The more things change, the more they stay the same, at least as far as the Alaska School Activities Association State 2A Basketball Championships go.
"It's the same old story," said Ninilchik girls coach Dan Leman. "The eight teams that are there deserve to be there. There's no easy teams and no easy games. Just a couple of bad minutes is all it takes at state, so we're going to have to play our best."
When this year's tournament kicks off Thursday at Service High School in Anchorage, three teams from the Kenai Peninsula will be making return trips to the show: the defending champion Ninilchik girls, winners of three state titles in the past five years; the Seldovia girls, runners-up last season; and the Cook Inlet Academy boys, the 1999 champions, who will be making their fifth appearance at the state tournament.
Despite those constants, the small-schools tournament always has an atmosphere of intrigue about it as teams from the farthest reaches of the state play each other -- often for the first time of the season.
"I really enjoy that aspect," said CIA coach Tim Keener. "We'll be playing teams from places all over the state, and you've gotta go and do whatever the game dictates. It's fun for me as a coach, and I think the guys enjoy that too."
Even the teams that consistently make it to the tournament will look different this year. Seldovia has a similar roster to the one it had for last year's tournament, but Jaime Geagel injured a knee in the Region II District 3 tournament last weekend.
Perennial power Ninilchik has a much different look as well.
"Right from the start, you could see we didn't press as much," Leman said of the way his team developed during the season. "This year, we're more selective. We've got shooters that can hit the three, but we tend to go more inside. We learned from game to game what kind of a team we were going to be. We developed into a real quality team."
The Eagles have a key player from their last state title team back in Chet Nettles, while Justin Franchino and Stephen Staton saw time as freshman two years ago.
"Chet played a big role," Keener said. "He knows what it takes. It's nice to have someone as your leader and captain who's already been there."
Cook Inlet Academy is coming off a grueling Region II tournament, having played six games in four days, including three games on Saturday. Keener said the odyssey has made his team mentally stronger.
"After playing three games in one day, and doing as well as we did, state looks a little more palatable. It'll be a relief to just play one game a day," Keener said. "Mentally, we're stronger than ever. You've got to go in with confidence and be ready to play from the jump ball all the way to the end and keep your focus. This team has exhibited that more than any team I've coached."
The Eagles open up in Thursday's late game against the Tikigaq (Point Hope) Harpooners, and Keener expects a tough game.
"We've been there before, and my advice is, if you're going to go, you might as well win the whole thing -- but you need to take one game at a time, win the one in front of you, one step at a time to get to where you want to be," Keener said. "Point Hope is a good team. They're coming out of their region No. 1, which says a lot, and we're not taking them lightly by any stretch of the imagination."
The Wolverines start out the tournament bright and early, facing Frank A. Degnan (Unalakleet) at 8 a.m. Thursday.
"We just go out and play," Leman said. "I don't think this is about a repeat. This is about going up there and putting three good games together.
"Last year's team was a bit different. Last year's team was pretty smooth. This year, we're a little rough around the edges, but the energy level is there, the heart and desire is there. We've had to have kids step up.
"When you lose the Player of the Year, a first-team all-state player and probably our best defender, those are three tough spots you've got to fill. Maybe this year we go a little deeper into the bench, and maybe there's a little more balance than last year, but it isn't fair to compare. This year's team came out and established their own identity."
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