Colony, Wasilla and Palmer the three schools from the Matanuska-Susitna valleys have traditionally had the upper hand in claiming the three berths both boys and girls teams can earn to the state tournament at the Region III/4A tournament.
This year, as the tournament prepares to tip off at Wasilla High School Thursday, Colony, Palmer and Wasilla once again have the edge based on regular season results.
On the boys side, peninsula schools Homer, Skyview, Soldotna and Kenai are a combined 1-11 against Palmer, Colony and Wasilla this season.
On the girls side, the valley schools scored a clean sweep against peninsula schools this season.
As usual, this regular season advantage the valley schools have rolled up has left peninsula coaches conceding nothing in the tournament.
Peninsula schools have traditionally been able to notch some huge victories and earn a few state berths.
Last year, the Soldotna girls finished second at the region tournament en route to finishing third in the state. In 2002, both the Kenai boys and girls teams earned state berths. In 2001, both the Kenai girls and Soldotna boys were able to find their way to Anchorage.
"It's definitely always a challenge for peninsula teams to get through and get to the big tournament," Kenai boys coach Rich Bartolowits said. "This year, there's a good possibility one of us will make it. Hopefully, it's us.
"It's one of those things. That's why you have a tournament. To see who is the best on a given night."
The following is a closer look at Thursday's first-round games:
Soldotna girls vs. Wasilla, 7:30 p.m.
Soldotna coach Mark Tuter said there is a "little different anticipation" about this year's matchup than last year's tournament matchup, when the two teams met in the region championship and the Warriors took home the title.
While the Stars lost all five starters off that team and have been in a rebuilding mode this season, resulting in an 0-10 record in the region, the Warriors have been undefeated in the region this season. Chandice Cronk, who Tuter calls the best girls player in the state, has continued to fuel Wasilla's attack.
Tuter starts three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior, so he knows it would take "probably the biggest upset in the state" for his team to top the Warriors.
However, the coach has not ruled out a state tournament berth. His team has improved rapidly all year. He said on any given night, the Stars could top Homer or Palmer. He also said his team is now in the same class as Skyview and Kenai.
"We've been improving all year," Tuter said. "Hopefully, the wins will start to take care of themselves."
Kenai girls vs. Palmer, 4 p.m.
The Kardinals are the No. 2 seed out of the Southern Division, while the Moose are the No. 3 seed from the Northern Division.
In late February, Palmer topped Kenai 43-29. The game was full of massive momentum changes, with Palmer jumping to a 10-0 lead, Kenai coming back to grab a 26-21 advantage, and Palmer closing the game on a 22-3 run. Emily Bolling gave the Kardinals fits during that run, scoring 11 of her 17 points in the second half.
"We just go through spells where we don't score any points," Kenai coach Jim Beeson said. "It's been killing us all year long."
Beeson said one advantage his team will have this time around is preparation. Last time, Kenai did not prepare for Palmer because the Kardinals played Homer the night before.
"Last game, they scored eight points on out-of-bounds plays because we didn't know what they were going to do," Beeson said. "This time, we've had the time to prepare."
Beeson said the play of seniors Breezy Saltzgiver and Laura Moore will be crucial. Their leadership will be counted on to make sure Kenai does not go through long dry spells on offense.
"Our goal all year has been to win a game we're not supposed to win," Beeson said. "Hopefully, it'll happen this weekend."
Homer girls vs. Kodiak, 12:30 p.m.
This is the one first-round game in the tournament where the Southern Division team is the overwhelming favorite to defeat the Northern Division team.
Last weekend, the Mariners notched 41-29 and 52-32 victories over the Bears.
Homer coach Mark Mahan, whose team finished 7-3 in the region to earn the Southern Division's No. 1 seed, said his team has designs on not just a state berth, but a region title.
The Mariners took Wasilla to overtime in the regular season before losing. Homer also lost to Palmer 50-41 and to Colony 44-28, but Mahan's team was hobbled on that swing through the valley.
Starter Kayla Creamer didn't play, and starters Channing Setterquist and Kaylee Pollack had their playing time severely limited by injuries. All are healthy now.
Mahan is eyeing a potential semifinal matchup with Colony as a great chance to get to state.
"I think it's a winnable game," Mahan said. "We're going there with the idea that we can win regions."
Skyview girls vs. Colony, 9 a.m.
The Knights, the No. 2 seed in the Northern Division, topped the Panthers, the No. 3 seed from the Southern Division, by a score of 59-24 in late January.
The inside-out combination of Siena Locke and Kristina Klapperich gave the Panthers fits in that contest. Locke had 13 points and Klapperich added 12. The game was not close, with the Knights holding a 15-4 lead after the first quarter and a 36-5 lead at the half.
However, the Panthers did not have senior Lindsay Gephardt for that game. Gephardt missed most of the first half of the season with the injury. However, since the steadying influence of the senior has been back on the floor, the Panthers have been playing much better.
Homer boys vs. Palmer, 5:45 p.m.
The Moose, the top seed from the Northern Division with a 10-0 record, notched a 83-38 victory over the Mariners earlier in the season. The Mariners are the No. 4 seed from the Southern Division and had a 1-9 region record.
Palmer's height has been tough for Region III teams to match up against all year. The Moose start Jesse Prins at 6-foot-7, Stanley Ratcliff at 6-3 and Kurtis Devon at 6-6. In the last game against the Mariners, Devon had 19 points and Ratcliff added 17 points. Senior Brandon Gaines also had 22 points in the contest for the Moose.
The Moose also have been extremely tough on defense this season. Last time the two teams hooked up, only Homer's Luke Gilbert made his way into double figures with 18 points. Gilbert will need more support this time around.
Soldotna boys vs. Wasilla, 9:15 p.m.
The Warriors, the No. 3 seed in the Northern Division, begin defense of their Region III crown against the Stars, the No. 2 seed from the Southern Division.
Last season, Wasilla went 25-3 and lost to Bartlett in the state championship game. However, the Warriors lost four starters off that team. This year, they are 5-5 in the region and 9-14 overall. They enter the tournament on a three-game losing streak.
In early February, Wasilla notched a 75-40 victory over Soldotna. Soldotna coach Bill Withrow said his team fell victim to too many turnovers and poor shooting in that contest. The coach also said the Stars had trouble adjusting to Wasilla's size.
Withrow is hoping his team has come of age since the loss. The Stars have just one senior, and are taking five freshmen to the region tournament.
"We're really young," Withrow said. "This will be a chance to teach the younger ones what the region tournament is all about."
Skyview boys vs. Kodiak, 2:15 p.m.
The Panthers earned the No. 1 seed in the Southern Division by finishing with a 6-4 record in the region, while Kodiak is the No. 4 seed from the Southern Division.
The Bears swept the regular season series from the Panthers, picking up a pair of wins on Skyview's home court.
Skyview coach Dave Blossom said those two losses came in the midst of a tough stretch for his team. The coach said his squad was 29 and 31 percent from the floor in the losses. He also said a lot of his players were sick during that time, so Skyview did not have much energy to play defense.
The Panthers have a senior-laden squad that has had the goal of making Skyview's first appearance at a state tournament all year long. Skyview also has the peninsula's lone win over a valley school this year. The victory came over Wasilla.
"When you have seniors like we do, it helps keep everyone focused," Blossom said.
Kenai boys vs. Colony, 10:45 a.m.
The Kardinals had a chance to nab the No. 2 seed from the Southern Division, but lost to Soldotna Friday and ended up with the No. 3 seed.
Bartolowits said the loss actually puts his team in a better position. If Kenai had the No. 2 seed, it would have to open with Wasilla and then possibly face Palmer to get to state. The Kardinals have not beaten Palmer or Wasilla this year.
Now, Kenai opens with Colony, a team that thumped the Kardinals 64-49 in late February. If the Kardinals can upset the Knights, though, they play Skyview or Kodiak, two teams Kenai has beaten this year.
Bartolowits is happy that senior Nick Barnes has recovered from a sickness that kept him out of the Soldotna game. Barnes is one of a number of players that will have to come through if the Kardinals are to best the Knights.
"We just didn't play our best game against them last time," Bartolowits said. "We didn't play a horrible game, but we didn't block out well, we didn't play great defense and we weren't patient on offense.
"We'll have to play a lot better to beat them."
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