Soldotna's Mikala Smith dribbles the ball during a gmae earlier this month.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Soldotna coach Mark Tuter has been looking forward to Thursday for four years.
On Thursday, Tuter’s Stars will take the floor in the Class 4A state basketball tournament at Service High School in Anchorage against Chugiak at 3:30 p.m. Tuter’s Stars, with a 21-5 overall record, are seeded fifth in the tournament. The Mustangs (18-7) drew the No. 4 seed.
The last time Tuter guided a team to state was in 2003, when the Stars finished off Lathrop for a third-place finish. Then the long rebuilding process began. In the 2003-04 season, the Stars had just one player with previous varsity experience and went two and out at the Northern Lights Conference tournament. At the 2005 conference tournament, the Stars again went two and out, then in 2006 Soldotna lost to Colony in the third-place game 49-23.
Soldotna's Jenni Stenga looks to pass the ball during a game in January.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
This year, the Stars placed second in the NLC to earn their way back to Anchorage.
Tuter said the state trip is the result of a long building process that started with getting seniors Mikala Smith, Jenni Stenga and Christa Kennedy playing time as freshmen.
“We took our licks, but we’ve been pointing to this year, and next year, for a long time,” Tuter said. “We’ve been building for this point for the last four years, so we’ll see what happens.”
The last time the Stars took the floor, they absorbed a 61-41 loss at the hands of Wasilla in the NLC championship game. For the Warriors, who will be the No. 1 seed at state, it was the seventh straight NLC crown and the 88th consecutive NLC victory.
“We could have done better in that game,” said Soldotna junior Paige Blackburn. “The last few weeks, we hadn’t played any teams that were superchallenging. They really showed us the effort we need to stay with them. It was a wake-up call.”
Tuter said another nice thing about the game was it gave his team a look at what the state tournament atmosphere will look like. Although the NLC tournament was played in Kenai, a much smaller gym than Service or Anchorage’s Sullivan Arena, many an NLC coach has said the frenzied NLC crowds match, or even exceed, the state tournament atmosphere.
“We should be fine with the crowds,” Tuter said. “We’ve got an easy-going, happy-go-lucky group of girls.”
Over Christmas break, the Stars traveled to San Diego for a tournament and finished with a 3-1 record. Although that tournament didn’t feature huge crowds, it gave the team experience in going against big, tough teams day after day.
“In San Diego, we played against big, aggressive schools,” Blackburn said. “We got used to what it is all about.”
The Mustangs fall under the category of aggressive, but they don’t fall under the category of big. The team has nine players. Eight of them are between 5-foot-6 and 5-9.
“We’re a bunch of clones,” Chugiak head coach Tracy Adams recently told the Alaska Star.
The Mustangs rely on a quick tempo and outside shooting for success. The team won the Cook Inlet Conference regular season title with a 13-1 record, but lost in the finals of the CIC tournament to East 55-36 last week.
Tuter said the Mustangs are dangerous because they are so explosive. Tuter has spent 17 seasons with the SoHi program. Earlier this year, he said Chugiak had the most impressive high school comeback he has seen to defeat Juneau, the second-seeded team at state.
In February, the Stars notched a 48-30 victory over the Mustangs at Soldotna. Blackburn’s height gave Chugiak problems. She led all scorers with 17 points. The Mustangs also failed to connect on any 3-pointers.
“We definitely can’t relax because we beat them by 18,” Smith said. “They weren’t hitting their shots. We can’t take the chance that their shots will be off again.
“We’re going to have to get everyone to play even harder. Their shots were off, but we also played really well on defense against them.”
Tuter said the game will be a toss-up. He said he hopes Soldotna’s defense, which gives up less than 40 points a game, and the inside play of Blackburn, Kennedy and Karen Duffy will be enough to tip the scales in Soldotna’s favor.
Blackburn said she is healthy after an illness limited her effectiveness in the conference tournament. The big concern for Soldotna is Duffy, who injured a shoulder during the conference tournament and also has been sick.
Smith said the team, especially fellow seniors Kennedy, Stenga and Dani Donaldson, is glad to be at state, but does not plan to play like they are just glad to be there.
“We have four seniors that want to go out with a bang,” Smith said.
Class 4A girls state basketball tournament
Thursday’s games at Service High School
Game 1 -- Juneau (2) vs. West Valley (7), 8 a.m.
Game 2 -- East (3) vs. Palmer (6), 9:40 a.m.
Game 3 -- Chugiak (4) vs. Soldotna (5), 3:30 p.m.
Game 4 -- Wasilla (1) vs. South (8), 5:10 p.m.
Friday’s games at Sullivan Arena
Game 5 -- Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 3:30 p.m.
Game 6 -- Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 5:10 p.m.
Game 7 -- Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 8 a.m.
Game 8 -- Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 9:40 a.m.
Fourth place -- Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 12:20 p.m. at UAA
Third place -- Game 5 loser vs. Game 6 loser, 9 a.m. at Sullivan Arena
Championship -- Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 6 p.m. at Sullivan Arena
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