The Northern Division for girls basketball in the Northern Lights Conference may be down a little bit. That does not mean the division is out.
Colony, which finished second at state last year with a senior-laden group after winning the state title the year before, must rebuild without longtime coach Don Witzel.
Wasilla, which finished third at state the past two years after winning the title in 2007, must replace Jenna Johnson, whom peninsula coaches called the best player in the state last year.
All this doesn't mean peninsula coaches are booking hotels in Anchorage just yet.
"We're still going to have to play well to beat them," Soldotna coach Mark Tuter said. "They are not going to back up to us. We're going to have to play better."
The four peninsula schools, which make up the Southern Division, have not sent a team to state in the last two years. That broke a string of seven straight years where the Southern Division had a state representative.
"Mat-Su is going to be down compared to how they've been in the past, so that's good for programs like us and SoHi," Kenai Central coach Stacia Rustad said. "Even though they're down, though, they're still going to be really good."
Skyview coach Cary Calvert also pointed out that Kodiak is a team to watch coming off a state berth from a year ago.
Rustad, Calvert and Homer coach Deb Lowney all said Soldotna is the team to watch in the Southern Division due to the return of senior Karen Senette, who missed last season with a knee injury.
"When she's on the floor, she's in so much control and plays with so much confidence that it doesn't matter who else is on the floor with her," Lowney said of Senette. "They're a tough team."
Tuter said his squad will get plenty of challenges from within the division. He said he saw Skyview play on opening night against Nikiski, and the Panthers looked better than he was expecting. He said Kenai's high-effort defense also could give his team trouble.
The following is a closer look at the peninsula's teams:
The Mariners will be led by Lowney, who has been involved in the program, on and off, since 1980. Homer last went to state in 2006, when it finished off a string of three straight appearances at the big dance.
"We're going to be a young team in terms of experience," Lowney said. "We lost a lot of seniors."
Lowney said the only returning senior is Caryn Cordova. The Mariners also have a returning starter in Alicia Stafford.
Ashley Ketelle will take over at point guard, while Liz Needham will play in the post. Melissa Wood will provide help at guard, while Krystal Edens will give valuable leadership.
Lowney also said she is hoping for a boost from senior Jessie Erickson, who last played basketball in seventh grade.
"When you're young, it takes awhile to establish confidence on the floor," Lowney said. "We need to see that what we're working on in practice can translate to the floor.
"Getting a win always helps, as well."
Lowney said the team will need to bring intensity to the floor and depend on consistent, hard-nosed defense.
Kenai Central Kardinals
Rustad, a 1992 graduate of Kenai Central who helped the school to a state basketball title in 1991, will attempt to lead the Kardinals to their first state berth since 2002.
"What we're looking to do is get in the top three at the region tournament and get back to state," Rustad said. "That's a big goal."
The key returners for the Kardinals are seniors Samantha Hull, Lexi Beeson and Lierin Flanagan, plus sophomore Morgan Wensley and junior Raquel Young.
Since Kenai is currently dressing six players for varsity who have no previous varsity experience, Rustad said senior leadership will be crucial.
Just as crucial will be the play off the bench from the varsity newcomers. Rustad said the Kardinals want to play an up-tempo style with lots of pressure defense, so depth will be crucial.
"We want to be an up-tempo, full-court team for 32 minutes," Rustad said. "That's our game plan, and the conditioning we're doing in practice is preparing our kids to do that."
Rustad said Kenai is deep at the guard position, but not so deep at the post position. For that reason, Rustad said the play of Beeson and Young will be especially important this season.
Calvert, in his second year as head coach at Skyview, said he's hoping experience will equal success for the Panthers this season. Skyview has seven seniors on its roster.
"It's like Casee Penrod said in the paper. They're all friends," Calvert said. "They play together and stay together pretty well. They're an easy group to coach."
The seniors are Paris Cooper, Jessica Jones, Jaci Lamborn, Ivy O'Guinn, Casee Penrod, Rita McMillan and Jessica Stewart. Calvert also said the post play of junior Jaxon Hill will be critical.
"Hopefully, our strength is the defensive end," Calvert said. "We're not going to outscore too many people, so we'd better show up on defense."
Calvert said he currently has a rotation of seven players. He said that each player brings something important to the floor, so losing any player is tough.
The coach also said he has a pair of great assistants in Randi Broyles and Undray Griffin.
A look at the roster Soldotna, which last went to state in 2007, submitted for the Kenai River Challenge tells a lot about this team.
Every player on the roster is listed as 5-foot-7, except for freshman Kaillee Skjold, who is at 6-0.
"We're pretty guard heavy," said Tuter, who has been the head coach or assistant coach at Soldotna for 20 years. "We're going to have to play an up-tempo style, run the ball and hopefully play pressure defense."
The Stars also will have to crash the boards.
"That's kind of our Achilles' heel is rebounding," Tuter said. "In the last few years, we have not been too good at rebounding. We've worked on it, and worked on it."
Tuter said the team should get better and better as Senette gets her feet under her, and as the team gets adjusted to the passes of the crafty guard.
Shelby Dykstra, Megan Hardy and Jessica Duke started last year. Kelsey VanAntwerp also saw some varsity time last year as a freshman.
"We have a lot of depth," Tuter said.
The coach also mentioned seniors Lydia Forbes and Jenna Jensen. Seniors Sierra Ackerman and Casey Coupchiak also arrived via transfer. Kaili Sholin is back from an ankle injury, while Tuter said Skjold may be one of the best ninth-graders the program has seen in quite some time.
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