It looks like the 2A state basketball tournament got a little brighter with the berths earned by the Cook Inlet Academy Eagles boys and the Ninilchik Wolverines and Seldovia Sea Otters girls basketball teams Saturday.
The Wolverines and the Sea Otters are no strangers to the glory of the state-title tournament -- the two squads faced off in the title game last season with Ninilchik walking away with the undisputed No. 1 ranking.
CIA felt the pinch of golden child Chet Nettles' journey to play with the Soldotna Stars last season. The Eagles failed to make the tournament after winning a state championship in 1999, but the return of Nettles will probably help CIA climb back into the throne as kings of 2A basketball.
The best 2A players on the Kenai Peninsula will be making the trek to Anchorage to fight for the state tournament championship, but who is the best of the best?
n The Ninilchik Wolverines have proven more than once that they can compete with the best 2A teams in Alaska. Under the calm and collected guidance of coach Dan Leman the Wolverines are looking to defend their 2000 title and become repeat champs. Ninilchik will face off against the Frank A. Degnan (Unalakleet) Wolf Pack in the opening round of the tourney and these three will probably be the Pack's downfall:
Whitney Leman, the Wolverines sophomore point guard, will no doubt leave her opponents seeing streaks of blue and gold as she buries shot after shot. Leman's ability isn't just from the shooting perspective -- her passing ability and court awareness rival that of any player that plays the guard position. Leman stands 5-foot-7, which usually forces other teams to sacrifice a forward to try and shadow her, leaving a mismatch for Leman to expose.
Molly Bosick will be a huge role player in the Wolverines' run for the championship. Her 5-10 frame doesn't make her the tallest player on the court, but her shooting ability more than makes up for any possible size difference. Bosick's ability to maneuver inside and find a way to make the tough shots elevates her to the role of playmaker in the Ninilchik offense. Her defensive capabilities more than frustrate many of the players she guards as she more often than not holds them lower than their game averages.
Senior Jessica Russo brings dedication and a smooth shot onto the court along with senior leadership. Look for Russo to keep the team under control when things could easily get out of hand. Russo will have to show confidence for the team to succeed in the tournament. Winning is something she's used to so it probably won't be a problem.
n The Seldovia Sea Otters may feel the pains of Jaime Geagel's knee injury, which she sustained in the Region II District 3/2A championship game against Ninilchik, as they scamper into the tourney. Led by coach Sarah Nichols, the Otters have managed to knock down the Ninilchik Wolverines once this season and will no doubt be looking to do it again if they can claw their way to the top (and if the Wolverines can manage to do so too).
The Sea Otters will take on the Tikigaq (Point Hope) Harpoonerettes in the opening round with this trio leading the way:
Geagel is one of the team's more intense competitors and her ability to stop most inside games with her defense makes her a valuable asset. Combine that with her shooting ability and Geagel becomes one of the most valuable players in 2A basketball. Even as a sophomore, it is obvious that Geagel is one of the team leaders and will probably continue to be so from either on the court (injury permitting) or from the bench.
Lone senior Jacquelyn Brown is probably the most aggressive defender on the Sea Otters squad. Her ability to track the ball and her quick hands make her a threat to any ballhandler. Brown isn't all defense though. She is not afraid to shoot on the move and can bury her shot from pretty much anywhere from the inside of the 3-point arc.
Freshman Amy Gruber is probably the Sea Otters' most useful bench player. Quickness on her feet and aggression on the boards are assets that will make Gruber very valuable when playing taller opponents. Gruber has a decent inside shot and will fight for the ball every time it pops loose.
n The Cook Inlet Academy boys will be looking to soar high behind the coaching of Tim Keener and the immense playing abilities of Nettles. The Eagles will be looking to break the tournament open starting with the Tikigaq (Point Hope) Harpooners. Look for the Eagles to follow these three to what CIA fans are hoping will be a second title in three years:
Nettles is the lone senior on the CIA squad -- his abilities make is seem like he is three seniors in one on the floor. The 5-9 Nettles makes 3-point shots as quick as opposing coaches can pop antacid tablets. Very few things can stop Nettles on the court -- hack him and he makes the free throws, leave him open he hits the shot from just about anywhere this side of the half-court line and even think about double-teaming him and he finds the open man.
The one thing that can stumble Nettles and the Eagles is the senior's ability to get called for fouls. More than once I have seen five fouls checked next to his name in the box scores. Sometimes he doesn't reach five before he leaves the game -- the two technical fouls that I have seen him hit with in a game have helped him into the locker room, too. Take away the disqualifications and Nettles is a player that can step up to any challenge -- even a state title.
Assisting the Eagles in their hunt for the title will be junior Justin Franchino. Franchino stands at 5-10, but his ability to score inside makes him seem a bit taller. The Eagles will probably benefit from Franchino's presence on the court -- he is a big target for Nettles to find when he is looking to pass down low.
Speaking of down-low playing ability, freshman Calder Hillyer is a standout for a young player. His 6-2 frame helps him tower over many opponents at the 2A level and his ability to find the bottom of the net has continued to make him a valuable player in the scheme of the CIA offensive strategy. Hillyer is consistent in double-digit scoring and his sheer height compared to many opponents will make him an extremely valuable asset on the defensive end of the hardwood.
Well, there you have it. The peninsula's 2A powers making a trip to the state tournament with hopes of brining home the bragging rights and the No. 1 ranking in Alaska.
Good luck in the states and may your skill and teamwork bring you the rewards you deserve. No matter what the end scores are, you have the applause of your peers, your parents, your fans and your communities.
Sam Eggleston is a writer for the Peninsula Clarion. He can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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