It's difficult not to consider the Cook Inlet Academy and Ninilchik girls basketball teams as the front-runners to claim the two state tournament berths on the line when the Peninsula Conference tourney kicks off today at Cook Inlet.
After all, each squad has suffered just one conference loss this season to each other, of course.
The Eagles return four starters from last season's first Class 2A state tournament trip since 1988, which culminated with a fourth-place finish and the program's first-ever state victories.
And while the Wolverines lost four starters from last year's third-place squad, they obviously know what it takes to win, considering their program has captured seven of the last nine state championships.
Still, though, neither head coach sounded overly confident.
"You would think we're the favorites," CIA coach Ted Forsi said. "All these teams are going to come to play and they're going to come to play hard."
"If you look at our season records, obviously with the one loss apiece, you'd have to think that," said Ninilchik coach Dan Leman. "My feeling is we've got Seldovia, which is a real scrappy team. ... At tournament time, you can't look past anybody. That's the way we're approaching it.
"We're not putting ourselves in the championship game with Cook Inlet or anybody else until we get past the first round."
Both teams could meet in Friday's championship contest at Skyview High School with one victory apiece. Top-seeded Ninilchik (14-7) awaits the winner of today's 4:45 p.m. game between Nikolaevsk and Bristol Bay, while the second-seeded Eagles (13-9) are already pitted against third-seeded Seldovia at 2 p.m. Thursday.
"Assuming we beat Seldovia, if we play Ninilchik, it will be a great championship game," Forsi said.
Both regular season contests were.
The Eagles knocked off the visiting Wolverines by three points at the Cook Inlet Classic just before Christmas, earning their first win over the Wolverines since the 1980's.
"They obviously are a good team and we've been one of the good teams in the past, so beating us was a big deal for them," Leman said. "If it just happened last week it would be a big deal, whether it was for them or for us."
Leman's crew got their revenge at their own tournament roughly two weeks ago, edging Cook Inlet by seven. In the process, the Wolverines proved, exactly as Leman predicted following Ninilchik's loss to the Eagles, that his team would be vastly different come March.
"I like to think that we've come a long way since December," he said. "I know we've worked real hard. (We've) had a lot of good games, good competition, close games. We're pretty much where we want to be this time of year.
"That's the big thing is that we've made big strides. We're peaking at the right time," Leman added. "As most teams want to do toward the end of the season, we're playing our best basketball."
Now, they're looking to defend their Peninsula Conference crown.
And Forsi, who's team lost its first conference tournament game last season before winning three straight en route to state, is well aware of the strides the Wolverines have made.
"I think the girls expect to be competitive with Ninilchik and that we should get one of the two berths," he said. "And if we play up to our potential, maybe we'll get that No. 1 seed. But Dan and Ninilchik are going to be tough."
The boys' tournament features a tad more parity than the girls.
Cook Inlet finished the season with an 8-2 conference mark, its only loss coming to top-seeded Bristol Bay by six points. The Eagles lone home loss of the season, however, counted twice due to the difficulties of traveling to the home of the Angels.
"They're definitely by far the better team in our conference," said CIA coach Travis Knutson, "but we definitely can compete with them."
Those teams wouldn't meet until the championship contest on Friday night at Skyview High School. For the time being, the Eagles (15-8) will square off with the winner of today's 3 p.m. game between third-seeded Seldovia and sixth-seeded Lumen Christi.
"It ought to turn out to be a pretty good game," Knutson said. "We'll definitely have to come to play even though we've beat both teams two times."
Knutson returns eight players from last year's team that finished second in the conference to Bristol Bay, yet was promptly bounced from the state tournament after a pair of losses.
Playing their first game in their own gym should benefit the Eagles as well.
"That ought to help, definitely. Because we've been practicing here all year," he said. "Hopefully it will play a little bit of an advantage our way."
Ninilchik has a slight advantage of its own in senior Austin Vanderford, who led the Wolverines to a 9-13 overall mark while averaging close to 26 points and 14 rebounds a game.
Ninilchik coach Keith Presley knows what to expect from the defending Peninsula Conference Most Valuable Player. It's the rest of the team that could decide the Wolverines' fate.
"What do I get from my freshmen and what do I get from my juniors? If they come to play, we're going to be right in the mix of things," Presley explained. "If those guys don't convert and they turn the ball over and things like that and then we have to put the whole burden on Austin, we're going to come up short. That's just the way it's going to work."
Presley referenced Bristol Bay's Mason King, who probably scores about half his team's points, he said.
"If something happens to Mason or he doesn't score enough, they're going to be in trouble."
The fourth-seeded Wolverines who finished 5-5 in conference play will square off with fifth-seeded Nikolaevsk at 6:30 p.m. today.
If they get by the Warriors, the Angels will be waiting.
"Basically we're going to have to beat Bristol Bay and Cook Inlet or Bristol Bay and Seldovia and we've lost to all three of them," Presley said. "But they were close games and we have beat Seldovia before. I feel confident that we have a chance."
The last time Ninilchik qualified for the state tournament was in 2000, when they finished second to Cook Inlet following a double-overtime setback in the championship contest.
With three wins, the Wolverines will be back.
"Just hoping to get back this year," Presley said. "The team that plays smart right now and is very disciplined will usually win over the more athletic teams that maybe aren't as disciplined. ... If you're ready to play every game, then you have that chance to win."
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