With such close parity in competition in the Class 3A Southcentral Conference, basketball teams on the Kenai Peninsula will be facing a long road full of challenges en route to the region tournament in early March.
Add one more to the mix.
The number of automatic bids from the Southcentral Conference that go to the state tournament is dropping this season from three to two, as the Class 3A level is gaining a designated berth that will go to the team with the highest Winning Percentage Index, as is done at the 4A level.
The WPI is a mathematical formula that factors in each team’s win-loss record against opposing 3A competition and, in the past few years at the 4A level, has gotten good teams to the big dance that would have missed it due to bad performances at their regional tournament.
At last year’s Southcentral Conference tournament, the No. 1 and No. 3 seeded girls teams, Nikiski and Homer, found each other battling for the crown. Nikiski was tied in the regular-season standings at 6-4 with Grace Christian, a team that was handed an opening-day loss by Cordova, and then was ultimately left out of state with a loss to Anchorage Christian Schools on the last day of the tournament.
If the WPI would have been in place, Grace would have likely been in on the big dance.
Homer girls Coach Chad Felice, a New York native entering just his second year on the job, said in order to boost the team’s WPI, he scheduled at least 14 games with other 3A schools outside the conference, including Mt. Edgecumbe and Valdez.
“It’s tough, because we have a tough region, and anybody in our region can beat anyone on any given night,” Felice said. “There’s lot of emphasis on getting to that championship game.”
Last year, the Homer girls won the Southcentral tournament to claim a spot at state, but a loss in the early stages of the bracket would have left the Mariners hanging in the balance for another day before the official WPI standings were announced on that following Sunday.
Last year on the boys side, Grace Christian flourished en route to a 10-2 conference record. The Grizzlies lost the SCC championship to Anchorage rival ACS by four points, but no WPI savior was needed. The Grizzlies continued on to a third-place finish at state, best of the SCC teams.
The following is a closer look at what’s happening with the Mariners this season:
After one season with Nate Creel at the helm, the Homer boys are gaining a new coach in Weston Carroll, who is a lifelong Homer resident.
Carroll, 43, has six previous years as a hoops coach at the middle school level, and one as an assistant at the high school level, and will also have assistant Dave Edens by his side. Edens is a former head coach at the 2A level.
“This is going to be a rebuilding year,” Carroll said. “The speed and pace of the game might be different, but we’re ready for the future.”
In 2014, the team finished third with an 8-4 conference record, but ultimately lost out on the third and final state bid with a narrow 52-50 loss to Cordova in the SCC third-place game.
Of the nine players on last year’s varsity squad, eight were seniors, including 6-foot-7 center Sheldon Hutt. This year, the tallest player is 6-foot-3 senior Johann Kallelid, with six of the 11 players under 6 feet.
“The skills and potential are there. We just have to put it all together,” Carroll said.
The lone varsity returner from last season is sophomore guard Jordan Beachy. Joining Beachy will be Kallelid, junior forward Justin Ellison, junior guard Hunter Edens, sophomore guard Koby Etzwiler and sophomore forward Charles Rohr.
The Mariner girls finished third in the conference, but went on to win the region tournament to grab their first state berth in nine years. Homer went two-and-out at the state tournament, losing games to Hutchison and ACS.
Felice returns to coach the squad for a second straight year, and said he believes the girls are capable of another state run.
“The girls put a lot of off-season work in, and they’re really motivated,” Felice said.
Homer just completed a successful weekend at the Service Tip-Off tournament in Anchorage, where the Mariners finished 2-1 with wins over Service and Kodiak.
Felice said he would like to see the team return to the SCC championship game, which they won last year in a tight, 44-41 contest over Nikiski.
“That goal is pretty simple,” he said. “Play hard defense, get after it and force those tough shots, which will hopefully ease our transition game.”
The three returning seniors that Felice named team captains are Madison Akers, Aurora Waclawski and Kayla Stafford. Akers was named to the Class 3A state all-tournament team last season.
“All three are great leaders,” Felice said. “They know what they want on the floor, and sometimes I don’t have to call plays. They just know what to do.”
The starting trio will also be joined by junior Uliana Reutov and senior Sam Draves.
For a look at what’s happening with other Kenai Peninsula teams in the Class 3A Southcentral Conference — the Nikiski Bulldogs and the Seward Seahawks — go to HomerNews.Com.