Ninilchik's Heidi Skjold looks to pass the ball over Cook Inlet's Amie Smithwick during the Peninsula Conference championship earlier this month.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Don't ever count coach Dan Leman and his Ninilchik Wolverines out.
There are many lessons Leman and his juggernaut program have taught Class 2A basketball in winning eight state titles since 1996. One of those lessons is the Wolverines are seemingly never out of the state title hunt.
The lesson should have been clear after the 2004 and 2006 seasons, when Ninilchik finished second in the Peninsula Conference tournament only to turn around and win state titles.
The Wolverines then provided a refresher course this season. When contacted before the season, Leman was unsure how many players he would have on this year's team. He said it could be as few as six. The team had lost four starters from the year before.
"I'm crossing my fingers and holding my breath," he said. "We're pretty thin on numbers. We're also pretty young, for the most part."
Ninilchik then started the season by losing three of its first four games, including a 70-25 loss to defending 2A state champ Yakutat and a loss to Peninsula Conference rival Cook Inlet Academy.
With numbers on the team running between six and nine during the season, Ninilchik managed to come back and beat CIA during the regular season. The Wolverines downed the Eagles again at the Peninsula Conference tournament to defend their conference crown, clinch a state berth and improve their record to 16-7.
So even though three losses have come against teams at the state tournament, Leman said his team believes a ninth state title is within reach when the Wolverines take the floor in the first round against Northway on Tuesday at 1 p.m. at Anchorage's Sullivan Arena.
"Their confidence is sky-high right now," Leman said of his team. "They're looking at going up there and doing the best they can."
Leman said he would not compare the improvement this year's team has made with the improvement teams of his past have made. He did say what made this year unique was that his squad's strengths and weaknesses were clear early in the season.
He said hardly any practice time was spent on the strengths, while the weaknesses were hammered at day after day in practice.
"I think it's amazing what they've done," Leman said. "We did have just six players at one point, so we'd go to practice and there would not even be enough to scrimmage.
"I give a lot of credit to the girls. They hung in there in tough and uncertain circumstances."
Leman said the areas that needed work were focus, minimizing turnovers and rebounding. He said the team has always had an offense that is balanced so it is tough to stop.
Senior Heidi Skjold, the team's lone returning starter, has been an offensive threat all year and earned the conference's most valuable player award.
Others on the all-conference team were junior Grace Ehlers and senior Lindsey Rohr. Leman said Ehlers has improved as an outside threat as the season went on, while Rohr's defense has resulted in a lot of fast-break points.
Senior Ashley Bartolowits has been valuable for her rebounding and putbacks, while sophomore Lindsay Schnabl gives the Wolverines another outside threat. Leman also said senior Tera Schnabl has returned from injury and given the team more depth.
Leman said the turning point for the team came in early February at the Barrow Tournament. The Wolverines lost to Class 2A state qualifier Point Hope 52-48 in overtime. It was a crazy game where the Wolverines had three players foul out and ended up with just four on the floor.
"I told the girls today that was a turning point," Leman said. "After that loss we came together as a team and hashed things out. One of the big areas was being a team out on the floor through good and bad, thick and thin.
"Even though it was a loss, it was a good loss for us. In a sense, it made us a better team."
After a loss to Nikiski in early February, Leman said after the game he was looking forward to playing Cook Inlet Academy later in the season and trying to avenge the defeat. He took the same attitude when asked about potential matchups at state against Point Hope and Yakutat. Yakutat defeated Ninilchik in the semifinals at state last season.
For now, the focus in on Northway, the runner-up from the Central Interior Conference. Northway lost to Galena, which Ninilchik beat this season, 49-39 in the conference title game. Northway then came back to beat Tok in the second-place game to earn a berth to state. Katherine Albert had 13 points in the loss to Galena and 17 points, including five 3-pointers, in the victory over Tok. Kayli Hildebrand had 15 points in both games.
Leman said he knows very little about Northway a common occurrence at the state tournament that has teams coming from all corners of the state.
"Nothing changes," Leman said. "From year to year, the teams that get there probably deserve it, so that probably means they're a pretty good team."
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