When Alaska School Activities Association officials decided to combine the state 1A-2A and 3A-4A basketball tournaments, there was some concern that some of the atmosphere that defined the small-schools event would be lost in cavernous Sullivan Arena.
Instead, the opposite has been true: Combining the two events has only enhanced both.
“I didn’t have doubts, but I did have questions as to how it would work out,” said Ninilchik School girls coach Dan Leman. “But the fans were going nuts, and it was not too big a place to have the event.”
Indeed, the lower sections of seats at the Sullivan Arena were filled nicely by the crowd, estimated at more than 2,000, which turned out to watch Ninilchik and Bristol Bay go at it for the 2A crown Thursday.
And while it wasn’t quite as loud as the Service High School gymnasium one could actually here one’s self think at the Sullivan Arena it certainly was more comfortable for the fans, who still generated plenty of noise to create that state-tournament atmosphere.
“Some of the coaches said they thought they might miss some of the intimacy of Service, but they also like having more room. For them, this is a first-class venue,” said John Andrews, events director for ASAA.
Andrews said event organizers started making plans to combine the two tournaments three years ago, taking input from a variety of sources along the way. One of the highlights of the week, Andrews said, has been the interest shown in the 1A and 2A teams by the 3A and 4A teams.
“We’ve had requests from the 3A and 4A teams to get their tournament passes early so they could come and watch the 1A and 2A games,” Andrews said.
Likewise, a large number of the 1A and 2A tournament participants and fans when their teams are in the tournament, whole communities come to Anchorage to cheer them on stuck around for the weekend to watch the 3A and 4A teams.
And this reporter observed quite a few folks from the Kenai Peninsula who played hooky for most of the week to catch the whole thing.
Service and the University of Alaska Anchorage still host some of the early round and consolation bracket games in the 1A-2A tournament, but Andrews noted that a new venue was needed for the championship games anyway because the crowd was exceeding capacity limits.
Some of the biggest fans of the switch are the players themselves.
“That was really cool,” said Ninilchik’s Heidi Skjold. “I’ve been coming here to watch the (Great Alaska) Shootout, and getting to play on the same floor, that was exciting.”
“I have to admit, I did miss (Service) a little, but I’ve always dreamt of playing in the Sullivan Arena,” said Krista Leman, also of Ninilchik. Leman’s older sister Whitney played at UAA and had a memorable Shootout tournament for the Seawolves, and Krista said she was a little jealous of her older sibling.
The Nikiski girls team also enjoyed having the small schools in the same arena, even if it did mean starting their tournament a day earlier than usual and working an off-day into the schedule.
“I tried to tell the girls that it was like the NCAA tournament, where they play Friday-Sunday, but I don’t think they knew what that meant,” said Nikiski coach Ward Romans.
Still, the off-day left the Bulldogs feeling rested and very well-prepared to take on Mt. Edgecumbe in the tournament semifinals, and the Bulldogs even drew inspiration from watching Ninilchik claim a state title Thursday night.
“It got us fired up for the championship game (Saturday), so we were really motivated to be in it,” said Nikiski’s Sasha Auldridge. “It’s kind of cool to have this all coming together. We can see a lot of other teams instead of just 3A and 4A.
“And it’s cool to see how another peninsula team could go so far.”
Andrews said the opportunity to bring both tournaments together and showcase Alaska basketball for the week was a worthwhile one.
“I think this is going to continue to grow,” Andrews said.
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