The more things change on the Region III/4A basketball scene, the more they stay the same.
"There's two divisions," Soldotna boys coach Ron Becker said. "I think the teams in the Northern Division are a little better than the teams in the Southern Division, and I think that the teams in the Southern Division are pretty equal."
What that means is that the teams from the Kenai Peninsula that make up the region's Southern Division -- Homer, Kenai, Skyview and Soldotna -- will need to win as many games as they can against each other, then hope to knock off one of the Northern Division squads -- Kodiak, Wasilla, Palmer and Colony -- at the region tournament in order to qualify for the state championships.
"Hopefully, we can find a way at the end of the season to get into the top three in the region -- that's the hardest part of making it to state," Kenai girls coach Jim Beeson said.
The Homer boys were the only team from the peninsula to nab the elusive state tournament berth last season. The Kenai girls came close, losing in the third-place game at last season's region tournament.
Beeson does see each team from the peninsula improving this season.
"I think a lot of people are going to be surprised," Beeson said. "Soldotna is a much better team, Skyview is going to be much better and any time you go to Homer to play, it's going to be difficult."
The key, Beeson said, is taking care of business in your own division.
"The important games are in our division, because we play each other twice," Beeson said, adding that the Kardinals begin their Region III schedule with games at Soldotna today, at Homer Saturday and at home against Skyview Tuesday.
The boys competition also is shaping up to be intense. Kodiak made an appearance at the SoHi Tipoff Tournament and looked impressive with its three straight wins. Wasilla has knocked off Juneau-Douglas and Dimond this season, while Palmer and Colony are expected to be tough.
"The region is going to be tough this year," Kodiak boys coach Amy Rakers said, noting that Soldotna, Homer, Skyview and Kenai all appeared to be getting better with each time out on the court.
The following is a look at the peninsula's boys and girls Region III/4A teams.
1999-2000: 11-10 (5-5 Region III)
Head coach: Billy Day (5th year)
Key returning players: Corey Boone, sr.; Skylar Burns, sr.; Jake Szajkowski, sr.; Colby Kincaid, sr.
Key newcomers: Neal Kuipers, jr.; Steven Stead, sr.
Key losses: Sean Haynes, Michael Garcia, Richie Crum, Aaron Turner, Josh Chambers, Aaron Steiner.
If the Mariners are to repeat last year's Cinderella run, they'll be doing it with an all-new cast of characters.
Homer scratched out a one-point win over Valdez to open the SoHi Tipoff, then lost to region opponents Kodiak and Skyview.
With a mix of five underclassmen and five seniors on the roster, the Mariners will learn a little more each time out.
Some of that learning will be done on the run, though, as the Mariners play region foes Kenai and Soldotna in the next week before traveling to the Palmer Showdown.
1999-2000: 5-16 (1-9 Region III)
Head coach: Rich Bartolowits (2nd year)
Key returning players: Marcus Webster, jr.; Brad Burck, sr.; Dane Myers, jr.
Key newcomers: J.D. Pault, jr.; Brady Church, sr.; Joel Dunn, jr.; Ian Foley, so.; John Streeter, sr.; Caleb Schooley, jr.; Jason Magsayo, sr.
Key losses: Joel Reemtsma, Willie Castillo, Josh Overturf, Dustin Jung, Sean Nuccio, Jason Kornfield, Kyle Oldring.
Bartolowits is expecting the Kardinals to improve as they get to know each other.
"We're really trying to develop our game inside, getting the ball to our post players," Bartolowits said. "We're looking to figure out our chemistry on the court."
What Bartolowits does have to work with is a deep bench.
"We've had a different set of starters out there in each of our first four games," Bartolowits said. "Our strength is our depth -- being able to run any combination of guys in there and still having it be a strong combination."
1999-2000: 5-14 (2-8 Region III)
Head coach: Dave Blossom (1st year)
Key returning players: Nolan Rose, sr.; Storman Norman, sr.; Ryan Mallett, sr.; Ty Edward, sr.; Matt Burdick, sr.
Key newcomers: Josh Rowell, jr.; Mark McGarry, jr.; Tony Lewis, jr.; Alex Hand, sr.; Paul Shadura, sr.
Key losses: Dan Davis, Jarred Reynolds, Dorian Heatherly.
The Panthers are off to a strong start, taking two out of three at the SoHi Tipoff Tournament. Blossom was impressed even with his team's losing effort against Soldotna, citing good defense, solid offense and good composure throughout the tournament.
The Panthers attacked their opponents with an up-tempo game, mixing in some pressure to create points off turnovers.
"We're playing with good intensity, and we're getting production from everybody," Blossom said after the tournament.
1999-2000: 15-7 (6-4 Region III)
Head coach: Ron Becker (6th year)
Key returning players: Nick Christensen, sr.; Pat Hardina, sr.; Sean Kelley, sr.; Pat Rose, sr.; Mike Metteer, sr.; Shaun Williams, sr.; Aaron Hughes, sr.
Key newcomers: Bobby Zeyer, sr.; Daniel Houglum, sr.; Houston Morris, sr.; Adam Kiffmeyer, jr.; Iver Kohler, jr.; Ben Histand, jr.; Cason Simpson, jr.; Kyle Foster, jr.
Key losses: Paul John Zobeck, Severin Gardner, Josh Demske.
While Becker said that his team's strength is the intensity it brings to the court, he added that he'd like to see the Stars executing better as they prepare for the region schedule.
"I think fundamentals are really important," Becker said. "You need to be able to box out, to pass and catch the ball, to have good timing on offense and to stay in a good shape defensively. You need to play the game in an athletic position."
Becker has an experienced team to work with. Ten seniors top the Stars varsity roster.
"That's quite a few to have back," Becker said.
The Stars have notched wins against Kenai and Skyview this season in non-region play, but came up short against Kodiak.
1999-2000: 9-13 (5-5 Region III)
Head coach: Wendy Todd (2nd year)
Key returning players: Jessica Eller, Sara Brooks, Brittney Gaethle.
Key newcomers: Christine Mack, Danica High, Sara Thompson, Joy Epley, Cassiar Cousins, Shanda Cundiff, Edith Lane.
Key losses: Sheena Cundiff, Lauren Trimble, Natalie Case, Crystal Stapel, Karen Parkinson.
The Mariners already have hit the road for games against Bartlett and Anchorage Christian and are ready to return home where games against region opponent Kenai and non-region rival Ninilchik are sandwiched around a trip to Seward.
"We feel like we haven't gotten our feet wet yet," Todd said. "This group has played together for a long time. They work together well. We're a good shooting team, and that's going to be key for us."
The bulk of the Mariners' scoring this season has been coming from four different players -- returners Brooks and Gaethle are finding the range regularly while newcomers Mack and Cousins have contributed nicely to the mix.
1999-2000: 20-6 (8-2 Region III, 2-2 Region tourney)
Head coach: Jim Beeson (2nd year)
Key returning players: Jessi Reilly, sr.; Erica Shinn, jr.; Jamie Montgomery, jr.; Karli Knudsen, sr.
Key newcomers: Shamra Bauder, jr.; Kamilla Goggia, jr.; Rachael Popp, jr.; Michelle Edwards, jr.; Holly McCune, so.; Anna Hall, so.; Erin Smith, so.; Erica Smith, so.; Laura Rhyner, jr.
Key losses: Cory Hershberger, Stephanie Arbelovsky, Kristi Knudsen, Wendy Polak, Jennifer Stewart, Randi Canady.
"So far, so good," Beeson said. "We're 4-0, but no matter whether you win or lose, you can find something going wrong. We had four games, so hopefully, we've learned something."
Kenai's game plan starts with defense -- the intense, swarming kind.
"We're going to come out and pressure you," Beeson said. "We rely on our quickness. We want to take advantage of that more than other teams can take advantage of their height."
Kenai's perimeter players play a major role, initiating the pressure defense and hitting the outside shots to soften up the middle for Kenai's undersized frontcourt.
1999-2000: 2-20 (0-10 Region III)
Head coach: Joe Trujillo (2nd year)
Key returning players: Amanda Bauer, sr.; Samantha Carlon, sr.; Courtney Kier, sr.; Katie Kier, sr.; Christina Colvin, so.
Key newcomers: Jessika Truesdell, jr.; Anne Verba, so.; Amber Kraxberger, sr.; Sheena Demaris, sr.; Jenny Carpenter, so.
Key losses: Stephanie St. Clair, Autumn Thurmond, Shannon Carlon.
Trujillo has the opportunity to mold some natural athletic ability into an exciting basketball team, and in their first three games of the season, the Panthers already are showing a knack for clutch plays and exciting basketball.
"The first day of practice, we looked around and noticed we had a good team," Colvin, the team's point guard, said. "We're not so big, but we've got a lot of hustle."
Trujillo is fortunate to have 10 players on his roster to mix and match without losing a step on the floor.
The next step for the Panthers is to convert hustle into wins. The Panthers did that with their Skyview Challenge tournament victory over Grace. Hopefully, the momentum will carry them into next week's region matchups with Kenai and Soldotna.
1999-2000: 8-14 (3-7 Region III)
Head coach: Mark Tuter (1st year)
Key returning players: Jennifer Senette, so.; Erin Wolfe, so.; Danielle Kerrone, sr.; Gretta Besse, sr.; Sam Penner, so.; Hillary Zobeck, so.; Amy Breakfield, so.; Rachel Besse, so.
Key newcomers: Lauren Christensen, so.; Jenna Syverson, so.; Candace Evans, jr.; Desiree Severson, jr.; Toni Gilbert, sr.
Key losses: none.
The Stars were young a season ago, and while most of the roster is made up of returning players, with three seniors, Soldotna is still a young team.
The Stars have played 10 games already, though, and the team has quickly become a seasoned squad. Soldotna played in tournaments at Anchorage Christian, Ketchikan and Skyview and finished second in each one.
"At first, I wasn't thrilled with the schedule, but now we know what we've got to work on," Tuter said. "We know our deficiencies and our strengths. It was a chance to see a number of different teams and a way to gauge ourselves."
Tuter called this year's Stars a mentally tough team and expects them to improve during the season.
"We've seen improvement every week so far," Tuter said. "We'll be a real dangerous team. We've got nice size and good ballhandlers."
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