Could there be a changing of the guard in the Peninsula Conference?
That's a real possibility, at least this season, as Class 2A girls basketball teams embark on the 2010-11 campaign.
After advancing to the state tournament 19 consecutive seasons and establishing itself as one of the premier basketball programs in the conference and state, Ninilchik enters the season in unfamiliar territory -- as an underdog.
"The clear favorite is Cook Inlet Academy," Ninilchik coach Rod Van Saun said. "They are a strong senior team and they have good athletes."
Last year the Wolverines and Eagles played for the conference championship, with CIA taking the crown, and both advanced to state, with the Wolverines taking second and CIA taking third.
Cook Inlet returns nine players from the 2009-10 squad, making it the early favorite. The Eagles defeated the Wolverines 49-14 at the Cook Inlet Classic two weeks ago.
CIA coach Rustin Hitchcock said his team is aiming to win a state title, but it can't take anything for granted in the Peninsula Conference.
"Every team is capable of putting together a good game," he said. "It's going to be an interesting region."
Bristol Bay, Lumen Christi, Seldovia, Whittier and Nikolaevsk round out the conference.
Van Saun didn't sugarcoat anything in forecasting the 2010-11 season for his team.
"This is the biggest rebuilding year in 20 years," he said.
A year after advancing to the Class 2A state title game, the Wolverines enter the campaign with a new-look roster.
Gone are key contributors Brittani Motoyama, one of the state's most talented 2A players a year ago, as well as Lindsay Schnabl and Lindsey Rohr.
Ninilchik lost five seniors to graduation.
But the squad returns a group of sophomores who will see significant playing time this season, which Van Saun believes will set the team up for success the next two years.
Leading the charge are Kaylee Smith and sisters Alicia Ehlers and Esther Ehlers. Van Saun also expects to get a large contribution from Michelle Bartolowits, who returns to the squad after sitting out last season.
"She's just a great kid," he said. "She's working extremely hard and demonstrating good leadership."
Also on the roster are Jessica Rogers, Annie Anahonak, Lilly Kelson, Lyndsay Appelhanz, Mariah Campbell and Joey Martin.
Since the squad is young, Van Saun is placing an emphasis on developing fundamentals and learning to work as a team.
The scoreboard isn't as important.
"It's not about wins and losses," he said. "It's about developing as a team and growing as a team. Anything can happen with the team."
The Wolverines have qualified for state 19 consecutive seasons, becoming a 2A powerhouse, but the streak could end this season given the team's youth.
Rather than playing in the shadow of those teams, Van Saun hopes to see the 2010-11 Wolverines define themselves and is using that as a motivating tool.
Regardless of whether the team makes state, Van Saun already considers the campaign a success.
"The main thing is we don't talk about winning and losing," he said. "We're only talking about improving and growing together. Where we end up, we will see."
The Wolverines visit Seldovia on Jan. 9 before heading to Cordova for a tournament in February.
Cook Inlet Academy
With the majority of its roster back after winning last season's conference title, expectations are high at Cook Inlet Academy.
The Eagles captured their first Peninsula Conference crown since 1988 a year ago and finished third at state.
Second-year coach Rustin Hitchcock believes his team can do even better this season.
"We had a team meeting and decided that matching last year is not good enough," he said. "We have our sights set at the very top."
The squad lost former star Amie Smithwick to graduation, but it returns nine players from the 2009-10 unit.
Four seniors lead the way -- Tiffany Smith, Tiana McGahan, Lauren Bauder and Kelsey Brush -- but the Eagles have a nucleus of younger players which Hitchcock believes will play large roles in the success of the squad, including juniors Keely Powers and Kelsie Leaf. Megan Bauder's ballhandling has improved, Hitchcock added, meaning she will see significant time at point guard.
Hitchcock called the team "very deep," suiting its full-court style of play. The Eagles will implement full-court pressure on defense to create easy scoring opportunities on offense, a style that could wear down opposing teams.
The coach believes his sixth, seventh and eighth players off the bench are capable starters, giving him the liberty to substitute liberally and avoid foul trouble.
"For our system it's crucial to have depth because we are up and down the floor constantly," Hitchcock said, adding the depth will be important during the playoffs. "When you get to the state level, or even the region level, you face bigger courts."
In returning nine athletes from a team that made a deep run in the state tournament, the Eagles may possess more postseason experience than any team in the league.
That's something upon which Hitchcock will draw later in the season.
"Last year we really focused on getting everyone in the offense, and with the postseason experience included, that allowed people to mature at a quick rate," he said. "That really set us up for this year."
The Eagles will participate in the Yakutat Tournament Jan. 6 to 8 and the Port Lyons Tournament Jan. 14 and 15.
A pair of Sarahs will lead the Susan B. English School of Seldovia.
Sarah Geagel and Sarah O'Leary return for the Sea Otters, who last year came up one win shy of the state tournament, falling to Ninilchik in the second-place game at the Peninsula Conference tournament.
Geagel was a prolific scorer a year ago and figures to pick up right where she left off in the absence of Courtney Collier, who graduated. O'Leary, meanwhile, should play a large role in the team's offense.
Coaches around the league expect Seldovia to be competitive, particularly with the pair of Sarahs returning.
"Don't count them out," Van Saun said. "They've got two great players."
A young Nikolaevsk team figures to be improved after playing with three eighth-graders on its roster last season and losing its lone game at the Peninsula Conference tournament.
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