The Soldotna boys and Kenai Central girls fought their way through a grueling Northern Lights Conference schedule this year in earning the top seeds from the Southern Division in today's NLC tournament.
First-round dates with fourth-seeded Kodiak -- on The Rock.
"I haven't had the opportunity to be down there, but everyone I talk to says it's a great place to play but it's a difficult place to play," said Stars coach Matthew Johnson, whose team went 9-1 in conference play. "They always play well at their place. ... It's a basketball town and they get behind their team and they're going to make it a difficult place to play for us."
Neither Johnson nor Kardinals coach Ken Felchle seems to mind, though.
It was their goal all along.
"It's where we wanted to be. We wanted to be the No. 1 team and we wanted to have a chance of playing Kodiak," Felchle said. "I don't know if it's an unfortunate thing that it's here or not. It will definitely be an exciting atmosphere.
"They will definitely have the home crowd advantage but that's something we're going to have to play with."
So is possibly facing the Colony girls, the defending Class 4A state champions who lost just one game this season and are by far the frontrunners to capture the NLC tourney crown.
"I would be surprised if Colony did not win this tournament," said Felchle, whose team likely wouldn't face the Knights, the top seed from the Northern Division, until the championship on Saturday, unless Colony somehow falters along the way.
"They're the best team in the state," added Soldotna coach Mark Tuter, whose team fell by 42 points at Colony on Saturday. "They can be beaten, but if they are clicking, they are a very, very difficult team."
In fact, all three Valley teams, including second-seeded Wasilla and third-seeded Palmer, are favorites to claim the three state berths on the line.
The Moose beat the Stars by 22 on Friday and then earned a 14-point win over Kenai on Saturday. Wasilla, too, defeated both Soldotna and Kenai this season.
"They are definitely the favorites to come out of this region," Felchle said. "Right now as of the regular season they are the best three teams. So everyone else is shooting for one of those positions."
The SoHi boys, meanwhile, entered the final game of the season with a 9-0 NLC mark before losing by two points at Colony.
Johnson is hoping that serves as a reminder.
"Hopefully it will refocus us and get us back on track for wherever we want to be," he said. "If you lose, you need to learn from it and let it motivate you going forward."
Should the Stars get by the Bears today, the winner of the Homer-Palmer game awaits them on Friday with a state-tournament trip on the line.
"I think the draw looks really good for us," Johnson said. "Not that it's an easy draw, but I think we match up well with the teams that we'll face and I think it gives us a great opportunity to make a run at going to the state tournament."
But Johnson also conceded his team isn't necessarily the favorite to win. Like the girls tournament, the trio of Valley schools could easily emerge.
"I think going into a region tournament, I think there's a possibility of being a lot of parity," he said. "The three Valley teams as a group are the frontrunners. I don't know that I would put us in front of any one of them.
"No. 1, they're talented. No. 2, they're well-coached and it's tradition. For how many years are they the three teams that go to state?" Johnson added. "That culture is a tough one to break into, but we're hoping to get to that point. But it makes them difficult to beat in the region tournament."
Here is a closer looks at today's first-round matchups:
Palmer girls vs. Soldotna, 8 a.m.
The second-seeded Stars are looking to rebound after the lopsided loss at third-seeded Palmer on Friday.
"They just took care of the ball much better than we did," Tuter said. "They just handled the ball much, much better."
Tuter thinks his team needs to put together a complete game in order to have a chance.
"We have played one or two games real well at times," he said. "We have the potential to put it together, but we really haven't put it together for a long period of time the way that we need to.
"We've got the potential, we just have to rise to the occasion," Tuter added. "It cant just be three or four playing real well, or one or two. We need six or seven people to play well for three days."
Wasilla boys vs. Kenai Central, 9:45 a.m.
The second-seeded Kardinals hung with the third-seeded Warriors earlier this season.
"All the Valley teams we kind of hung in there," Kenai coach Jim Beeson said. "We've just got to go out and play hard and be patient on offense and not give up anything easy on the defensive end of the floor, and make the game as ugly as possibly as we can get it.
"The uglier it is, the more slower the pace, the lower the score, the better chance we have of being competitive in the game."
Beeson said the key will be taking good shots every time down the floor, as well as not turning the ball over.
"We just have to consistently play for 32 minutes and maybe we'll surprise somebody," he said. "We need to win a game we're not supposed to win.
"That's the trick for us this weekend. We want to play on Saturday."
Colony girls vs. Skyview, 11:30 a.m.
The fourth-seeded Panthers went 1-9 in the NLC season this season, earning their lone win over Homer on Saturday behind a strong comeback in the second half.
"Colony's the best team in the state," said Skyview assistant coach Randi Broyles. "We know that going into it. ... We would have to play unbelievable and they would have to play not that great."
After the Knights, though, the Panthers, should they lose, would take on the loser of Palmer and Soldotna for the right to play in the third-place game on Saturday.
"Whoever we meet in that second round, it will probably be a peninsula team, and we know we can play with them," Broyles said. "So we have a good chance of making it to Saturday, I think. I'm pretty confident about that."
Homer boys vs. Palmer, 1:15 p.m.
The third-seeded Mariners lost by 20 to No. 2 Palmer this season, but closed their campaign by splitting a pair of games with Kodiak.
In the conference game on Friday, Homer earned a 63-50 win behind Dean DeVaney's 25 points. On Saturday, though, the Bears answered with a 52-34 nonconference victory.
Homer girls vs. Wasilla, 3 p.m.
The third-seeded Mariners, who lost by 24 to Wasilla earlier this year in finishing 2-8 in the NLC, know they will have to contend with Jenna Johnson, who helped guide the second-seeded Warriors to the Class 4A state championship in 2007.
"Stop Jenna Johnson, that's the first thing," Homer coach Deb Lowney said of how to hang with Wasilla. "We're going to have to figure out some way, some means. She's so good on the outside, she's so good penetrating the inside and she's so good at setting up her score and her teammate's score. So she definitely has an all-around game.
"We don't really look to stop her, but if we can contain her, I think we have the players that can contain the rest of their team."
Colony boys vs. Skyview, 4:45 p.m.
Skyview coach Ray Ortiz said his fourth-seeded Panthers played well against the top-seeded Knights for about three quarters earlier this season before they panicked under Colony's pressure.
"It's going to take a lot more because they've gotten better," he said. "We've got our work cut out for us. But I like the Kodiak court and the Kodiak environment. It's a neutral court, so all things are even, but how hard you play. If they play harder, they're going to get us. If we play harder, we give us a shot at the end, and that's all we ask for."
Kenai Central girls vs. Kodiak, 6:30 p.m.
The Kardinals finished the season at 12-10 overall and 6-4 in the conference after dropping two games to Colony and Palmer on Friday and Saturday, respectively.
Despite the 14-point loss to the Moose, however, Felchle thinks his team made strides in the second half.
"We know we can play with those teams," he said, referencing the Kards outscoring Palmer by two in the final 16 minutes. "When we play those two teams we cannot afford to play only one half. It's certainly possible but we will have to play four quarters of basketball in order for that to happen.
"Everybody understood what it's going to take to beat a team like that along with Wasilla, and that's defensive intensity for 32 minutes of basketball. Not 16, we can't do that."
Felchle also likes Kenai's draw, citing Colony and Wasilla, who are resting on the top half of the bracket, as the Kardinals seek a return to state for the first time since the 2001-02 season when they placed fourth.
"We just said on Wednesday, ... 'Hey, let's try and get back here and practice on Monday,'" he said. "That's a goal. If we're practicing Monday, we know that our season isn't over."
Soldotna boys vs. Kodiak, 8:15 p.m.
The Stars (18-3) are also seeking their first trip to state since the 2000-01 season, when they lost their first two games and were eliminated.
"They're basketball junkies. Matt Grubb kind of leads the crew," Johnson said of his five seniors. "They love to compete, they love to win and they really believe in each other and they believe in the team. They value each other. Going to state I think would be a great opportunity for them.
"It's a goal they've had all along and something they've wanted to accomplish as a group."
He said he doesn't think the season-ending loss to Colony will deter them.
"I think we're playing well. I think our kids are hungry," Johnson said. "That loss against Colony, I think it refocused our guys and made them hungry."
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