Ninilchik coach Dan Leman won’t come out and say it, but his girls are the overwhelming favorite to win the Peninsula Conference Tournament.
“Look at what Cook Inlet’s done. They’re playing some good basketball. Seldovia gave us a real good test a few weeks ago at their place. Throw in Nikolaevsk as somebody that can come on,” he said. “Bristol Bay is obviously down this year and looking to rebuild.
“Other than that, there isn’t an easy game out there. We’re going to take every game like you’ve got to win.”
While nearly every team has improved since the beginning of the season, the Wolverines should almost certainly secure one of the two state berths on the line when the tourney begins today in Homer.
“We’re playing pretty good basketball,” Leman said.
Good is putting it lightly.
The second-ranked Class 2A team in the state, Ninilchik (18-4) romped through the conference with an unblemished 10-0 record and hasn’t lost since the middle of January at the Nikiski Tip-Off Tournament.
A formidable early schedule against larger schools groomed the Wolverines for any challenges they may have encountered in the evenly matched Peninsula Conference, including Thursday’s contest against the winner of today’s 8:15 p.m. game between Lumen Christi and Nikolaevsk.
“We had a pretty tough schedule early with ACS and Nikiski tourneys back-to-back and I think that competition really helped us, playing out of our classification against 3A and 4A teams,” Leman explained. “Even though we dropped a couple of those games, I think it prepared us for rest of the season.”
Even more crucial to their quest of defending the 2A state title from last season is the ever-improving health of the entire team. Overcoming recent ankle and shoulder injuries and the occasional sickness is vital to the Wolverines’ tournament runs.
“It seems like the whole season we’ve been fighting injuries. Somebody would get healed up and somebody else would go down,” he said. “Hopefully with regions rolling around, everybody’s healthy. We’re almost there. There’s a couple of nagging injuries. When we start (Thursday), we should have everybody playing and that’s important, too.”
Also surviving injuries and illnesses throughout the season were the Cook Inlet Academy boys, who overcame adversity in earning the second seed in the tournament behind third-ranked Bristol Bay, the only conference foe to beat the Eagles this season.
“Everyone else is getting a lot better,” CIA coach Travis Knutson said. “I’m feeling pretty confident. We’re playing pretty well lately.”
If the Eagles (13-7, 8-2) plan on returning to the state tournament for the second straight year, seniors John Forsi and Spencer McCauliffe who’s been sidelined the last two months with a sprained ankle but should return this week will need to continue leading the rest of the team consisting entirely of freshmen and sophomores.
“They’re helping out. They kind of know what it’s been like going through regionals, so it’s nice to have them,” said Knutson, whose team will take the court on Thursday at 3 p.m. against the winner of today’s 3 p.m. matchup between Ninilchik and Nikolaevsk. “But we’re a very young team, so hopefully they won’t be nervous.”
The Ninilchik boys and CIA girls are also eyeing one of the two state slots up for grabs.
The Wolverines (13-9, 6-3) will need a big tournament from junior leader Austin Vanderford if they want any shot at advancing.
“We suffered some losses when he wasn’t with the team. He had some sickness,” Ninilchik coach Keith Presley said. “He really changes our whole thing.”
Already knocking off the Warriors twice this season gives Presley hope for a second-round game on the winner’s side of the bracket in the double-elimination tournament.
“We’re not as talented as we probably have been in the past but our kids have a lot of heart and they’re going to step up,” he said.
CIA (14-7, 7-3), tied for fifth in the Class 2A rankings, is also struggling with injuries and with an already undersized and undermanned squad, coach John Forsi said speed could be the difference.
“Seldovia is playing excellent basketball right now, and Lumen Christi. All these clubs have more girls and they have bigger girls than we do,” he explained. “I don’t have a real big team. It’s a challenge for us to compete.
“The thing we do have is speed. We can run the floor so that’s our big advantage,” Forsi added. “We’ve got four girls off the track team and they can all run and they can all handle the ball. We should be fine.”
The Seldovia girls and boys are also coming off recent success at the Lumen Christi Invitational, where the girls won the title and the boys finished second.
“The Seldovia girls are getting better and are going to be difficult,” Forsi said.
Matthew Carroll can be reached at matthew.carroll @peninsulaclarion.com.
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