You've been running hard for what feels like hours. Your legs are starting to go to jelly, you're gasping for every breath, and you're wondering if the last thing you ate is going to stay where it's supposed to. But your team is counting on you, and you have to block everything else out, focus on the rim and step up to the line for a crucial foul shot ... and that's just in practice.
After slugging it out Saturday in the District 3/3A tournament championship game, the Nikiski and Seward girls high school basketball teams will crank the intensity up yet another notch for the state 3A championships this week at the Sullivan Arena in Anchorage.
The Bulldogs, winners of the district title bout by one point, open up the state tournament today against Kotzebue while the Seahawks face off with Barrow.
Seward coach Roger Steinbrecher said the Seahawks matchup with the Whalers would pit teams with opposite styles against each other.
"They do quite a bit of different things on defense, they're not real big, but they're fast and quick," Steinbrecher said of Barrow. "They have a point guard that's been around for four years. They like to shoot the ball -- it doesn't take long for the ball to be in the air."
The Seahawks like to use their size inside, and Steinbrecher said his squad needs to grab most of the rebounds to limit Barrow's fast-break opportunities.
"We try to run, too, but but we like to play a certain style and tempo. We'll try to control that," Steinbrecher said. "If we can control the boards, and get some good blocking out with our height, we'll get a good advantage there."
Steinbrecher said he expected all eight teams in the bracket to be as good as advertised, making for a great tournament, at least for the fans -- coaches might finish the weekend with a few more gray hairs.
"There doesn't seem to be a weak link in there anywhere," Steinbrecher said. "(It's great) if you're a spectator."
Nikiski coach Ward Romans agreed with Steinbrecher's assessment of the brackets, but added that, with not much of a scouting report on Kotzebue, the Bulldogs would focus on playing their best game and be ready for whatever the Huskies will throw their way.
"These are the best teams from all around the state," said Nikiski senior Katie Floyd. "It should be a hard tournament. That's all you can expect.
"We're not really worrying about who we're playing, we're just focusing on how we play together."
The Bulldogs are making their 13th straight appearance at the state tournament -- they've won six championships along the way, including last year -- but this year's team, according to Floyd, has a different character to it.
Floyd said that in past seasons, Nikiski had great individual players around which to rally, and everybody knew where the Bulldogs were headed from Day 1.
"This year, everybody said we're not going to get to state. Now that we're going, it's the best feeling in the world," Floyd said. "At the beginning of the season, we weren't all friends, but we came together with a common goal, and we accomplished it."
Indeed, the Bulldogs have an interesting mix heading into the tournament: one starter from last year's squad in senior Karen Rabung, a host of players that have stepped into bigger roles with this year's team, a Japanese foreign exchange student at point guard in Hisa Miyara, and a group of freshmen already making contributions.
"It's really exciting," Rabung said. "We have a great team going into the tournament -- I just can't wait until we start playing our games."
Miyara said she knew there were high expectations for playing with the defending state champion, but as far as the competition, she wasn't sure just what to expect.
"I've never played teams from other parts of Alaska. I think there are a lot of good teams," Miyara said.
Though she's a freshman, Sarah Herrin also said she was well-versed in Nikiski's tradition of excellence.
"I've been watching Nikiski basketball games since I was in elementary school," Herrin said. "There's high expectations, but you've got to carry on. I've watched all those players (come through the program), and you've got to hang with them."
While many at the beginning of the season were curious just how far this year's edition of the Bulldogs would get, Nikiski coach Ward Romans said he had a pretty good idea all along.
"We come into every year optimistic," said Romans of his coaching staff of Vern Kornstad, Richie Patterson and Micki Patterson. "We could see where this team could end up. We found some obstacles, mainly playing time -- there's no magic drill you can run, it's just a maturation process.
"... We're playing our best basketball right now, and that's every coach's goal. (After our tough regular-season schedule), we feel prepared for anything that can happen at state. We still have to preform, but we feel prepared."
Bring on those foul shots.
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