Judging by the way the high school basketball season has started, competition in Region III/4A should provide a rollicking good time for all involved -- players, coaches and fans alike.
"It's going to be a fun year," said Soldotna girls coach Mark Tuter. "We used to have rivalries like this in the early '90s."
That was when the Region III girls dominated play in the state tournament, with Kenai taking the title in 1991 and Soldotna winning one in 1993. Colony got the first of its three titles in 1995.
The Mat-Su Valleys still may have the stronger girls teams in Wasilla, Palmer, and Colony, but with Kenai, Soldotna and Skyview all playing well, and with Homer showing great improvement, every game will come down to making shots and playing defense. And with Kodiak filling out the Northern Division, there won't be any pushovers on the schedule.
"Wasilla, I think, is the best team in the region," Kenai coach Jim Beeson said. "Colony, Palmer and Soldotna are going to be tough, so is Skyview.
"It's kinda typical Region III basketball. Anybody can beat anybody. If you can have success in Region III, you're doing pretty good."
Kodiak became the first boys team from the region to win a 4A state title last year, and Wasilla has been picked as one of the best in the region, if not the state, this year.
"I think that Wasilla is certainly the team to beat. You've always got to look at the Valley teams. They always put good teams on the floor," said Skyview boys coach Dave Blossom. "We're right in there after Wasilla, especially with Regions being at Skyview."
"I think it's going to be real competitive," said Kenai boys coach Rich Bartolowits. "There's a couple of teams that are down, but they play real hard, so you can't overlook them. Skyview's a pretty powerful force, and when you look at the Northern Division, it gets really competitive."
The following is a closer look at the Peninsula's Region III/4A teams:
Head coach: Billy Day (6th year)
2000-2001 regular season record: 8-13 (5-5 Region III)
Key returning players: Steven Stead, Sr.
Key newcomers: Matt Mahan, Jr.; Joe Todd, Sr.; David Drake, Jr.; Aaron Smith, Sr.; Evan Smith, Jr.; Adam Crum, Jr.; Aaron Isenhour, Sr.
Key losses: Corey Boone, Skylar Burns, Jake Szajkowski, Colby Kincaid.
The Mariners are off to a rough start, going 1-5 in games at the Anchorage Christian Schools Invitational and the SoHi Tip-Off tournament.
Homer will look to bounce back when it begins its Region III schedule Saturday at Kenai.
KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS
Head coach: Rich Bartolowits (3rd year)
2000-2001 regular season record: 9-13 (3-7 Region III)
Key returning players: Marcus Webster, Sr.; J.D. Pault, Sr.; Joel Dunn, Sr.; Ian Foley, Jr.; Caleb Schooley, Sr.; Dane Myers, Sr.
Key newcomers: Richard Alexander, Jr; Carlos Carreon, Sr.; Steve Steiner, Jr.; Austin Boyd, Jr.; Nick Barnes, So.
Key losses: Brad Burck.
"It's nice to have experience," Bartolowits said of his squad. "We're building on last year, and we're trying to do some things differently, especially on defense. We have a whole new attitude of defense."
The Kardinals demonstrated that attitude at last weekend's SoHi Tip-Off, taking the tournament title.
"It's a good start," Bartolowits said.
The Kardinals played man-to-man defense against West in the tournament title game, and got offensive contributions from Schooley and Dunn in the paint while Foley, Webster and Pault were able to hit from the perimeter.
"We're just looking to keep an up-tempo pace and keep the intensity up," Bartolowits said.
The Kardinals, 5-4 to start the season, open their region schedule Saturday at home against Homer.
Head coach: Dave Blossom (2nd year)
2000-2001 regular season record: 9-14 (1-9 Region III)
Key returning players: Mark McGarry, Sr.; Joshua Rowell, Sr.; Tony Lewis, Sr.
Key newcomers: Kaleb Shields, So.; Matt Travers, Jr.; Matt Matarrese, Jr.; Eric Malmquist, Sr.; Ryan Gellar, So.; Garrett St. Clair, So.; Andrew Smith, So.; Adam Kosydar, Jr.; Adam Cooper, So.
Key losses: Nolan Rose, Storman Norman, Ryan Mallett, Ty Edward, Matt Burdick.
The Panthers have three returning varsity players -- but the trio is an impressive one, led by Rowell.
"Josh is almost unstoppable when he wants to play hard," Blossom said. "He shoots very well from 15 feet on in, and then if they do try to do some things to defense him, we've got some other guys with some experience that can see the openings."
Add to that the Panthers' height -- all but three players on their roster are 6 feet or better.
"That helps," Blossom said.
Blossom has three juniors and five sophomore to mix into the lineup.
"In some ways, with the inexperience, we have to be careful what combinations we put out, but they're getting some valuable experience for future years," Blossom said.
Blossom envisions the Panthers playing baseline-to-baseline basketball.
"We're going to do a lot of traps, some man-to-man and some full-court pressure," Blossom said. "That's not going to be a surprise to anyone. We're going to get better every game, and we're going to play to win every game."
Head coach: Bill Withrow (1st year)
2000-2001 regular season record: 17-5 (6-4 Region III)
Key returning players: Adam Kiffmeyer, Sr.
Key newcomers: Tommy Turnbull, Jr.; Kyle Nettles, So.; Ben Histand, Sr.; Trevor Kennedy, Jr.; Ben Richman, Sr.; Caleb Sizemore, Jr.; Iver Kohler, Sr.; Mark Baker, Jr.; Cody Michal, Jr.; Ricky Simpson, Jr.
Key losses: Nick Christensen, Pat Hardina, Sean Kelley, Pat Rose, Mike Metteer, Shaun Williams, Aaron Hughes.
The Stars advanced to the state tournament last season by placing third in the Region III tournament, but just one player with significant varsity playing time, Kiffmeyer, returns for this season.
First-year coach Withrow is preaching the team concept to his squad, and the Stars have played well in spurts during their 2-5 start. Withrow said the improvement from Day 1 is dramatic, and has been excited by the attitude shown by his players.
"I would rather have these guys, and not win a lot of games but play hard," Withrow said. "This is a good group of young men. To me, that's more important than winning games."
Head coach: Mark Mahan (1st year)
2000-2001 regular season record: 2-20 (0-10 Region III)
Key returning players: Jessica Eller, Sr.
Key newcomers: Caitlin Crandall, Jr.; Nicolette Creamer, Jr.; Rose Sinnhuber, Jr.; Sara Thompson, Jr.
Key losses: Sara Brooks, Brittney Gaethle.
The Mariners are off to a 3-3 start, and first-year coach Mahan said he's trying to work all of his players into the lineup, figuring out who plays best where.
"We're just getting started. Everybody's getting a lot of playing time," Mahan said. "We'll find out (where we stand) Saturday. We've gotta play Kenai, and that's going to be one of our tougher games."
Mahan said that the Mariners have been in every game they've played this season, and they'll continue to put pressure on their opponents with an up-tempo game.
"We like to pus the ball and try to be a threat," Mahan said.
KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS
Head coach: Jim Beeson (3rd year)
2000-2001 regular season record: 19-3 (7-3 Region III)
Key returning players: Karli Knudsen, Sr.; Jamie Montgomery, Sr.; Kamilla Goggia, Sr.; Rachael Popp, Sr.; Michelle Edwards, Sr.; Anna Hall, Jr.; Erica Shinn, Sr.; Erin Smith, Jr.; Erica Smith, Jr..
Key newcomers: Breezy Saltzgiver, So.; Dallas Baldwin, Jr.; Sarah McLeod, Jr.; Tera Moore, Jr.
Key losses: Jessi Reilly.
The Kardinals are off to a high-flying start this season after making the trip to Anchorage for the state tournament last season, but a big test comes when East pays a visit Friday.
"This is probably the best we've been in the three years I've been coaching," Beeson said. "We're more offensively balanced. The kids are comfortable with what we're doing, and we've got more kids that can score."
Last season, Kenai relied on its lightning-quick guards to create offensive opportunities off of defense. This year, the quick backcourt is back, but they've got more weapons both on the perimeter and in the paint to utilize.
Beeson said that the improvement he's seen since practice started is as important as Kenai's current 7-0 record.
"Obviously, any time you win, it's good, but we've played well and gotten better," Beeson said.
The Kardinals play their first Region III game Saturday at Homer against Homer.
Head coach: Joe Trujillo (3rd year)
2000-2001 regular season record: 8-14 (2-8 Region III)
Key returning players: Jenny Carpenter, Jr.; Christina Colvin, Jr.; Anne Verba, Jr.
Key newcomers: Jamie Beever, Jr.; Kari Faigle, Jr.; Lindsay Gephardt, Jr.; Laurel Creel, So.; Sara Garrant, So.; Amanda Fay, So.; Sammy Dalebout, So.
Key losses: Amanda Bauer, Samantha Carlon, Courtney Kier, Katie Kier.
Trujillo doesn't have a senior on his roster, but he does have five juniors and five sophomores to call on this season.
What those players bring to the floor is plenty of hustle and enough quickness to run Skyview's press and fast break.
The Panthers are off to a good start this season, and Trujillo would like to see them continue playing an up-tempo game.
"If we're as quick as our opponent or quicker, I'd like to keep the pressure up," Trujillo said. "We're hoping to have the girls play full court, baseline to baseline -- and enjoy doing it."
The Panthers continue to improve under Trujillo's tutelage, and he'd love to see them finish with a winning record this year.
"I've seen the progression from 2-22 to 9-16 last year," Trujillo said. "Hopefully, this year we break .500 and go further than regions."
Head coach: Mark Tuter (2nd year)
2000-2001 regular season record: 13-9 (6-4 Region III)
Key returning players: Jennifer Senette, Jr.; Erin Wolfe, Jr.; Lauren Christensen, Jr.; Rachel Besse, Jr.; Sam Penner, Jr.; Jenna Syverson, Jr.; Hillary Zobeck, Jr.; Amy Breakfield, Jr.; Desiree Severson, Sr.; Candace Evans, Sr.
Key newcomers: Annie Penner, So.; Tracy Pitts, So.; Marcella Tabor, Jr.
Key losses: Gretta Besse, Danielle Kerrone, Toni Gilbert.
"We've got nine kids that have a lot of varsity experience. All nine could start on a given night," Tuter said.
Tuter said he hasn't put the same five players out to start any of the Stars' seven games this season, but tries to figure out which players' strengths would be best taken advantage of against a particular opponent.
"The hard part is figuring out who I should start," Tuter said.
"They all deserve playing time. It's hard to get all of them enough. They all have different strengths. It will depend on who you match up with as to who you go with."
Tuter has a wide array of weapons at his disposal, and while the roster is packed with juniors, most of them have been playing varsity basketball since they were freshman.
Soldotna jumps into its region schedule at home against Skyview Saturday.
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