Trio keeps 93-game string going

Posted: Tuesday, March 16, 2004

As freshmen, many high schoolers make mistakes they hope to never again repeat before graduation.

For the three seniors on this year's Ninilchik girls basketball team, one of those mistakes was losing some basketball games. However, since losing their freshman year, the seniors have yet to make the same mistake.

Entering this week's District 3/2A tournament, Amanda Peterson, Amanda Matson and Katie Moerlein have won 93 straight games. That includes three straight Class 2A state championships.

The accomplishment of the seniors includes two footnotes. First, Moerlein was a manager on the team her freshman year before playing with the team her sophomore year.

Second, Ninilchik lost to Homer last season. It was an endowment game, though, and according to the Alaska School Activities Association, endowment games do not count on a team's overall record.

Those two footnotes don't diminish the accomplishment of the seniors in the eyes of Ninilchik coach Dan Leman even though Leman, as a six-time Class 1A/2A Coach of the Year, has gotten used to seeing plenty of winning.

"That impresses me, and I'm not easily impressed," Leman said.

Before this season, some skeptics might have added a third footnote to the seniors' accomplishments.

Since the seniors spent their first three years playing with Whitney Leman, a 2003 graduate and three-time Class 1A/2A Player of the Year, some might have said Leman was the one responsible for the streak.

However, the seniors have erased any doubts about their value to the team this year. All three have been starters on this year's 20-0 squad.

"They're proving it wasn't just Whitney last year," Dan Leman said. "There were other good players on that team."

It sounds counterintuitive, but Leman said what separates the seniors isn't what happens during the practices and games during the season.

"They realize that championships don't come from things you do in practice, they come from things you do in the offseason," Leman said.

Leman said some of the things the seniors have done is attend basketball camps, work on their shooting and play other sports to stay in shape for basketball.

"I go over to his house a lot in the summer, and he's always on me about practicing my shooting," Moerlein said of Leman. "When I see him, it's always, 'Have you shot yet? Have you shot yet?

"He expects us to be involved in basketball year-round."

The seniors have been regular attendees at a team basketball camp in Seward in the summer, and all of them are involved in other sports besides basketball.

Moerlein has done cross country and track and field at Ninilchik. Peterson participates in cross country, track and field and volleyball. Matson also participates in cross country, track and field and volleyball.

This year, Ninilchik won the first Class 1-2-3A-West Region 2 volleyball championship in school history. Matson was named the Most Valuable Player at the tournament, while Peterson made the all-tournament team.

The seniors also make sure to take care of their classwork so they are eligible for all their sports.

Moerlein carries a 4.0 grade-point average. Peterson has had her best academic performance ever this year, getting all A's and one B. Finally, Matson has a 3.58 grade-point average.

"Our coach always pressures us to keep our grades up," Peterson said. "Whenever we're on a long trip for a tournament, we have to spend at least one hour a day doing homework."

While Leman places a lot of importance on things that happen off the court and out of season, 93-game winning streaks don't come along without special attributes on the court.

One of those is working hard in practice. Class 2A schools generally have less than 100 students, so it's rare that teams will have enough bodies for a hard-fought scrimmage in practice.

That's not the case at Ninilchik.

"Our jv team really pushes us," Matson said.

Peterson, who like Moerlein did not start playing basketball until seventh grade, said Leman's practices have been a big reason why she has come so far in the sport.

"You have to come into practice ready to go, every day," Peterson said. "There's never any slacking, ever.

"Our coach pushes us to the limit."

And not only does the team practice hard, it practices often.

"When we drove to a tournament in Tok, we got to the school at 11 at night and went out and shot around," Moerlein said. "We practice every chance we get."

Hard and frequent practice has given the Wolverines the steely resolve needed to pull off such a long winning streak.

"The pressure is always on," Peterson said. "Everybody is out to get us. We're the team everybody wants to beat."

This year, with Leman gone, the pressure has rested squarely on the shoulders of the seniors. Moerlein said the key has been to keep the formula for success simple.

"This team is not all superstars," Moerlein said. "We've got a good coach and we play hard.

"That's why we succeed."

That philosophy has been continually tested this year. Perhaps the toughest test came on senior night in early March, when Ninilchik fell behind Nenana 24-11 at the half only to come back for a 40-32 victory.

"If something bad happens in a game, we don't panic," Matson said. "We have the confidence that we'll make a run and get back in the game."

The seniors will take that attitude into this week's district tournament in hopes of bringing the school a 12th straight district crown.

"I can remember growing up and watching the team and always wondering what it would be like to wear a Wolverine jersey," Matson said. "I never thought it would be quite like this."

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