Soldotna's Shelly Barker defends against Kodiak during a game last year. She will be one of the Stars' returning players this season.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
As the NCAA Tournament has proven throughout the years, tournament basketball can be very unpredictable.
Since the Northern Lights Conference went to an eight-team format starting in 1993, though, NLC tournaments have been very predictable. In every year except for one, girls and boys teams from the Northern Division Wasilla, Colony, Palmer and Kodiak have won the tournament championship.
The only team from the Southern Division Homer, Soldotna, Skyview and Kenai to win a title was the Soldotna girls. That happened all the way back in 1993.
As the basketball season gets set to get revved up for 2007-08 season, Southern Division coaches once again see the Northern Division as the dominant division.
"With the Valley, it doesn't matter," Kenai Central girls coach Ken Felchle said. "Even in a down year, they've still got 1,200 to choose from."
Wasilla has owned the girls side of the NLC recently. The Warriors have won the last seven conference tournaments and have won 88 straight conference contests. Wasilla also won the Class 4A state title last season.
Soldotna girls coach Mark Tuter said he thinks Wasilla's string of NLC wins will come to a halt this year. The Warriors had seven seniors on their state tournament roster.
"Wasilla's going to be really tough, but Colony's the team to watch for," Tuter said. "Wasilla lost a lot, but they always have a lot of kids in their program that are pretty good. Colony they're loaded. And Palmer's not bad."
In the Southern Division, all coaches have Soldotna picked as the favorite.
"On paper, we probably are," Tuter said.
The Stars finished 7-3 last year in the NLC regular season and won the Southern Division before falling to Wasilla in the conference title game. Soldotna went on to finish fifth in the state.
"Soldotna has the most returning," said Skyview girls coach Ronnie Kier. "There's no doubt the Paige Blackburn has proved to be one of the better post players."
Wasilla also is on a nice run in the boys side of the NLC. The Warriors have won the last two conference tournaments and five of the last eight. The Wasilla boys joined the girls in taking a state title last year.
That state title game came against Colony, though, and Skyview boys coach Red Goodwin likes the Knights to overtake the Warriors this season. Colony had just two seniors on its state tournament roster.
"I love the way Colony plays," Goodwin said. "My favorite game at state was when Colony beat East. Colony had no right being in that game, but they're tenacious and they don't quit.
"The other thing I liked about that Colony team is they seemed to get better with every game they played. That's a testament to the coaching and the kids' will to work hard."
The other three coaches from the South all said that Colony and Wasilla should be in the mix for the conference title.
"Wasilla lost a lot, but they've got enough coming back that anybody that doesn't take them seriously will be sorry," Soldotna boys coach Chris Hanson said.
In the Southern Division, Soldotna finished first last season with an 8-2 NLC record while Kenai was second at 7-3. Both teams did not advance to state.
With Soldotna's losses to graduation, Hanson and Goodwin put the Kardinals as the favorite.
"Obviously, they've got a pretty nice team there," Hanson said of Kenai. "Anybody in the whole conference is going to have to play good ball to beat them."
Homer coach Mark Casseri sees Kenai and Soldotna as the favorite, while Kenai coach Jim Beeson said the Stars are still the team to beat.
"They've got some kids back from last year, and once you taste winning it makes it a lot easier," Beeson said. "They can shoot the ball and they've got big kids. They've got a little bit of everything.
"I think they'll be the favorite. After that, anybody can beat anybody."
The following is a closer look at the Southern Division teams:
Head coach Barb Baysinger takes over a Homer squad that finished second in the Southern Division last season with a 4-6 record.
Baysinger said the Mariners return a number of strong players from that squad, including seniors Reba Temple and Kasi Devaney and junior Piper Daugharty. Juniors Deanna Weaver and Lindsey Layland and senior Allison Turner also are ready to make a difference.
Baysinger said the strength of the team will be post play and man-to-man defense. The team is ready to move on without Allison Horazdovsky, a senior playing in Anchorage this season.
"Although we lost Allison, we're still coming back as a team," Baysinger said. "They've all known each other since eighth grade and have a strong history together."
In his third season at Homer, Casseri will look to play a fast pace this season. The Mariners were last in the Southern Division last year.
"We're going to try and rely on speed and get up and down the floor," Casseri said. "We need to shoot the ball really well and play pressure defense."
Casseri said his tallest player is 6-foot-3, but most of the team is right at 6-1 or 6-2.
Homer's returning starters are senior Cole Tutt and juniors Corey Sutherland and Josh Gilbert. Other key members of the team will be senior Kirk Cortez and juniors Vance Wolford, Joseph Horazdovsky and Dean Devaney.
"The kids are working hard in the early part of the season," Casseri said. "I'm pleased with the work ethic."
Kenai Central girls
The Kardinals finished last in the NLC with a 1-9 record last season after losing two of their key guards to knee injuries.
Sophomore Sam Hull is recovered from her knee injury. Other returning starters for Kenai are senior Kyla Steward and junior Hannah Delaney.
"Those three starters from last year will be the foundation of the team," Felchle said.
After that, there is almost no limit to the players that could appear on the floor. Felchle said 15 are practicing with the varsity, and all could get in games to help with Kenai's fast-paced attack.
The group includes seniors Amanda Mills, Adrianna Garcia and Megan Gabriel, juniors Lacie Wortham, Khelby Kennedy and Ashlyn Ross and sophomores Casey Coupchiak, Molly Graves, Lierin Flanagan and Lexi Beeson.
"We're guard-heavy and we're very quick," Felchle said. "We're going to sub a lot so we can keep kids fresh and get up and down the floor.
"If we don't have to set up on offense all year, I'll be fine with it."
Kenai Central boys
Beeson has been head basketball coach at Kenai for 17 years, 12 with the boys and five with the girls.
"This is probably one of the most talented groups of boys we've had since I've been here," he said. "We've got a lot of kids that can score the basketball. What we do on the defensive end of the floor is going to dictate how good we're going to be. We can't rely on outscoring the other team every night."
The Kardinals lost just one starter from last season and return seniors Nate Saltzgiver, Cory Toombs, Nathan Byrd and Daniel Gustkey. Beeson also plans on getting contributions from seniors Zach Beeson, James Libert, Bill Chimphalee, Ryan Ferguson and Jamie Duke and juniors Josh Lazaro and Zach Rabung.
Kenai's season ended last year with a loss to Palmer at the NLC tourney. Beeson said Kenai was up early in the game, but Palmer started pounding the ball down low to take advantage of Kenai's lack of tall players.
"There are going to be times we're not shooting well, like in that Palmer game," Beeson said. "We have to take more pride in playing the other end of the floor.
"I remind them of that Palmer game. They say they're not going to let it happen again this year."
The Panthers finished 2-8 in the Southern Division last year to take the No. 3 seed at the conference tournament under Ronnie Kier, who will be in his second year as head coach.
Skyview lost six seniors from last season and returns just one starter junior Melissa Massey.
Other key players for the Panthers will be seniors Joanna Graves and Candace Penrod and juniors Brittany Meyer and Marquee Lucas. Krier also said there is a promising group of sophomores on the rise.
Last year, Skyview's offense ran through a couple of players. That will not be the case this season.
"We've got such a young offense, we're trying to develop an offense that goes through all 10, or all 12," Kier said. "We won't just have one main star."
With so much youth, Kier expects to see a ton of improvement as the season wears on.
"We're looking for small victories throughout the season," he said. "We're looking to build. We're going to try and get better and better as the season goes by."
The Panthers finished 2-8 in the NLC last season and were third in the Southern Division. Goodwin, in his second year, returns starters Richie Shirnberg and Rem West, both seniors, and Mike Thornton, a junior.
Other key players should be seniors Mac Dallmann and Chad Hatten and juniors Alex Cook.
Goodwin said Shirnberg, with his height and athleticism, will be a key to the season.
"The key to the season is how hard he works and how much of a leader he is for us," Goodwin said. "So far in practice, he's been a great leader and has shown great work ethic."
Last year, Skyview tried to slow the game down to take advantage of its size. This season, Goodwin said the Panthers are more athletic at guard and will play a quicker pace. Goodwin said Shirnberg should be able to keep up with that pace.
"Our biggest weakness will be lack of understanding of the game of basketball," Goodwin said. "We don't play basketball enough to have great basketball understanding."
Tuter, in his 18th year with the program and his eighth year as head coach, lost three starters from last year but returns six varsity players.
Seniors Paige Blackburn and Shelly Barker return as starters, while senior Karen Duffy, juniors Jessi Stenga and April Heffner and sophomore Karen Senette return to the varsity. Sophomores Megan Hardy and Shelby Dykstra also will provide key minutes this season.
"We're pretty well-balanced," Tuter said. "We've got nice size, good speed and nice ballhandling skills. We have power inside and shooters outside."
With all of his team's weapons, Tuter is using last year's fifth-place finish at state as motivation.
"Our goal is not only to go to state but to win it," he said. "But we've got to get there first."
A big part of that will be Blackburn. Tuter said last year Blackburn had all the physical tools, but this year the mental part of her game also is top-notch. Tuter said his biggest concern this season is depth.
Hanson, in his second season as head coach, returns starters Ryan Shelton and Brad Blossom, both seniors. Other key players this season will be senior Larsen Kohler and juniors Matt Grubb, Liam Andrus and Daniel Geller.
"I think we've got a great group of basketball players," Hanson said. "In some of the past years, we've been very athletic. This year, we have a nice collection of basketball talent and I think that will take us quite a ways.
"This is a hard-working group with pretty good drive."
Even with that drive, Hanson said his team still has things it needs to improve.
"We've got to get tougher," he said. "I think we play in arguably the toughest conference in the state. At that high of a level, there just aren't any easy games. Every game is going to be a dogfight."
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