ve got a couple kids who can shoot out there.”
Besse, the tallest player in the Southern Division, along with Roberts (6-foot-5), Shelton (6-foot-5) and Kohler (6-foot-3), are the most important components to the Stars’ success. If they’re able to control the paint and dominate on the boards, Soldotna has a good chance of fulfilling people’s expectations.
“Especially compared to teams around here. We look very good on paper,” Hanson said of his team’s height advantage. “There’s not a lot of ton of team height on the Peninsula. So, yeah, here locally, we’re pretty big.”
Head coach: Jim Beeson (3rd year, second stint)
Key returners: Casey Ellis, sr; Nate Saltzgiver, jr; Cory Toombs, jr; Daniel Gustkey, jr; Zach Beeson, jr; Bill Chimphalee, jr.
Key newcomers: Lawrence Maxon, sr; Nathan Byrd, jr; James Libert, jr.
Outlook: With a lack of size, the Kardinals will have to rely on their impeccable shooting and transition game if they hope to compete with upper echelon of the Northern Division.
After their showing at the SoHi Tipoff, there’s a good chance they can do just that.
“We’ve just got to be able to shoot the ball and we’ve got to create some offense with our defense,” Beeson explained. “Trapping, and pressuring the basketball, and playing full-court and trying to create a tempo to our liking ... If it’s a slower tempo, it’s certainly not to our advantage.”
In Toombs and Gustkey, members of last year’s squad who didn’t see much playing time, Beeson has weapons who can strike inside or outside.
Either one of them has the ability to hit a big 3 or slice inside for an acrobatic lay-in, as they each displayed multiple times during the tournament at Soldotna High School.
“They both shoot the ball real well,” Beeson said.
Saltzgiver, who has now started in each of his first three seasons, is also deadly off the dribble and creates havoc with his tenacious defense.
“We’re going to be smaller than everybody we play, with probably the exception of Nikiski. You look at Homer, you look at Soldotna, Skyview teams in our half, they’re all huge. When you get to the Valley, they’re going to be big,” Beeson said. “Every night it’s going to be who wins the mismatch contest, whether their size beats our lack of size or our lack of size and probably an advantage shooting the ball and quickness is an advantage.”
Ellis and Byrd, a transfer from Cook Inlet Academy, also assist in every facet of the game, rounding out the Kardinals multi-dimensional up-and-down, fast-paced attack.
“It’s kind of a new thing and everybody likes to play this way. The kids really enjoy it and it’s easy to coach,” he said. “It’s a lot less stressful sometimes because you’re just letting them play kind of a little bit of a calm intensity. Just helter-skelter basketball.”
Head coach: Red Goodwin (1st year)
Key returners: Gregor Bosick, sr; David Blossom, sr; Richie Shirnberg, jr.
Key newcomers: Rem West, jr; Jamie Duke, jr; Michael Thornton, soph;
Outlook: Almost everything the Panthers run under Goodwin this season will travel through their big men, Duke (6-foot-5), Shirnberg (6-foot-4) and Blossom (6-foot-4).
“There’s no doubt about it. We’re so big. There’s nobody as big as us,” Goodwin said. “Are there teams more physical than us? Yes. But not as big.”
That, however, is now his main concern ever since the SoHi Tipoff, when Homer bullied his team around to the tune of a 56-38 defeat.
“Our kids, they don’t like playing that way,” he said. “We have posts, we need to be able to deliver the ball where we want it in our offense. And when we do that, we’re tough to beat. When teams get physical with us, we don’t do that and that’s when we struggle.”
But with time comes more experience, and Goodwin said he’s already seeing signs of maturity.
“I have to keep challenging these kids. They just are used to playing at a certain level and I have to keep challenging them and bringing them up. That’s my job,” he said. “It’s my job to get that out of them. Hopefully I can get it out of them by March.” After a 3-17 finish last season, he is encouraged by this team’s potential.
“I think there’s room for huge improvement. Absolutely,” Goodwin said. “There’s no doubt in my mind, we will be a different team in March.”
Head coach: Mark Casseri (2nd year)
Key returners: Taylor Layland, sr; Noah McWilliams, sr.
Key newcomers: Jesse Leman, sr; Michael Fielding, sr; Deonte Powe, jr; Jake Ketelle, jr; Corey Sutherland, soph.
Outlook: The Mariners went 13-13 last season and placed fourth at regions, but lost nine members of that squad to graduation.
So, it appeared as if this would be a rebuilding year for Casseri.
That is until his team advanced to the finals of the Peninsula Challenge this past weekend.
Homer’s offense is centered around its lone returners, Layland (6-foot 4) and McWilliams (6-foot-2), who can both dominate around the hoop and on the glass.
“Last year was my first year in Homer and we had a guard-oriented offense last year,” Casseri said. “And these two guys played, but the guards did not recognize post play.”
That’s all beginning to change.
“Oh yes,” Casseri said when asked if the Mariners had a shot at state. “It’s always feasible. Sure. Under my system, yes sir.”
Matthew Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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