As the Region III/4A high school basketball season gets under way, the question to ask isn't "Who's better now?" but rather, "Who's going to be better at the end of the season?"
Three of the Kenai Peninsula's four 4A schools Kenai Central, Skyview and Soldotna lost a number of key players from last year's teams and are asking younger, less experienced players to fill the void.
Meanwhile, Homer, the peninsula's other 4A school, might be in the best shape to start the season, but even coach Mark Mahan is looking for improvement from his squad.
"I think (my team's) expectations are high, and so are mine," Mahan said.
While the peninsula teams, which make up the region's Southern Division, build and rebuild, the Northern Division, which consists of Kodiak and Mat-Su schools Palmer, Colony and Wasilla, appears to have reloaded. Wasilla was the region champion last season and is aiming to repeat while Colony and Palmer each sport rosters stocked with talented players.
"The northern half is going to be the more difficult half," said Kenai Central coach Jim Beeson. "Soldotna is similar to us (young), and Skyview has some kids back. Homer's probably the best team on paper. They're the favorite in our half.
"The northern half will be very, very good. ... We're going to have to play hard and see if we can create some opportunities for ourselves to win a few games."
The following is a team-by-team look at the peninsula's 4A girls basketball teams:
Head coach: Mark Mahan (3rd year)
2002-03 Region III/4A record: 2-8
Key returners: Channing Setterquist, sr.; Amanda Morawitz, sr.; Chantrelle Cousins, sr.; Skya McKinstry, sr.; Nyla Lightcap, sr.; Bailey Lowney, jr.; Kayla Creamer, so.; Megan Mahan, so.; Kailie Pollack, so.
Key newcomer: Molly Mahan, fr.
Outlook: Mahan, who has coached many of his players since they were freshmen and sophomores, said the Mariners are aiming high and having a lot of fun doing it.
Homer lost just two players to graduation from last year's team, and Mahan said the Mariners have been able to build on what they've learned over the past few seasons.
"You're doing the same things, but you can add to it and throw some wrinkles in," Mahan said. "We made a couple changes, and the kids eat it up. Things that were hard for them a couple years ago, now they're picking up."
KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS
Head coach: Jim Beeson (5th year)
2002-03 Region III/4A record: 2-8
Key returners: Breezy Saltzgiver, sr.; Laura Moore, sr.; Lindsey Keener, so.; Amber McGlasson, so.; Kelsey Dunn, jr.
Key newcomers: Jamie Peterson, so.; Samantha Calderwood, so.; Kelsey Brewer, so.; Kassi Kiel, so.; Katie Foley, fr.; Sam Navarre, fr.
Outlook: The Kardinals take the court with a young team that does not have a whole lot of experience.
"Our goal is just to get better and be a better team at the end of the season than we were at the beginning of the season," Beeson said.
Fortunately, what Kenai lacks in experience, it makes up for with a positive attitude.
"We were in Sitka last weekend and we played three games. If you were to walk in and watch us play, the one consistent thing we did was that the kids played hard all the time," Beeson said. "Anybody can go out and shoot the ball, but it takes a special person to go out and work hard every day."
While the wins have yet to come, the Kardinals are playing a challenging schedule and Beeson said he's seen improvement from game to game.
"Hopefully, we'll survive long enough and get a few wins," Beeson said.
Head coach: Wade Marcuson (2nd year)
2002-03 Region III/4A record: 4-6
Key returners: Lindsay Gephardt, sr.; Amanda Fay, sr.; Sammy Dalebout, sr.; Sara Garrant, sr.; Anna Blake, so.; Anna Bonebrake, so.
Key newcomers: Colette St. Clair, so.; Allison Fay, so.
Outlook: Marcuson said returners Gephardt and Amanda Fay would play key leadership roles for the Panthers this season.
"They're organizing most of our young kids, getting them ready to play at the varsity level," Marcuson said.
Marcuson said he would try to take advantage of the good number of players in the Panthers stable, keeping fresh players rotating through the lineup.
Recordwise, the Panthers are off to a slow start, but Marcuson pointed out that at this point in the season, improvement is more important than wins and losses and the Panthers are improving.
"They aren't real happy with our record right now. We've had four leads at the half, and then lost each game," Marcuson said. "There's some subtle errors that accumulate, but they're recognizing what they're doing wrong and getting better."
Head coach: Mark Tuter (4th year)
2002-03 Region III/4A record: 9-1
Key returners: Brittany Howard, jr.
Key newcomers: Kaylee Wilbanks, fr.; Marlana McCown, soph.; Ashley Bell, soph; Christa Kennedy, fr.; Adrienne Marey, soph.
Outlook: After making a state tournament appearance last season and finishing third, the Soldotna girls find themselves in a rebuilding mode this year.
"Brittany Howard, our captain, is the only player with any varsity experience," Tuter said.
Tuter said he'll try to bring his young Stars along slowly, letting them learn the basics of varsity play as the season wears on.
"We're pretty young, so we'll try to keep it simple," Tuter said.
Tuter said this year's team is reminiscent of last season's varsity team when it first came together.
"They kind of remind me of where we were four years ago," Tuter said.
Aside from Howard, Soldotna will likely look to 6-0 freshman center Kaylee Wilbanks to carry the scoring load. Although Tuter said SoHi has been hit hard by graduation, he's excited to be again working with a young, talented group of players.
"With this group, we'll have to be versatile," Tuter said. "Stuff will start to click eventually."
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