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Nikiski, Ninilchik girls looking to reload

Posted: Tuesday, December 23, 2003

The small schools of the Kenai Peninsula had their usual strong showing last season in basketball.

The Nikiski girls won their second straight Class 3A championship. The Ninilchik girls grabbed their fourth straight Class 2A crown. Finally, the Cook Inlet Academy boys lost in the championship game of the Class 2A tournament to Hydaburg to end the Eagles' bid to defend their state championship.

Will there be more of the same this year?

The Nikiski girls are hungry for more glory.

"I love how these kids are unafraid," head coach Ward Romans said.

Although Nikiski graduated its top three players from last season, Romans said he believes Nikiski will benefit from having to rely on a number of different options.

Gone from last year's championship squad are center Karen Rabung now at the University of Alaska Fairbanks dynamic point guard Hisa Miyara and sharp-shooting forward Katie Floyd.

But Bulldogs have reached the state tournament 13 consecutive times, winning the title seven of those years, and like all great teams, Nikiski seems to have the ability to simply reload each season.

That ability is respected by District 3's coaches. Seward coach Roger Steinbrecher, whose team lost to the Bulldogs in the final of the District 3/3A tournament a year ago, said Nikiski is still the favorite until somebody knocks them off.

Quick reloading also is the case at Ninilchik, where the Wolverines have taken the District 3/2A tournament every year since 1993.

Ninilchik also lost a player that is now contributing at a university in this state. Whitney Leman, the three-time Class 1A-2A girls player of the year, helped UAA win the Great Alaska Shootout in November.

"One of the great things about Whitney is she made the players around her better," Ninilchik coach Dan Leman said. "Her philosophy was keep up or lose out.

"She made everybody step up and work harder in practice, so her legacy is still here."

Naturally, coaches in District 3/2A mention Ninilchik as the favorite. At the same time, everybody is wary of Bristol Bay. The Angels finished third in the state last year and have most of that team returning.

The Cook Inlet Academy boys also have done a good job of reloading. The Eagles lost a heady and talented crop of seniors from last year's team, but have a load of talent again this season.

"We'll definitely miss them," CIA coach Max Vavilov said of the seniors. "Hopefully, we have other guys ready to step up and take it to the next level."

District 3/2A should quickly show the Eagles which level they are at. The coaches interviewed for this story say the district is traditionally tough top-to-bottom, and this may be one of the most deep years for the district in some time.

When asked who the favorite was, Ninilchik coach Chris Hanson replied, "Whoever we play next."

Finally, the Seward and Nikiski boys missed out on the Class 3A boys tournament last season.

Nikiski coach Reid Kornstad said he thinks the Bulldogs will be able to improve upon last year's campaign, when Nikiski finished just 3-7 in District 3. In fact, he believes his team is capable of playing with any small schools team in the state.

In District 3/3A this year, coaches are saying the team to beat is Heritage Christian, which finished third in the state last season.

"In our (district), it's going to be a fight. Heritage (Christian) is the team to beat. They've got big guys, guys who can shoot and a great coach," he said. "Beyond that, it is anybody's (district)."

The following is a closer look at the peninsula's schools.

DISTRICT 3/3A GIRLS

NIKISKI BULLDOGS

Head coach: Ward Romans (15th year)

Key returners: Anjani Salonen, sr.; Lynzie Ellis, sr.; Krystal Gladden, sr.; Sarah Herrin, soph.; Whitney Hitchcock, jr.; Sasha Auldridge, soph.

Key newcomers: Hannah Thompson, fr.

Outlook: Romans said he expects much of the offensive load to be handled by Herrin, Ellis and Gladden, all of whom contributed to the Bulldogs' title run last year.

In addition, Nikiski should also be helped by the addition of Thompson, who Romans said will make an immediate impact due to her un-freshmanlike tenacity.

However, losing three top players means Nikiski will need some time to find its rhythm. Romans said he expects this year's team to undergo some growing pains, but if the Bulldogs can find their identity, he believes Nikiski has a good shot at a third state title.

"We're going to make some mistakes, and that's going to be one of the challenges for me," he said. "But I like our chances. I really like this group of kids."

SEWARD SEAHAWKS

Head coach: Roger Steinbrecher (9th year)

Key returners: Breanna Bardarson, sr.; Emma Seigel, sr.; Jenni Regis, sr.; Krista Boulden, sr.; Lisa Steinbrecher, sr.; Elsa Gaule, sr.; Kristin Beck, sr.; Teal Hetrick, jr.; Lara Loomis, jr.

Outlook: Bardarson is the only starter to return for the Seahawks, which lost in the district finals to Nikiski last year.

However, Steinbrecher gave this year's crop of seniors plenty of playing time last year, so Seward has a lot of experience.

Steinbrecher said the strength of his team should be defense and speed. That has been on display early this season, as Seward held Kenai to 22 points, then held Soldotna to under 20 points.

Seward's only possible weakness could be underneath.

"We've had height all the years I've been here, but we don't have it this year," Steinbrecher said.

DISTRICT 3/3A BOYS

NIKISKI BULLDOGS

Head coach: Reid Kornstad (5th year)

Key returners: Jeremiah Taylor, sr.; Miles Jorgensen, sr.; Chris Curren, jr.; Kevin Epperheimer, soph.

Key newcomers: Billy Anderson, sr.

Outlook: There's no secret as to what the Nikiski boys track er, basketball team plans to do offensively this season.

"We want to get up and down the floor," Kornstad said.

The Bulldogs will use an uptempo, "run-and-gun" style this season in order to take advantage of a stable of quality athletes. Though Nikiski isn't blessed with height its tallest players are listed at 6-foot-1 the Bulldogs are loaded with players who can run with anyone.

In fact, Nikiski features the most valuable skill positions from this year's Bulldogs football team in Taylor, McGahan and Anderson.

As the top returning player from last year's squad, Taylor will be relied upon heavily for scoring this season the 6-1 guard can both shoot from the outside and drive to the basket as well as leadership, according to Kornstad

SEWARD SEAHAWKS

Head coach: Dan Krier (1st year)

Key returners: Blake Pullins, sr.; Scott Hubbard, sr.; Sam Banse, sr.

Key newcomers: Ryan Dieckgraeff, jr.; Corey Hetrick, soph.; Isaac Swiderski, soph.;

Outlook: Krier has been an assistant coach on the boys varsity basketball team the last two years.

Krier and Steinbrecher, the girls varsity coach, have a long history together. They both coached in 1975 in the same school in Minnesota and coached in 1977 in Sand Point.

The Seahawks lost all five starters from a team that fell short of the state tournament last year. This year begins a youth movement for the program, which has nine or 10 freshmen and 10 or 11 sophomores.

"I'm going to look at it as a rebuilding year, with the hope of starting to gel and come together by the end of January," Krier said.

Krier said the Seahawks don't have any dominating players, so they will have to work together as a team.

The coach said his team should learn quickly that it must stay together as a team to be successful, because Seward starts the season playing six Class 4A teams.

DISTRICT 3/2A GIRLS

COOK INLET ACADEMY EAGLES

Head coach: Greg Bell (3rd year)

Key returners: Alyse Bell, jr.; Ashley Smith, jr.; Morgan McConnell, sr.; Stephanie McNutt, soph.; Lindsey Bauder, soph.

Key newcomers: Hannah Thornton, jr.; Mellisa Moffis, fr.; Emily Thornton, fr.; Arlyn Query, fr.

Outlook: The Eagles return a pair of starters in Bell and Smith.

Bell should be a key player for the Eagles because of her ability to handle the ball and score.

"She's worked really hard this summer getting stronger on the inside," Greg Bell said. "Even though she's small, she's stronger going to the basket."

Greg Bell said his team will be a small, quick team that should be solid on defense. The one thing the Eagles are lacking is a lot of height.

HOMER CHRISTIAN SCHOOL KNIGHTS

The Knights will not field a team this year.

NIKOLAEVSK SCHOOL WARRIORS

Head coach: Brent Keene (3rd year)

Key returners: Nikki Melkomukov, jr.; Sara Bailey, jr.; Lekonidia Yukunin, soph.

Key newcomers: Alexandria Gordeev, fr.

Outlook: The Warriors had a tough offseason as many key players either moved away or sustained injuries that will not allow them to play this year.

"We'll be struggling again early, but I think we'll surprise some people by the time the season is over," Keene said. "As some of our younger players develop, we should be competitive again."

Keene said he has a lot of younger players in the program that have been a joy to work with early in the season.

NINILCHIK SCHOOL WOLVERINES

Head coach: Dan Leman (14th year)

Key returners: Amanda Matson, sr.; Amanda Peterson, sr.; Katie Moerlein, sr.; Kendra Moerlein, soph.; Emily Wood, jr.; Mindy Dawson, jr.

Key newcomers: Krista Leman, fr.; Jen Erikson, fr.; Kjersten Skjold, fr.

Outlook: In winning the last four Class 2A state championships, Whitney Leman and the Wolverines' high-scoring offense got a lot of attention.

But one thing Dan Leman has always emphasized is defense. This year, with Whitney Leman gone, defense will again come to the fore. At the Joe Floyd Tournament in Kodiak, Ninilchik defeated the Class 4A Bears by holding them in the 20s.

"Points are going to be harder to come by this year than in the past," Leman said. "One thing that tournament showed us is that we don't have to score 50 or 60 points to win.

"We can score 30 or 40 points, or sometimes in the 20s, and still come away with wins."

Matson should provide Ninilchik with most of its scoring punch early in the season, but Leman expects the attack to be more balanced as the season progresses.

Perhaps the biggest test for Ninilchik will be in the alumni game on Dec. 23, when the team will face current college players Whitney Leman and Molly Bosick and past greats such as Theresa Chihuly and Tasha Leman.

SUSAN B. ENGLISH SCHOOL (SELDOVIA) SEA OTTERS

Head coach: Marcia Patrick (1st year)

Key returners: Amy Gruber, sr.; Ashley Darien, sr.; Emily Mickelson, sr.

Key newcomers: Naomi Gallien, fr.; Jennifer Giles, fr.; Rachel Payton, fr.; Felicia Howard, fr.; Tatiana Gruber, fr.

Outlook: The seniors give the Sea Otters a lot of experience, while a strong freshmen class gives Seldovia a look at the future.

"They'll probably play a lot of minutes, because they're the only ones with any high school experience," Patrick said of the seniors. "It's going to be a big step up for the freshmen girls.

"I don't think they realize what they've gotten themselves into. High school is a big difference in the caliber of play."

Patrick said as the young players get more and more experience, the team will get better and better.

DISTRICT 3/2A BOYS

COOK INLET ACADEMY EAGLES

Head coach: Max Vavilov (2nd year)

Key returners: Kyle Nettles, sr.; Andy Hall, jr.; Blake Gabriel, jr.; Jeremy Franchino, soph.; Brian Beeson, jr.

Key newcomers: Adam Cooper, sr.; Brian Powers, sr.; Mike Kytonen, soph.; Steve Buerger, soph.; Marcus Brown, soph.

Outlook: The Eagles return two starters in Nettles and Hall from last year's district championship team and state runner-up team.

Cook Inlet Academy also will get a big boost from Brian Powers, who was a guard on the 2002 state championship team, and Adam Cooper, who was a contributor for Class 4A Skyview.

Vavilov said the team has been playing together for a long time thanks to a summer camp in Fairbanks and a fall league at Skyview.

"We have the total package," Vavilov said. "It's a matter of them playing together as a team."

HOMER CHRISTIAN SCHOOL KNIGHTS

Head coach: Mark Halpin (2nd year)

Key returners: Javan Halpin, jr.; Miciaiah Ellert, sr.; Peter Resetarits, sr.; Jamie Arndt, sr.; Shaun Seymour, sr.; Jeff Fraley, jr.; Jeremy Packa, sr.

Key newcomers: Christian Resetarits, soph.; Nathan Ellert, fr.; Patrick Nestor, soph.

Outlook: The Knights didn't produce a lot of victories last year, but Mark Halpin termed that campaign a building year.

This season, Homer Christian returns all the members of that team and is expecting to have a better year.

Halpin said the strength of the team should be solid shooting and offensive balance.

Unfortunately for the Knights, just because the players have a year under their belts does not mean they have a few more inches under their shoes.

"We're not real tall," Halpin said. "We're height-challenged. We also can't afford an injury."

Because there are only 25 students at Homer Christian, naturally, the Knights don't have a lot of depth.

NIKOLAEVSK SCHOOL WARRIORS

Head coach: Steve Klaich (15th year)

Key returners: Peter Tipikin, sr.; Danny Kuzmin, sr.; Jake Bailey, sr.; Perry Usoltseff, sr.; Anecta Kalugin, jr.; Blake Sawyer, sr.

Key newcomers: Mavrick Kuzmin, fr.

Outlook: The Warriors return three starters from last year, including the solid Tipikin at point guard.

Klaich said Tipikin's play should be a strength for the squad. The Warriors also have pair of 6-foot-4 players in Kalugin and Bailey.

"We should be a solid team, but it's a very tough region," Klaich said. "I think we'll be competitive with any teams we see."

NINILCHIK SCHOOL WOLVERINES

Head coach: Chris Hanson (3rd year)

Key returners: Jason Schollenberg, sr.; John Paul Russo, sr.; Conner Cooper, jr.; Vincent Kruzick, sr.

Key newcomers: Brendan Cuffe, soph.

Outlook: After playing for the state championship two years ago, the Wolverines did not advance to state last year out of tough District 3/2A. Ninilchik lost two starters from last year's squad.

Hanson has always tried to get his teams to play gritty, hard-nosed man-to-man defense. This year will be no exception.

"We're not very good right now. We see the potential to get better," Hanson said. "I don't think most people think they're very good early in the season. The basketball season's way too long. You get better week-to-week, game-to-game. It's a long process."

One thing the Wolverines struggled to do last season was score a lot of points. Hanson said some of his players have worked extra hard to develop a scoring touch this year.

SUSAN B. ENGLISH SCHOOL (SELDOVIA) SEA OTTERS

Head coach: Undecided

Key returners: Charles Pulliam, sr.; Chance Collier, sr.; Spencer Giles, sr.; Marvin Norman, sr.; Casey Bond, sr.; Jimmie Payton, jr.; Colton Collier, soph.

Key newcomers: Kyle Burt, soph.; Dustin Baines, fr.

Outlook: As of last weekend, the Sea Otters had not named a head coach for the upcoming season. Karl Pulliam, a longtime observer of Seldovia basketball who has been helping out at practice, provided some information about the team.

Pulliam said the team won't have a ton of height, but should be fairly quick at all positions.

The two big guns for the squad should be Collier and Charles Pulliam. Collier attended a basketball camp this summer with players from Alaska's big schools, and was able to hold his own. Charles Pulliam also should be adept at creating his own shot.

Clarion reporter Matt Tunseth contributed to this story.



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