By Lindsay Olsen
For the Homer News
The Lady Mariners were crowned Region III champions on Saturday after defeating Houston, Cordova, and finally Nikiski to claim the first place title, paving their way to State for the first time in nine years.
The Mariner boys’ ticket to State was snatched away by two points in the final three seconds of Saturday’s game against Cordova, ending their season with a fourth place tournament finish.
“There are no words,” said senior Shelby Alexander, when asked to describe her team’s first place finish on Saturday. “I’m proud of everyone on my team and I’m just grateful for Chad (Felice),” she said.
Felice, the Lady Mariners’ head coach, is the fourth coach Alexander and her fellow senior teammate, Larsen Fellows, have played under in the past four years.
“It’s pretty awesome,” said Fellows. “We had so many struggles over the past four years, and with my freshman year being 4A. It’s so awesome to finally win it.”
When asked what led her team to victory, Alexander spoke to the gritty determination that has defined the Lady Mariners’ play this season.
“We never give up, ever. We go as hard as we can and we always stick together. Always,” she said.
The Lady Mariners kicked off the tournament Thursday night in a match against Houston, hungry for redemption after losing to the Hawks by one point the previous weekend.
“I told the girls, (Houston has) beaten us twice, they’re going to come in here and think they’ll get us again on our home court,” said Felice.
The Mariners’ determination for victory played out in a fierce defensive effort against the Hawks, holding them to 26-9 at halftime. In the third quarter, the Mariners increased their lead to 21 points, and held the upper hand throughout the fourth quarter, ending the game with a 48-31 win over the Hawks.
On Friday, the Mariners tipped off against Cordova, a team they hadn’t played since the very beginning of the season. The pressure of qualifying for the championship loomed heavily over the semi-final game as the Mariners traded baskets with the Wolverines, going into halftime 20-18.
The contest remained close throughout the third quarter and into the fourth. With three minutes left on the clock, a three-point shot from junior Aurora Waclawski pulled the Mariners into a solid seven-point lead.
It was free throw shots from junior Kayla Stafford that solidified the Mariners’ 44-35 win over the Wolverines in the final minute of the game, as well as their place in Saturday’s championship match.
Free from the pressure of qualifying for the State championships, the Mariners came out against top-seeded Nikiski on Saturday with focused intensity. Points from Waclawski and Stafford put the Mariners up 14-8 at the end of the first quarter. The Bulldogs’ senior point guard, Rachel Thompson, who was later voted All-Region MVP, worked hard to break through the Mariners’ full court defensive press, and brought the score up to 18-17 at halftime.
Homer held a small lead throughout the third quarter, but with three minutes left in the game the Bulldogs brought the score to a tie. With just 20 seconds left on the clock, the Mariners holding a tenuous 42-41 lead, junior Madison Akers took to the line to shoot two.
The quiet swoosh of both shots, followed by the deafening cheers of the home crowd and the buzzer seconds later, announced the Mariners’ Region III championship victory.
The Mariner boys set the tone for their hard-fought tournament on Thursday night with a nail-biting game against the Bulldogs that ended in overtime. Homer led through the first quarter with several steals by senior Kenneth Schneider resulting in breakaway layups down the court.
The Bulldogs responded with several three-point shots in the second quarter, pulling ahead 25-31 by halftime. At the end of the third quarter the Bulldogs still led by five points. Seniors Jaruby Nelson and Sheldon Hutt continued to attack the basket in the last few minutes of the game, bringing the score up to a 46-46 tie as the clock ran out.
A three-point shot from Schneider, followed closely by a layup from Nelson, kicked off four minutes of overtime. Both seniors went to the line to put away bonus shots that would inevitably lead to the Mariners’ 55-53 victory over the Bulldogs.
On Friday, it was ACS that made the first move against the Mariners during the semi-finals. The Anchorage team came out with high intensity and pulled ahead ten points in the first quarter, leaving Homer to play catch-up for the rest of the game. The night ended in a 32-58 loss for the Mariners, sending them into the consolation bracket.
On Saturday morning the Mariners defeated the Seward Seahawks 69-50, advancing them to battle Cordova in a final fight for third place.
The Wolverines pulled ahead early in Saturday afternoon’s competition, sending the Mariners into halftime down 21-28. Coming out with determination and drive, Schneider, Nelson, and senior Filip Reutov closed the gap in the third quarter with a series of three-point shots that gave the Mariners a 39-36 lead.
The teams traded baskets throughout the fourth quarter, until the score was tied at 50-50 with one minute left on the clock.
The Wolverines took possession of the ball, and despite the Mariners’ aggressive defense, with just two seconds remaining on the clock Cordova landed a jump shot to win the game 50-52. The narrow fourth place finish for the Mariners disqualified them from advancing on to State.
“That’s two years in a row now that we’ve had a really close game for third, and lost in the last seconds,” said senior Kenneth Schneider after Saturday’s game. “It’s a little heartbreaking.”
The boys’ head coach, Nate Creel, said he was sorry for the seniors that the team wouldn’t advance, but he felt that the Mariners had given a valiant final effort.
“They all had a lot of heart and gave a 100 percent. … It was a good season and a good effort by everybody,” he said.
Six Mariners were named to the All-Conference 1st Team roster: senior boys Sheldon Hutt, Kenneth Schneider and Jaruby Nelson, along with junior girls Madison Akers, Kayla Stafford and Aurora Waclawski.
The Lady Mariners will head to Anchorage for the 3A/4A State Championships at the Sullivan Arena next weekend, beginning on March 19.
Felice described the Lady Mariners’ win at Regions as “phenomenal,” but said the fight is not over yet.
“We’re not just happy we’re going (to State). We’re going there to make some noise,” he said.
Up to date details on the State tournament, including game times, can be found at www.aasa.org.
Mariner girls v. Houston 48-31,
Mariner boys v. Nikiski 55-53
Mariner girls v. Cordova 44-35
Mariner boys v. ACS 32-58
Mariner girls v. Nikiski 44-41
Mariner boys v. Seward 69-50
Mariner boys v. Cordova 50-52