Northern Lights Conference girls basketball is back.
From 1991 to 1999, NLC teams, or Region III teams as they were called then, won six of the nine state titles. After that, the dominance of the league faded, but last year Wasilla came through with the conference's first title since 1999.
One of the conference's trademarks during the dominant era was not only state championships, but tremendous depth. In 1999, Palmer finished third at the league tournament but then went on to win the state title.
If the regular season is any indication, that depth is back and should make for some high drama when the ball is tipped at the Northern Lights Conference tournament today in Palmer.
Colony enters the tourney ranked third in the Winning Percentage Index, which the Alaska School Activities Association uses to seed the state tournament. Wasilla is sixth, while Palmer is seventh and Soldotna is ninth.
"I'll be honest," said Kenai Central coach Ken Felchle. "There's four teams in our region that I feel are just better than everyone else Wasilla, Colony, Palmer and Soldotna.
"They're all very deep, they're very athletic and they put a lot of pressure on you all game long."
Games played between the four top teams recently foreshadow what kind of a region tournament it could be. Colony has defeated SoHi, but SoHi has defeated Palmer. Palmer topped Colony, but Colony snapped Wasilla's 100-game winning streak against NLC competition with a 66-47 victory on Saturday.
"It creates a lot of excitement," Soldotna girls coach Mark Tuter of the parity. "We're excited about it. We feel we're coming into the tournament at a good time."
On the boys side, Colony comes in as the No. 1 team in the WPI and with no losses in the NLC regular season. After that, it should be a dogfight for the second- and third-place slots that earn a berth to the state tournament.
Wasilla is ninth in the WPI, while Kenai is 10th, Soldotna is 12th, Kodiak is 15th and Palmer is 16th.
"Colony is kind of head and shoulders above everybody else," said Kenai Central boys coach Jim Beeson. "Then it's kind of Wasilla, then Kodiak, Palmer, Kenai and Soldotna will be in a dogfight. It'll be whoever gets hot and plays good basketball."
The following is a closer look at the first-round games:
Wasilla girls vs. Skyview
The Warriors, the No. 1 seed out of the Northern Division, may have lost their first NLC game since 2001, but they still have a very important streak intact. Wasilla has won seven straight conference tourney titles.
In late January, Wasilla notched a 55-29 victory over Skyview, the No. 4 seed out of the south. Wasilla is known for intense full-court pressure, and Skyview coach Ronnie Kier has said all season that his team has had trouble executing against pressure defense, so the Panthers will have to keep turnovers down to stay in the game.
Palmer girls vs. Kenai
The Moose, the No. 3 seed from the north, topped Kenai, the No. 2 seed from the south, 65-31 in late February. Felchle said his team has accomplished goals like being better than last year, getting double-digit wins and getting the No. 2 seed.
The last big goal is getting a win at the conference tournament.
"We're focusing on one goal at a time," Felchle said. "If we make that goal, we can set another one."
Against Palmer, Felchle said his team will have to handle pressure and get shots instead of turnovers.
Kenai also will need a big game from senior center Kyla Steward.
Soldotna girls vs. Kodiak
The Stars, the top seed from the south, have defeated the Bears, the No. 4 seed from the north, three times this season. The closest game was a 13-point victory.
"They have a hard time matching up with us," Tuter said. "If we're consistent and we don't turn the ball over, we'll be just fine."
The Soldotna girls, whose 1993 NLC tourney title is the last by a Southern Division team, will have to handle defensive pressure if they want another crown. "If we can handle the press, we're going to be just fine," Tuter said.
Homer girls vs. Colony
The Knights, the No. 2 seed from the north, beat Homer, the No. 3 seed from the south, 73-45 in early February.
Last season, Homer had a string of three straight state appearances snapped.
The Mariners still have senior center Reba Temple, an all-conference player the last two years.
Colony boys vs. Homer
The top-seed Knights beat No. 4 Homer 85-26 in early February. Colony was runner-up at the conference and state tournaments to Wasilla last season. This year, the Knights are seeking their first conference crown since 2005.
Kodiak boys vs. Soldotna
No. 2-seeded Soldotna went on the road to beat No. 3 Kodiak 61-49 and 48-46 in mid-February.
SoHi lost to Palmer this season even though the Moose are the No. 4 seed. SoHi coach Chris Hanson said being the No. 2 seed isn't so bad.
"I'm kind of happy we're not playing the host team on their home court the first night," Hanson said. "At this time of the year, though, you've got to beat a good team. It really doesn't matter in the end."
Hanson said it is always tough to beat a team for the third time. He said SoHi has used height and rebounding to win the first two contests. Soldotna's tough brand of man-to-man also is suited to postseason success.
"It seems like we hold a lot of team's scoring down," Hanson said. "I asked my assistant the other day, 'Do we play defense that well?' He said that he thinks we do defend pretty well. It's taken me all year to realize it.
"It's a testament to the work ethic of our kids."
Skyview boys vs. Wasilla
The No. 2 Warriors topped No. 3 Skyview 61-36 in late January. The game was close at halftime, but Skyview coach Red Goodwin said a lack of depth hurt his team in the second half. Wasilla has won two straight conference titles. Skyview will look to the inside presence of Rich Shirnberg to try and end that streak.
Kenai boys vs. Palmer
A boys team from the Southern Division has not won a tourney title since the conference went to the eight-team format in 1993. Why? Take this game.
The Kards are the No. 1 seed from the south, while Palmer is No. 4 from the north. Kenai edged Palmer late in the season in Kenai, but now Palmer gets to play at home.
"This game is a testament to how tough the other half is," Beeson said. "We win the No. 1 seed, and the prize is we play the host school in prime time."
Last weekend, Palmer's T.J. Fullmer kept the Moose in the game for a half against Colony.
"He is the guy to slow down if you're going to beat Palmer," Beeson said.
"As he goes, they're going to go."
Beeson said he will need contributions from all of his senior-laden team, but that Nate Byrd and Cory Toombs would be especially important. The two will take turns guarding Fullmer, and also will have to make Fullmer work on defense.
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