While other students and their families from the Kenai Peninsula were booking exotic spring break trips to Hawaii and Mazatlan, the Nikiski High School girls basketball team had a closer -- but just as exciting -- destination in mind: four days and nights in Anchorage for the Alaska School Activities Association State Basketball Championships.
"This is our spring break," said Nikiski coach Ward Romans as the team finished up its final preparations before heading to the Sullivan Arena in Anchorage. "Coach K (assistant coach Vern Kornstad) said something yesterday -- there's only a few teams in the state still practicing. That's what's neat about this."
The Bulldogs enter the Class 3A tournament as the defending champions and this year's No. 1 seed, coming off a 22-2 regular season and the District 3/3A tournament title.
Nikiski will be making its 11th consecutive appearance at the state tournament, and the Bulldogs have won it all five times, including back-to-back titles in 1992-93 and 1996-97.
The Bulldogs play Eielson at 11:30 a.m. in Thursday's tournament opener. The Ravens will put a very athletic team on the floor, featuring a quick pressure defense. Eielson lost the District 1/3A title game to Valdez last weekend by a score of 25-23.
"Eielson is a top-ranked team," Joy Carr said. "I think it'll be a good game. It will get us ready for whoever we play in the championship -- if we make it there."
Nikiski is excited to be playing a team it did not see during the regular season.
"It gets us up," Sally Glaze said. "When we play Seward or Grace, we know what to expect. Against Eielson, we're going to have to prove how good we are because we'll have to go out there and execute all of our offenses. We'll have to go play by play."
Bethel matches up against Haines in the Bulldogs' half of the bracket while Mt. Edgecumbe plays Barrow and Valdez plays Seward in the other half of the bracket.
Romans has the Bulldogs focusing on their own game, though.
"We've got a scouting report, but our plan is to work on the things we need to do to be successful," Romans said.
Nikiski has found success this season spreading the ball around. Guard Sally Glaze and post players Laura Berdahl and Karen Rabung have done the bulk of the scoring, but the Bulldogs roster is stocked with competent shooters.
"We've just gotta play tough, work as a team and communicate," Berdahl said.
The Bulldogs are looking forward to playing in the Sullivan Arena again. Every player on the roster made the trip to the state's largest indoor venue last season, including Rabung, who made the trip with Chugiak last season.
"It's a little nerve-wracking," Glaze said. "College teams play there. It's an important place to be. It's a huge opportunity. It's a really nice floor, and there's lots of people watching."
Romans expects some butterflies as the tournament tips off today. His team is, after all, playing for the biggest prize Alaska high school athletics has to offer -- a state title.
"These kids are excited about accepting the challenge of what last year's team did," Romans said. "If you're not nervous and excited, then it doesn't mean much. You just shouldn't be afraid."
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