Grab the top seed and win each of your games at the District 3/2A basketball tournament, and you've got yourself a three-day, three-game championship.
Lose on your opener, and you've got four games to play in three days just to make your way out of losers bracket labyrinth and back into contention for the tournament championship.
Make the finals out of the losers bracket, and you've got to beat the team from the winners bracket twice -- your second and third games of the day -- if you want to win the tournament title.
The prospect of winning the tournament out of the losers bracket may seem like a carrot dangling at the end of a stick, but somebody is going to snag it, and a trip to the state tournament, making this weekend's competition at Homer High School some of the most entertaining basketball of the season.
"This is great," said Ninilchik girls coach Dan Leman.
Leman's Wolverines took the easy route to the final, moving through the winners bracket with a bye on Wednesday and wins on Thursday and Friday.
"The double-elimination makes every game mean something," Leman said. "You can afford to have one bad game, but not two. It assures that the best teams get to go to state."
The Cook Inlet Academy boys had to follow a winding path to get to play on Saturday. After opening with a win, the Eagles were knocked into the losers bracket by Bristol Bay. They regrouped to win twice on Friday, then got a second shot at the Angels Saturday morning.
"It's exciting, but it's a lot more tiring," said CIA player Justin Franchino. "If you come out and have a bad game, you can come back. We're back in our groove."
Bristol Bay bested the Eagles, though, and the Angels won their first game against the Sea Otters, meaning that the spectators in the Homer High School gym got their money's worth with an extra game Saturday night.
District 3 coaches came up with the double-elimination format a few years back, when the region's berths at the 2A state tournament were cut from three to two. The format was intended to increase the competition for both spots.
"It's a lot more fun for the kids," said CIA boys coach Tim Keener. "Every game means something, especially when you're living on the edge like we are."
The format has worked well, and District 3 teams fare well at the state tournament. The CIA boys won a state title a year ago, while the Ninilchik girls were runners-up to Klawock.
"It doesn't happen very often that someone comes out of the depths of the losers bracket to win, but there's a chance to redeem yourself," said Ninilchik boys coach Bernie Clark. "We send good teams to state."
The tournament took a new twist this season, moving from the cozy confines of the Cook Inlet Academy gym to a larger facility at Homer High School.
"Normally, we play on some crowded little cracker-box gym -- nobody plays on a court this big unless you're invited to play at one of the bigger schools," Clark said. "It's a little different, a little more wide open. The bigger court takes its toll."
Strategies change a little with the larger floor -- coaches may not press as much, or run a little bit more half-court sets rather than fast breaks.
The ultimate goal is a trip to the state tournament, though, and playing on the larger floor is a benefit.
"(In our first game) the larger court was a factor," said Ninilchik senior Tasha Leman. "But we're glad it was, because we're going to be playing on a court this size next week."
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