A couple of first-year coaches with big shoes to fill put today's Peninsula Conference tournament at Lumen Christi High School in perspective.
"It's obviously anybody's tournament," said Ninilchik coach Rod Van Saun, the successor to former head man Dan Leman, who guided his team to eight Class 2A state championships since 1996 and a second-place finish last season.
Cook Inlet Academy coach Jason Hofseth, trying to lead his team to its third straight state berth after placing fourth the past two seasons under Ted Forsi, shared the exact same sentiment.
"The interesting thing about this conference is (Ninilchik's) only loss is against ... Seldovia. Seldovia's only win is against Ninilchik," he said. "That kind of tells you that anybody can beat anybody in our conference. You've got to be ready to play anybody. We're not going to take anybody lightly."
Neither are the Wolverines.
Finishing the season at 13-7 overall and 7-1 in the conference, the only setback a 10-point loss in Seldovia, Ninilchik earned the top seed and a bye in the first round and will take on the winner of today's 7:15 p.m. game between fourth-seeded Nikolaevsk and fifth-seeded Seldovia. The Wolverines topped the Warriors three times this season and earned a tight 39-35, overtime victory over the Sea Otters on Friday.
"That's an excellent matchup that could go either way. They've played each other tight," Van Saun said. "I definitely recognize that this is a very good challenge for our team. And in my mind, there is no favorite.
"After the challenge of losing Dan ... they've really played for me. I think we've grown together a lot."
So have the Eagles, who finished 14-8 and lost three times this season to the Wolverines, once on a buzzer-beater and the other two by a combined nine points.
Before looking toward a potential championship matchup against Ninilchik, though, second-seeded Cook Inlet on Thursday has to get past third-seeded Bristol Bay, which finished 2-2 in the Peninsula Conference.
"Bristol Bay's going to be a tough one," Hofseth said. "It's going to be another battle."
Van Saun views the Angels as a potential challenge.
"I would have to list the dark horse without question as Bristol Bay," he explained. "They had a two- or four-point game with CIA ... then they had a two-point game with us, then they went down and squeaked out victories with Nikolaevsk and Seldovia. They've had a bunch of time now to prepare."
Should the Eagles and Wolverines each win their first game, a fourth matchup looms on Friday with a state berth on the line. The loser would then have to win a consolation-final contest to earn the second state berth.
"I think the reason we lost the third one is our girls were a little overconfident," Hofseth said. "It sounds a little funny that we would be overconfident to a team that we lost two games already to. But I would definitely say our girls are not afraid of Ninilchik.
"At the beginning of the season, state was our primary goal. That's definitely a goal we plan on meeting and we sure hope we do," he added. "They want to go to state bad."
As do the Cook Inlet Academy boys, although their task may be a bit more formidable, with seven teams competing in the boys tournament, compared to five in the girls.
"That was one of our long-term goals. We know that regions has got to happen first," said first-year Eagles coach Greg Bell. "If we get there, we want to win it and I do think we have the team that can.
"The opportunity's there this year for us. All the pieces to the puzzle are there as far as our team."
Cook Inlet, which earned the top seed and a bye after finishing the season at 18-5 overall and 10-0 in the conference, will take on the winner of today's game between fourth-seeded Bristol Bay and fifth-seeded Whittier.
"We're not looking past that game even. Bristol Bay, when we played them, I don't think they played their best basketball ... and we've got to take them serious also," Bell said. "Whittier, they compete hard. They're a little bit shallower as far as depth of their team.
"Those teams concern me because they're getting better and better."
Bell is confident his team has the tools to make a run toward Friday's championship.
"We played a real tough schedule this year outside of our conference. We were fortunate to get a lot of games against a lot of 4A and 3A schools," he explained. "We've got incredible shooters and we've got a couple of big guys who have come a long way.
"Defense and rebounding was really weak at the beginning of the year and they've stepped up," Bell added. "Those kids have worked hard on their defense and rebounding."
Second-seeded Ninilchik closed the year at 12-8 overall and 9-2 in the conference, the only two losses coming to CIA.
"Personally I'd be disappointed if we don't make it (to state)," said Wolverines coach Keith Presley, whose team will play seventh-seeded Nanwalek, a co-ed team, at 2 p.m. today. "I think the kids have worked hard enough to do it. ... Ultimately, it's up to them.
"It's win or go home now."
If Ninilchik beats Nanwalek for the second time this season, the Wolverines will be matched up with the winner of today's game between third-seeded Nikolaevsk and sixth-seeded Lumen Christi.
"We beat them both pretty handily," Presley said. "Anything's possible."
Then, like the girls, a possible championship contest against Cook Inlet looms on the horizon.
"They're the best team, obviously, in our region," Presley said. "To beat them we're going to have to play very good ball. I'm not saying perfect, but we have to play very good ball to do that.
"If we can do that, there's a chance in the game that you'll be able to pull it off."
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