The Ninilchik girls basketball program has a very successful past, but the future is looking pretty good as well.
Ninilchik recently qualified for the Class 2A state tournament after notching a second-place finish during the Peninsula Conference Tournament in Bristol Bay last week.
It is the 15th consecutive time Ninilchik has qualified for state. The Wolverines’ lowest finish was fifth place, which was at the beginning of the streak in 1992. In that time period, they have seven Class 2A state championships under their belt as well.
The Bristol Bay Angels have met Ninilchik in the championship game of both the Peninsula Conference and state tournament the past two years, though, marking their own tradition.
Ninilchik won state in 2004 against the Angles, but Bristol Bay has seized the last three conference titles, including this years 46-43 conference championship win against Ninilchik. The Angels also are the defending state champs after beating Ninilchik in the state championship game last year.
Ninilchik has lost to Bristol Bay all three times the two teams have matched up this year.
“I’m disappointed we weren’t able to finish two of those games (against Bristol Bay),” Ninilchik coach Dan Leman said. “Every one of (the games) was close, but we couldn’t quite get over the hump. I wasn’t disappointed in the team, just disappointed for them because they played so hard.”
Ninilchik senior Lauren Wolford thinks Ninilchik can beat Bristol Bay if the two teams play each other in the Class 2A championship game as they have done the past two years.
“We have been to state many times and know what it takes,” Wolford said. “I believe that we are the better team and want to prove it to (Bristol Bay).”
Wolford is joined by Kendra Moerlein and Jennifer Bartolowits as Ninilchik’s team leaders and only seniors.
“I have been to state all four years of high school and our team has what it takes to win,” Wolford added.
The Wolverines took an early blow this season after post player Jennifer Erickson had to leave the team during the first half of the season with a shoulder injury. Ninilchik was left with a hole in the middle.
The loss of Erickson changed the Wolverines into more of a guard-orientated team, though, and Leman’s daughter, Krista, has stepped up and played well for the Wolverines.
Leman handles the ball and plays a key role in Ninilchik’s offense. She feels Ninilchik is a different team from the past, but still has what it takes to play at state.
“I think defensively we are a good team,” Leman said. “We may not be as fast as we were compared to last year, but we are more dedicated and play with more heart. Even if we are behind by 10 points or more, we don’t give up.”
Coach Leman said his team needs to key in on taking care of the ball and cutting down on unforced errors to make another quality showing at state.
“Definitely going to need everyone to contribute and we’re looking for big things for kids coming off the bench for balance,” Leman said. “The biggest thing for us is to take care of the ball and cut down on mistakes. It seems like when we get into trouble, we just make some unforced errors and some mental mistakes.”
Ninilchik opens play Tuesday at Service High School in Anchorage. The semifinals and championship game will be played at the Sullivan Arena.
Ninilchik may have an advantage as they have played two of the three teams on their side of the bracket. They open with Galena, while Yakutat and Point Hope are the two other teams on their side.
“I’m comfortable with our side (of the bracket),” Leman said. “We played Galena and beat them and played Yakutat and beat them as well this season. Two good wins against two tough teams.”
Whether or not Ninilchik gets another chance at Bristol Bay, Leman is pleased with his team.
“I’m really proud of this group of kids. They’re fun to coach, work hard and do everything I’ve asked for and more. We have had four or five days of practice and I think we’re just ready to get up there and play some games,” Leman said.
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