Ward Romans knows precisely what it takes to qualify for the state tournament. He just won't come out and say it.
In his 19th year at the helm of the Nikiski girls basketball program, Romans is seeking his mind-boggling 18th consecutive trip to the Class 3A state tourney.
Until the Southcentral Conference tournament at Anchorage Christian Schools concludes on Saturday, however, the word state doesn't exist in his vocabulary. That is unless he's talking about the Bulldogs' schedule, one of the most grueling in recent memory.
"At every corner there was another quality team we had to play," Romans said. "Ninilchik and Cook Inlet, two of the best 2A teams in the state. We played SoHi twice, East and Ketchikan ... Homer, Kenai and Skyview. There hasn't been a game off this season."
Boasting a 12-10 overall mark, seven of those setbacks at the hands of 4A squads, and a 4-3 record in conference play, Nikiski is more battle-tested than ever before.
"These kids have never hung their heads," he said. "We've seen some of the best players in the state. ... These kids have played against the best. That's exiting. They'll never have to wonder how good they were."
The second-seeded Bulldogs will soon discover how prepared they are when they take on third-seeded Grace Christian at 4:30 p.m. on Friday.
Both teams won on each other's home turf this season, Nikiski escaping an overtime thriller with a one-point win up north, while the Grizzlies departed Nikiski with a five-point victory.
"I think our girls will play the best game of the year," Romans said. "These guys have been through a season of experience. They've kept faith the whole time. I think we're going to play a great game. I really do."
If that's true, a likely matchup with top-seeded ACS (21-1) who handled the Bulldogs by 18 and 27 points in their two meetings this season looms on Saturday if the Lions defeat the winner of today's 4:30 p.m. matchup between fourth-seeded Seward and fifth-seeded Su Valley.
Romans, of course, wouldn't discuss that possibility, either.
"We haven't talked about it," he said of playing ACS. "They're a great team. They've earned their record and their well-coached and they're a load. There's no way around it.
"I'd have to say they're the team to beat in the state right now."
That coveted matchup would only have a bearing on state seedings, though.
With just five teams participating in the conference tournament, the Bulldogs will already be state-bound with a win over Grace and will then be looking to improve on last season's fourth-place finish at the big dance.
That, too, is a tall task, having lost four starters, including two all-state players, from last year's team that finished the regular season 19-3.
But the returners, including starters Tasha Thompson, Rachel Romans, Eliza Chadwick and Shalene Peek, know first-hand, as does their coach, what's required to make it back.
"I love this group," Romans said. "I like we're where at."
On the boys side, fourth-seeded Seward and fifth-seeded Nikiski square off at 3 p.m. today for the right to play No. 1 Heritage Christian at 3 p.m. on Friday.
"We've been looking at a lot of film and we're ready for them," Bulldogs coach Reid Kornstad said of the Seahawks, adding he's pleased with the layout of the bracket. "We actually match up better with Heritage than we do with Grace because of Grace's size.
"I'd rather we match up with them in the second round if we can pick off Seward," he added. "That's assuming that all goes to plan."
With an early tip-off, Kornstad said he likes being the first game on the floor.
"You really get a good warm-up and a good walkthrough. You don't have to go outside the gym in the hallway and stretch," said Kornstad, who's team finished conference play at 1-8. "You can get out on the floor and get some extra shooting and some extra time."
Matthew Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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