Cook Inlet Academy's Nathan Byrd moves the ball past Ninilchik's Austin Vanderford during the championship game of the Peninsula Conference Tournament last weekend. CIA is the No. 1-ranked team in the Class 2A championships this weekend.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
The Kenai Peninsula's two powers of Class 2A basketball the Ninilchik girls and Cook Inlet Academy boys will once again be in the hunt for state titles this weekend at the Class 2A state basketball tournament at Service High School.
The Ninilchik girls are making their 13th straight trip to state under coach Dan Leman. The Wolverines have cashed in on seven state crowns, including the last five.
The CIA boys are making their eighth trip to state in the last 10 years. The Eagles have won two state titles in that time.
While the Wolverines have had more success winning state than CIA, Ninilchik has a very stiff task ahead of it this year.
The Wolverines (19-4 overall) open tournament play against Skagway (21-1) today at 5:10 p.m. The Panthers defeated the Wolverines 51-36 in late February at the Tok Tournament.
"I think we're a little bigger than they are," Leman said. "I expect us to do a little better job defensively than we did at Tok."
Leman said the game was even most of the way. He also said he's hoping the 24-2 advantage the Panthers had in free-throw attempts will not be repeated this time.
The coach said the key to the game will be shutting down Skagway guard Savannah Ames, who Leman calls "the heart and soul of the team, without a doubt."
If the Wolverines are able to get past the Panthers, they still do not have a cakewalk to the championship. Bristol Bay, a potential championship match-up for Ninilchik, has beaten the Wolverines twice this season.
Last season, Ninilchik lost the Peninsula Conference final to the Angels only to come back and defeat Bristol Bay in the state championship game.
"I'm happy with our game against Bristol Bay," Leman said. "It came down to a couple of breaks, and it could have went either way.
"I'm really excited about our chances up there. Obviously we're talking about eight of the best teams in the state, so we're going to have to play well."
While the Ninilchik girls have left their dominance in doubt with a few losses, the CIA boys have a 24-0 record thus far this year.
First-year CIA coach Bruce Gabriel has yet to lose a game, but that has made him anything but cocky in his coaching ability as the Eagles head into their first-round game at 1 p.m. today against Tok.
Gabriel said he has been leaning heavily on former CIA coach Tim Keener this week. Keener finished his nine years as head coach of the Eagles in 2002 with his second state title, achieved in a memorable double-overtime victory over Ninilchik.
Keener came to practice Monday and helped the team work on some defenses it might see at state.
"I'm a sponge when he's out there on the floor," Gabriel said. "I pick what he says up and take it in. I'm a quick study, so that helps."
Keener also brought a Nerf ball and bat to practice. Back in 2002, when current seniors Brian Beeson, Blake Gabriel and Andy Hall all won state titles, the team used a friendly game of baseball to have fun and put things in perspective. The team again played baseball Tuesday after practice.
As if the state experience of all of coach Gabriel's players is not enough, the coach also has somebody else to lean on when things get interesting at Service 2002 Class 2A player of the year and current assistant coach Justin Franchino.
"You're playing in front of a packed house, and to some of the teams that haven't been there before, that might be a bit much," Gabriel said. "We're used to it."
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