The girls' basketball team of Ninilchik School -- the Lady Wolverines -- appreciates the support of its fans. But when the team played archenemy Seldovia on Feb. 9, they got more attention than they expected. Taking notes and photographing every move were USA Today reporter Sal Ruibal and photographer Jack Gruber.
"All I can say is tht both the boys' and girls' teams are good ambassadors for Alaska in terms of basketbll."
--Coach Dan Leman
On Wednesday, thanks to Ruibal and Gruber, 4 million USA Today readers will be introduced to the team. Not bad coverage for one of the Kenai Peninsula's smaller schools.
"Kids traveling around Alaska in the winter, playing the games they love seemed to be a very unusual scene for most of our readers," Ruibal wrote in an e-mail. "I asked the Alaska High School Activities Association to find a few teams for me that had unusual road trips. Ninilchik was on the list, along with Barrow, an Aleutian Islands school and a few others."
Catching Ruibal's eye was Ninilchik's "championship girls team, the scenic location, fascinating history and it didn't require extensive travel off the road system." The Ninilchik-Seldovia rivalry also figured big in the decision, as well as the Lady Wolverines' World Wide Web site.
"It was an easy to access source of information and gave the town a unique personality," Ruibal wrote. "Jamie Leman has done a great job with her Ninilchik sites."
Leman, a Ninilchik School teacher who also graduated from the school in 1974, developed the site two seasons ago to support the team and its coach, Leman's husband, Dan.
"They had such an impressive record for so many years, and I figured that was the best way to recognize them," Leman said.
Relying on family-member Wayne Leman's expertise, she acquired the skill needed to build a site for the team's history, accomplishments, schedule and photos, as well as fund-raising opportunities for fans wanting to support the team.
"I update it on a regular basis and use it to post the game schedule so people can see when games are," Leman said. In January, Ruibal contacted Dan Leman.
"I thought it was one of my buddies, and I was waiting for someone to say, 'April fools, you idiot,'" the coach said.
However, when Ruibal started asking questions, it dawned on Leman that it wasn't a joke.
"I sent him a list of games and he selected the Seldovia game mainly for the trip and also because it was a rematch of last year's state championship," Leman said of a rivalry predating the coach's 1975 graduation from Ninilchik School.
Leman found lodging for Ruibal and Gruber at Meander Inn, a Ninilchik bed and breakfast overlooking the Ninilchik River, owned by Mike Schuster and co-hosted by Jodi Freeze.
"We couldn't have asked for better hosts than Mike and Jodi," Ruibal wrote. "Having moose for breakfast on our plates and walking around the river was wonderful."
The coach waited to tell the team of the newspaper's interest, concerned they would be disappointed if plans changed. However, the day before the trip to Seldovia, Ruibal and Gruber were present for a practice session.
"I didn't even know who they were for awhile," said team captain Molly Bosick. "But this is big. The team was all pretty excited."
Team member Brieanna Leman said the reporter's and photographer's presence at practice was a little distracting, but added an air of excitement.
"They took a lot of pictures of every move we made and it made us a little nervous," she said. "But it was kind of cool."
True to form, the home folks, including Larry and Cheryl Matson, braved the stormy waters of Kachemak Bay to cheer both the girls' and boys' teams in Seldovia.
"We don't miss too many games," said Larry Matson, whose son, John, and daughter, Amanda, play on the Ninilchik teams. "I didn't even know about the USA Today story until I got on the boat."
Freshman Amanda Matson said although she never imagined the team getting this kind of publicity, it didn't distract from the game.
Bosick also said the team had more important things to be concerned about in Seldovia, including playing away from home and being short a player -- junior Whitney Leman, the coach's daughter, was sidelined due to a recent ankle injury.
"It was tough watching them play," Whitney." It's the first game they've played without me. I'm sure it was hard for them. Everyone had to play different positions and keep up."
Coach Leman agreed.
"I think (the reporter and photographer) might have added a little pressure to a situation where we were already shorthanded without Whitney and on Seldovia's home court," he said. "But it just added another element that the kids needed to overcome.
Seldovia's 37-30 win didn't dampen the coach's pride. "They did real good," he said of the Lady Wolverines. "You don't need to make excuses when you lose to Seldovia. They did the best they could and that's the best you can ask for."
He also supported the team representing Alaska basketball in the upcoming article.
"All I can say is that both the boys' and girls' teams are good ambassadors for Alaska in terms of basketball," the coach said. "They are fine upstanding kids and represent the sport well. There are other Alaska schools that do also, but I'm pretty proud of these kids."
Coach Leman is looking forward to seeing the team in print.
"Hopefully the coverage is focused on the kids and the trip, what they go through in the season and not the game itself because that's the fun part -- the things you go through with the kids during the season. That's what makes it all worthwhile."
Both Leman and assistant coach Chris Hanson have had a sneak peak of the photos taken by Gruber.
"He had some awesome pictures of the kids, the whole trip and the game," Hanson said. "It was great. You should see those cameras. They're incredible."
Some photos captured the team's enthusiastic supporters, including Hanson's wife, Michael, son Ross and daughter Hunter. Gruber also promised Jamie Leman a disc of pictures to use on the Lady Wolverine Web site.
Ruibal had words of praise for the experience.
"I wish my commute was as beautiful," said the Washington, D.C., reporter of the ferry trip between Homer and Seldovia.
Of the kids, he said they "were more polite and engaging than most of the teen-agers I have written about. Whatever they may have missed out on because of isolation has been replaced by the empathy and generosity only a strong family life can give."
And of the article scheduled to run Wednesday, Ruibal wrote, "Without giving away the story, I must say that what I saw there was much bigger and deeper than I expected. I hope that I can pass that on (to) the 4 million readers who'll pick up the paper that day."
USA Today can be found on the World Wide Web at www.usatoday.com/. Information on the Lady Wolverines can be found at www.geocities.com/Colosseum/Stands/5806/.
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