There are young teams and then there is Nikolaevsk.
More than half of this year's girls basketball team are freshmen -- or younger. Three girls are eighth-graders.
The Alaska Schools Activities Association approved eighth-graders to participate in the 2009-10 high school basketball season for schools with 20 or fewer students. With just 17 kids enrolled this year, Nikolaevsk qualified and head coach Bea Klaich took advantage.
"We will definitely have a young team but I have some promising players coming up through the ranks," she said. "The girls have great attitudes and are working hard."
With such a young squad, Klaich said her focus will be on fundamentals.
"We're not going to be doing anything fancy," she said. "We'll just be playing some solid basketball."
Klaich said the extra year at the varsity level will only help this year's eighth-graders. She said they have the goal to make the state tournament in two or three years.
Though she knows this season will be a rebuilding year, Klaich said the young team is looking strong and has good chemistry together.
"I'm looking forward to a real fun year with them," Klaich said.
Junior Kimmie Payne is the only third-year player returning to the team. She, along with senior Pricilla Dorvall and junior Sarah Holub, are key returners for Klaich.
Seldovia, Cook Inlet Academy and Ninilchik each have a shot at winning the Peninsula Conference title, she said. Without seeing Bristol Bay much during the season, it's a mystery how good they'll be, Klaich added.
Klaich said no one team will dominate the region.
"I think you'll see some good, close games," she said.
Rod Van Saun returns as head coach of the Wolverines.
Seniors Lindsey Rohr and Lindsay Schnabl and sophomore Schmeka Nelson make up the team's three returners.
"Lindsey Rohr is an impact player," Van Saun said. She has incredible heart, he added.
Three other seniors and six freshmen round out the squad.
Because a majority of the team hasn't played together, Van Saun said his goal is to have the girls learn the system and learn to play as a team.
"We thrive off of making plays," he said.
Van Saun said CIA and Seldovia are the teams to beat in the conference.
With eight returners, it's no surprise many coaches have put CIA as one of the top teams in the region.
"We bring in a lot of experience," said head coach Rustin Hitchcock.
Key returners for the Eagles include senior Amie Smithwick, juniors Tiana McGahan and Tiffany Smith and sophomore Kelsie Leaf, Hitchcock said.
Along with his team, Hitchcock said Ninilchik and Seldovia are always tough in the conference. Like Klaich, Hitchcock said you never know what Bristol Bay is going to look like.
Securing rebounds is a main goal for the team this year, Hitchcock said. It's a goal the girls are well on their way to achieving in the early season.
"We're already well ahead of where we want to be," he said. "I'm almost floored with the effort."
Seldovia Sea Otters
Seldovia's basketball program gained a few players, a welcomed change from years past for first-year coach Jeff Swick.
Swick said past years the Sea Otters have had five and six-member teams. This season eight players will take the floor for Seldovia, six being returners.
Seniors Courtney Collier, Katrina Hecks and Kathleen Gruber are key returners for the squad, he said.
Swick said he expects the Eagles and Wolverines to be the top in the conference.
"Ninilchik is always a team to look out for," he said.
Swick said his team's main goal is to reach the state tournament.
"I think we have a good group," Swick said. "They have the ability to go pretty far. It all depends on how they come together as a team."
For the first time in two decades, Nikiski will have a new coach in Lee Moore. Moore takes over for Ward Romans, who stepped down at the end of last season after winning 12 Southcentral Conference crowns and eight Class 3A state titles.
All new starters will join the new coach.
The lone senior, Kassi Johnson, was the sixth player in the rotation last year on a team that finished fifth at state and the one returner with significant playing time under her belt, said assistant coach Scott Anderson.
Anderson is looking at his team's youth as a positive.
"The future looks really bright," he said of the program.
The early season has already given the girls lessons, as they've taken some tough losses, Anderson said.
"Every time that's happened, the girls have responded and come back harder the next night," he said. "They put in good effort to learn as much as they can. They're really working hard."
Anderson said Moore's main goal is to have players improve individually and as a team every time they step on the court. The emphasis is on improvement, not on the scoreboard, he said.
"We haven't really talked at all about wins or losses," Anderson said. "It's just a 'what-can-I-do-today-to-get-better' philosophy."
Anderson said ACS and Cordova will be the teams to beat. But Seward and Grace Christian are always competitive, he said. For now, his team is concerned with adjusting to a new coach.
"They're a really good, coachable group," he said. "They've done a nice job of adapting and changing to a different style."
Last year, much of Seward's team was freshmen. With a year of varsity experience, though still a younger team, the Seahawks are looking to solidify more as a team this season, said head coach Curtis Berry.
"We're still a little wet around the ears, but we're definitely progressing," he said.
Seniors Alex Espelin and Holly Ganser are key returners to the team, Berry said.
"They both played quality minutes for us last year," he said.
Sophomore Meg Berry, who started as a freshman, brings scoring to the team, Berry said. Junior Emily Draper and sophomore Chelsey Clarke will also see a lot of playing time, he said.
"We're excited," Berry said. "With continued effort, we have a shot at besting our record from last year."
Berry said his season goal is to improve as a team.
Anchorage Christian Schools, who won the 3A state title in 2009, and Grace Christian always have tough programs and should stay that way this year in the Southcentral Conference, Berry said.
With Cordova and Nikiski in rebuilding years, Berry said whoever comes ready to play each night has a chance of winning.
Though his team is young, they can't be counted out either.
"If they can grow into themselves, we have a good shot at at least shaking a few trees," he said.
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