What could be better than March Madness? The Oscars?
In my eyes, neither could hold a candle to this past weekend's Alaska School Activities Association State 3A/4A basketball tournament.
Imagine it, back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back displays of the best hoops in the state, played on two adjacent courts, all day long, for three days. Winners and losers.
Kenai Peninsula schools were very much in the mix of this year's tournament, performing tremendously against basketball programs with greater resources and access to more talent. And for that, and in the spirit of the Academy Awards which aired Sunday, I felt it was appropriate to give acknowledgement, praise and recognition in a way that all our readers can respect.
There will be no boisterous Sports-Centeresque shouts of "Boo-yah!" No ranting about Dick Vitale's PTP'ers (Prime Time Players)" followed by obnoxious diatribes that end with the word, "baby." I'll keep it simple and give you "the pound."
Derived from the concept of pounding one's fist upon a hard surface to make a loud thump and draw attention, this light tapping of fists between two people is a way to express heavy respect, serious admiration, and enormous gratitude.
It's the highest form of praise I'll give out (greater even than the high-fives I occasionally extend to our sports editor for successful attempts at humor), but it is the most a humble reporter can give.
So here goes.
The first pound -- the "Against the Odds" pound -- goes to Ward Romans and his Nikiski Bulldogs coaching staff for guiding a good team with huge shoes to fill back to the top of the girls' 3A mountain. Time and again, among the attending members of the sporting press (or hired geeks, as Hunter S. Thompson would say), mention of the now-graduated Sally Glaze led to doubt that Romans could "pull out another title."
Just before Nikiski's title win last year, Romans told me that he set goals for the team during each season, and he continues to raise the bar with each game. This year, he said, was no different.
"People weren't giving us a chance because we graduated four starters last year," he said, referring to the prep polls that ranked the team anywhere but No. 1.
His goal-setting system has worked for more than a decade. Five out of the last 12 seasons that the Bulldogs missed the title, they were no less than fourth in the state.
Next, is the "Perseverance" pound, which goes to Mark Tuter and the entire Soldotna Stars girls team. After a third loss to Wasilla in the semifinals and elimination from 4A championship contention, rather than obsessing over the defeat, the team got together to send off their seven seniors with a swan song.
"We've put it behind us," Tuter said before the Lathrop game.
And his team followed his lead to a win in the fourth-place game.
"After yesterday, you've got to go for the best you can," said senior forward Amy Breakfield Saturday, after defeating Lathrop for third-place honors.
For the "Ohmygoshdidyouseethat" pound, Nikiski senior Hisa Miyara gets the nod. Coming to the team at a disadvantage -- not fully understanding English and meeting up with a speed-talking coach, being turned away by at least two other basketball programs in the state, the Okinawa, Japan-born foreign exchange student overcame these challenges to become one of its leaders.
"When the season's over, I'm going to write her coach and thank him," Romans said. "For a player to be so polished is phenomenal."
But to say Miyara is fundamentally sound just scratches the surface. On many occasions, she put together plays that wowed her opponents and teammates, alike.
Against Petersburg, she displayed poise and flawless ball-handling skills when she executed low-to-the-ground crossovers to split defenders trying to set a half-court trap. Often, Miyara would head fake her own teammates out of the path of passes she intended for them.
"She does things our kids aren't prepared for," Romans said.
Soldotna's Jennifer Senette gets the "Mental Toughness" pound for staying solid in the losing effort to Wasilla, even when the game was getting away from the Stars. She scored one of the team's only buckets during a demoralizing 18-4 Warriors run and maintained the same level of intensity throughout the game, scrapping for buckets and smacking down a sure shot by Wasilla leading scorer Marsha Schirack.
Nikiski's Katie Floyd gets the "Glove" pound for her semi-final game performance Friday night against Petersburg's primary scoring threat, Kayleigh Short. While Short buried Eielson the previous night with 18 points, Floyd kept both hands in Shorts' face to stymie the Viking point guard's shooting. Meanwhile, Floyd also managed two steals off Short, and eliminated the Petersburg junior in a sudden-death shootout from the 3A 3-point contest.
Of course, there's a "Clutch Performance" pound that gets shared between Soldotna's post starters, Hillary Zobeck and Rachel Besse. Besse remained calm through the third period of the fourth-place game when Lathrop came back and took the lead. Rather than losing poise and fouling in the defensive post -- what Malemute coach Tim Hagedon said he'd hoped for when he sicced double and triple teams on her -- Besse calmly collected her rebounds and looked for a streaking Zobeck.
As for Zobeck, she saw an opportunity to swing the pendulum back in the Stars' direction and capitalized on big fast-break scores.
And finally, the "Versatility" pound. And the winner is ... Nikiski's Karen Rabung. Picking off passes in the lane and the backcourt. Leading in rebounds and assists. Commanding the floor and leading running plays. Spotting up from outside 3-point range and leading in total points. She did it all ... as a post player.
And she humbly reminded me that regardless of the stat sheets, the Bulldogs' championship came from a team effort.
All-around performance and class to boot. Who could ask for more?
Although there are no shiny golden trophies to place on a mantelpiece, Please know that I am not the only one that appreciates the hard work and determination of our high school athletes, win or lose.
And even if my accolades seem trivial at best, I hope this in some way encourages more recognition from around our community for student athletes and inspires other athletes to reach for their highest level, both on and off the court.
This column is the opinion of Peninsula Clarion reporter Marcus K. Garner. Comments can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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