When the state Class 3A-4A basketball championships tip off today at the Sullivan Arena in Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula will be represented by a trio of teams: the Homer High School girls will compete in the 4A tournament while the Nikiski and Seward girls will battle in the 3A bracket.
"It's a good lineup this year. There's a lot of quality teams," said Seward girls coach Roger Steinbrecher of the 3A girls bracket. "I think it's a quality tournament. There's a lot of teams with possibilities there."
For the Homer girls, the 4A bracket is just as daunting. The Mariners open the tournament against Lathrop, a team coach Mark Mahan had penciled in for the state title at the start of the season.
Still, Mahan doesn't want his squad to be content simply to have made it to the tournament.
"They're here to play and win," Mahan said. "I don't want the kids to come here and just be satisfied with being here. I'd like to see them prove they deserve to be here. It would be real easy to get here and go through the motions, but I'd rather see them get something out of it."
The Mariners enter the tournament after placing third in the Region III/4A tournament, meaning they bounced back from a loss and came back through the losers bracket, winning two games on Saturday, to make it to the big show.
The 4A tournament is seeded based on a team's winning percentage index, and Region III/4A champion Wasilla took the top spot. Homer was ranked No. 7 while Lathrop was No. 2.
Mahan said his squad really jelled during the course of the region tournament.
"We played four games last weekend and ended up with four different leading scorers," Mahan said. "It wasn't any one person that stepped it up and defensively, we were probably the toughest team in the tournament."
Senior Channing Setterquist and sophomore Kayla Creamer led the Mariners in scoring in the tournament opener, Setterquist paced the team in game 2, junior Bailey Lowney was the team's top scorer in the first game Saturday and Creamer led the Mariners in the third-place game that clinched the trip to state. Homer also had big contributions from senior Chantrelle Cousins.
Of course, getting contributions from everyone on the floor is what it takes to get to the state tournament, and both the Bulldogs and the Seahawks have been able to spread the ball around.
"Everyone contributes," said Nikiski's Sarah Herrin.
The Bulldogs finished second at the District 3/3A tournament, losing to Seward in the final, to earn their 14th straight trip to the state tournament. The 3A tournament doesn't utilize the WPI, and Nikiski will open against Monroe Catholic, a team the Bulldogs faced in the state tournament two years ago.
Nikiski coach Ward Romans said it was an exciting matchup and added that a few players from the last time the two teams met were still with each team, making it all the more interesting.
Romans said his players' belief in themselves and each other has made this season special.
"They have great faith in each other and their coaches," Romans said. "We played the most challenging schedule we've played. A lot of people look and say we're fortunate to get to state, but these girls have earned it."
Romans said his seniors, Lynzie Ellis and Anjani Salonen, have done a fantastic job this season. Romans also said assistant coaches Vern Kornstad and Sharon Thompson were a big reason for the team's success this season.
Romans said the team has improved over the course of the season and, in fact, is still improving.
"We still have our best game in us. I know we haven't played it yet," Romans said.
Romans said that going to the state tournament never gets old.
"The tradition here is special, and it's all because of these girls," Romans said. "They work hard and have faith. They take their lumps, but they learn from it."
Steinbrecher said the district tournament is the time for butterflies, and his squad is ready to jump into the state competition.
"Nervous is going into regions and having to win the first game," Steinbrecher said. "Once you get to state, you go for broke and see what happens. If you have a couple of good games, you're in the finals."
The Seahawks open the tournament against Valdez. Steinbrecher said his squad defeated Valdez during a tournament earlier this season, but it was a one-point game at the half.
Like Nikiski and Homer, the key to Seward's success is getting contributions from all over the floor.
"We expected good games from (seniors) Breanna Bardarson and Emma Seigel, and the players who stepped it up are (Krista) Boulden, (Lisa) Steinbrecher and (Jenni) Regis," Steinbrecher said. "From last year to this year, they've made big improvements and that's helped to get us where we're at.
"In the junior category we've got Lara Loomis, and Teal Hetrick has stepped in too. We've got pretty good depth -- five seniors are starters, and a sixth senior comes in too, Elsa Gaule, which helps out. We've got a pretty big rotation going."
Steinbrecher said the Seahawks plateaued about three or four weeks ago as they finished their district schedule, but a strong district tournament has him thinking his team is picking it up another level.
"Now I think we've started an upward trend again," Steinbrecher said. "We're on the upswing right now. Hopefully, the timing is about right for us."
Notes: The Bulldogs have seven state titles, including three in the last four seasons. Nikiski is the tournament's two-time defending champion ... Seward's only state title came in 1998, when the Seahawks defeated Valdez in the title game ... Homer won three straight state titles from 1989-1991 when the Mariners competed in Class 3A.
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