Sure, the Cook Inlet Academy boys and the Ninilchik School girls high school basketball teams are the defending Alaska School Activities Association state 2A tournament champions, but this is a whole new year and, as fans of small-schools basketball in Alaska are fond of saying, anything can happen in the state tournament.
"The place is the same but the faces have changed," said Ninilchik girls coach Dan Leman. "This is a different group of girls, and this is their team and their opportunity now, so they're really excited."
The Wolverines, three-time defending state champions and winners of five state titles overall, open the tournament today at Service High School in Anchorage against Angoon -- a team Leman said he knows little about, except that the Eagles earned the second seed from the Southeast region.
"That's typically a pretty tough region, so I'm sure they're probably a good team, but I don't know what style they play," Leman said. "We're not going to change anything we do, anyway. It might help to know something about their key players, but once the game starts, you play your game and adjust to what they're doing."
The Cook Inlet Academy boys open the tournament today against Skagway, and while being the defending champion might make the Eagles a favorite, they're well aware that one of the trademarks of the 2A tournament is its unpredictability.
"You can't go into state to win it," said CIA's Jacob Peterson. "You've got to go, enjoy the atmosphere and take it one game at a time.
"It's about interacting with kids you never really get to see, and seeing the talent level from around the state. There's a lot of good 2A teams, and it's fun to show off 2A talent to everyone."
CIA coach Max Vavilov said Skagway is a team that can put a lot of points on the board.
"We just have to come out and be defensive-minded," Vavilov said.
Vavilov added that while he gets nervous before each game, he was taking it as a good sign that he didn't have any butterflies about his state tournament coaching debut.
"I'm more calm than I should be -- it's probably a result of not having a lot of experience yet," Vavilov said.
Fortunately, Vavilov has plenty of experienced players to turn to, and the Eagles aren't taking their return trip to state for granted.
"The player we lost (to graduation) was a big asset to the team last year, but we also got our point guard back in Kyle (Nettles), and that's been a big asset," said CIA's Calder Hillyer. "If we go up and play hard as a team, we'll win. There's a lot of other good teams there, so you've got to come out and play every game. Otherwise, they'll take it from you."
"We knew we would have to work for it," said CIA's Luke Myers. "Our region is pretty tough. We knew it wouldn't be easy to get back to state.
"But we don't even talk about state. We try to do good in the region and put ourselves in position to win the title, then take it from there."
Of course, with 11 straight District 3/2A titles, the Ninilchik girls consider a trip to state just part of the regular season -- it's the week the Wolverines have been looking forward to all season.
"Once we get up to Service, it's a home away from home," Leman said. "We've had three games there every year, and we only played eight home games this year. The girls are familiar with the court. The size is the same as Homer, and we did well there. Conditioning-wise, we're as good as we can be."
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