Nikiski's Becca Carlson, right, drives past Anchorage Christian's Bailey White during a home game earlier this season.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Normally, it is the opposition that takes advantage of the opportunity created when a state champion loses three of its starters.
Thus far, the main person benefiting from the graduation losses of 2006 Class 3A state champion Nikiski has been Bulldogs senior Becca Carlson.
Carlson, the first player off the bench for the Bulldogs last season, has improved from 4.3 points and 2.5 rebounds per game last season to 12.7 points and 3.6 rebounds per game this season.
Despite losing three starters last season, including state all-tournament honorees Sarah Herrin and Sasha Auldridge, the Bulldogs are right where they were at the end of last season. Nikiski, with a 15-2 overall record, is the top-ranked squad in Class 3A.
Last season, Carlson’s main role was to come off the bench and nail outside shots to open up the opposing team’s defense. With the massive losses to graduation, Carlson said she knew playing such a limited role would no longer cut it if Nikiski hoped to repeat.
“I knew I had to improve in almost every aspect of my game to make up for the loss of those three seniors,” she said. “I knew I had to step up and pick up where they left off for us.”
Carlson grew up in a basketball family, with four older siblings and two younger siblings all playing the game. Her love of the game would serve her well as she prepared for her senior season.
“I played five or six times a week,” Carlson said. “I’d go to every open gym I could find. When I wasn’t in a gym, I was running outside.”
Nikiski coach Ward Romans said Carlson was following a model set by Herrin, who was the Class 3A girls player of the year last year in Daily News/Alaska Media All-State Basketball voting.
“Sarah would play everywhere she could,” Romans said. “She was a very positive role model for Becca.”
Carlson also was acting on a trend picked up on by her parents, Lynn and Rosanne Carlson. Lynn said he has talked to many championship athletes over the years and a common thread has been hard work throughout the offseason.
“You don’t see it very often,” Lynn Carlson said. “I used to see Sarah Herrin last year down at the gym shooting by herself.
“Like I told Sarah, it’s a lonely thing working toward an individual or team championship.”
Romans knew Carlson was working hard in the offseason, so it’d be a stretch to say he was shocked when he saw her play in the fall.
“I did see her do a couple things where I said, ‘Whoa. That’s interesting. This is going to be an interesting year,’” he said.
Romans said Carlson was now able to get her shot off the dribble, or post up for a basket.
“I have a lot quicker shot and I see the floor better,” Carlson said. “Playing with guys puts you in a really fast-paced game. I couldn’t freak out when I got a lot of pressure. I had to learn to pump fake.”
It didn’t take a long time for all of Carlson’s work to pay off. The Bulldogs opened the season against a Homer team that has been to the Class 4A state tournament the past three seasons.
Carlson showed her improved defense by spending the game trying to deny 6-foot-3 Mariners center Reba Temple the ball. She then nailed a tie-breaking 3-pointer with 4.5 seconds left to give the Bulldogs a 41-38 victory.
In late January, Carlson hit a short jumper in the lane with 20 seconds left and a foul shot with .8 seconds left to give the then No. 2 Bulldogs a 51-48 victory over then No. 1 Anchorage Christian Schools.
“I don’t know where she gets that calmness and confidence in herself,” Lynn Carlson said. “She’s always stayed confident in herself, even when things aren’t going well.”
Carlson said her performance in late-game situations comes from an obligation to her team.
“When it comes down to that point, and coach sets up a play for me to take a 3, I’m going to do my best to make that shot,” Carlson said. “I want to win the game for my team.”
Carlson readily thanks her coaches and teammates for making her the player she is today.
That obligation to teammates has compelled Carlson to play with a weak ankle. Lynn Carlson said his daughter tore several ligaments in her ankle near the end of the summer.
“When I told her one of the options was not playing and giving the ankle a chance to heal, that was not an option for her,” he said.
Romans said it is that dedication that makes Carlson a leader.
“She always has a smile on her face and she has a positive word for everybody,” Romans said. “She comes to practice every day and works as hard as she can. All of those things make players want to follow her.”
Romans also said Carlson is extremely coachable. For as far as Carlson has come in the last year, Romans would still like her to improve on keeping her head up and looking for an open teammate when she dribbles. Opponents now respect Carlson’s scoring ability so much that defenses collapse on her and leave other Bulldogs open.
“It can be tough to challenge an athlete to get better, but when I’ve challenged Becca, she’s always responded to whatever I’ve asked her to do,” Romans said.
All of the traits that make Carlson a good basketball player translate to her studies, where she has a 3.93 grade-point average. Carlson was home-schooled from second grade until the second semester of her senior year, when she enrolled at Nikiski. Carlson has been able to play for the Bulldogs through the Connections program.
“She approaches her studies with the same focus she approaches basketball,” Lynn Carlson said.
Becca Carlson would like to play basketball next year at college and study business.
In the meantime, Carlson will help the Bulldogs chase the ninth Class 3A state title in school history.
“Our tradition is awesome,” she said. “It shows it can be done. There’s no reason we can’t be the next ones to fulfill that tradition.”
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