Mariner girls to vie for state title

With a win and a loss at the March 11 and 12 regions games under their belt, the Homer girls varsity basketball team will make their way to Anchorage for the state competition on March 24-26. The girls are the number two seed overall going into the state tournament, and are still the number one seed in their division with a 22-2 season record, according to girls varsity basketball head coach Chad Felice. 

The boys varsity team did not fare as well in their division, despite significant improvement in the young team from the beginning to the end of the season. Without the wins they needed to qualify for State, their season is at an end.  The team will have more upperclassmen in its ranks next year as the sophomores that made up the majority of the roster this year will be juniors and the few juniors will be seniors. With some practice in the off-season, the team could come back stronger and more competitive, said boys varsity basketball head coach Weston Carroll.

“I saw improvement with the players. They got more competitive. We definitely had times we played really good, but weren’t quite strong enough to get the whole,” Carroll said. “I’m proud of how hard they worked. Other teams and coaches commented on their improvement and how they never gave up even when it was hard.”

Grace girls 41, Homer 38

An intense, drama-filled game against Grace resulted in the Mariners losing their first game since mid-January on Saturday, March 12 at Regions. The game was a close battle, ending with the Mariners just three points behind.

“Homer is a championship team, and we were fortunate enough to execute tonight,” Grace Christian head coach Ward Romans said.

Homer took an 18-game win streak into Saturday and against Grace this year, Homer recorded a sweep with a 46-35 win at home and a narrow 35-34 win on the road, but all coaches know that beating a team three times in a season is tough.

“They’re at home and they’re tough,” Felice said. “A couple times, we gambled out there trying to get a steal and it hurt us.”

After a fast start that saw Homer stake out a 16-10 lead early in the second quarter, Grace clamped down on defense and turned the tide, taking a 22-18 lead into halftime. In the fourth quarter, a few timely buckets by the Grizzlies helped stave off a last-ditch effort by Homer. 

Homer senior Madison Akers had a strong performance with a game-high 20 points, including nine in the fourth quarter. 

Senior guard Aurora Waclawski, who finished with eight points for Homer, noted that the game was almost a mirror opposite of what occurred at last year’s Southcentral tournament, which was held on Homer’s home floor. In 2015, the No. 3 seed Mariners knocked off the top-seeded Nikiski Bulldogs by three points in the tournament championship game.

This time around, Homer was the top seed and Grace played the role of the third-seeded underdog.

“It was tough,” Waclawski said. “We’re definitely bummed we didn’t win but we’re hoping it will motivate us at state.”

The pivotal moment came on a play that Homer had never run in the regular season, according to Waclawski. With 8.9 seconds on the clock, the Mariners attempted to send the ball across the court on the inbounds pass, but the throw by Kayla Stafford to Waclawski in the corner was too high and the ball sailed out of bounds, handing possession to Grace.

“We just didn’t do it correctly,” Waclawski said. “We’ve run plays similar to that, but never that exact one.”

Akers hit a jump shot with 3:25 left in the game to close Homer’s deficit to 36-34, but layups by the Grizzlies put them in front by six points with 1:19 to play. Homer again cut the gap down to 40-38 in quick fashion with a driving layup by Akers with 36 seconds left and a baseline jumper by Stafford with 28 ticks left.

In the end, the home team proved to have enough in the tank to finally emerge victorious over the Mariners this season.

Romans praised Felice for his ability to adjust on the fly.

“I’ve been coaching for 25 years and I would be honored to have him coach my daughter,” Romans said. “Coaches can make other coaches work by changing and attacking. That’s why our games are always so close.”

When asked about Homer’s state championship chances, Felice said he was pleased that his team got the winning-streak snapped before states.

“We’d rather lose now than two weeks from now,” Felice said. “It’s a whole new season at state, and we’re challenging ourselves to come together.

“That’s what I told them afterwards, I asked if they can come together or let this ruin us. The message was, we’re fine.”

Seward boys 64, Homer 58

The Mariners lost a face-off against the Seahawks at a morning game on March 12. Seward sealed the win late with clutch free throw shooting. Though Seward took the lead early in the game, the Mariners stayed only three points behind until the fourth quarter.

“That was a close and exciting one the whole way through,” Carroll said.

Koby Etzwiler and Jordan Beachy led Homer with 19 points each, including five 3-pointers from Etzwiler and four from Beachy. Hunter Edens scored 12 points.

Homer girls 32, Houston 29

The Mariners survived a scare in the Friday, March 11 semifinal contest at the Southcentral Conference tournament to claim a dramatic victory over the stubborn Houston Hawks at Grace Christian High School.

With a state tournament spot effectively wrapped up due to their state-leading Winning Percentage Index among 3A girls teams, the Mariners did not necessarily have to beat Houston, but the win was nevertheless important to keep the momentum rolling.

“It was definitely tense at the end,” said Akers, who embraced her teammates in an emotional hug after the final buzzer. “We’ve come so far from the beginning of the season, and we wanted to keep it going. We’re all one big family.”

Akers led Homer with 13 points, and capped her day with the go-ahead layup with 46 seconds left, which put the Mariners up 30-29 at the time. Once they were in the lead again, the Mariners forced two crucial turnovers in the final 24 seconds to seal the win.

“This was good for us,” Felice said. “I told them in the last huddle there that this is what we do, it starts on defense.”

The win was the 18th straight for Homer and advanced the Mariners to Saturday’s championship tilt against Grace Christian. The Grizzlies beat ACS in Friday’s other semifinal 45-30.

Early on, shots were falling for Homer. Aurora Waclawski knocked down a pair of 3-pointers to help the Mariners stake out a 13-2 lead after six minutes were up. Stafford opened the scoring with a triple of her own for Homer, and the defense forced Houston into three early turnovers as well.

Homer led 19-15 at the halftime break, but Houston put up a charge in the third quarter with gritty defensive play that frustrated Homer, leaving the Mariners with a scant five points in the frame. A corner triple from Houston with 3:30 to play in the quarter gave Houston its first lead of the day at 22-21. A late bucket by Waclawski put Homer back on top 24-22 by the end of the period.

As the teams headed into the fourth quarter, Homer began rebounding better, but the Hawks took the lead again with 1:47 to play on a jump shot. Just 17 seconds later, Akers grabbed the lead back with a jumper from the free-throw line, putting Homer up 28-27.

After a Houston turnover, an empty possession by Homer ended in a traveling call on Akers, and a crosscourt inbounds pass by Houston resulted in another Homer foul. Two foul shots to give Houston a 29-28 lead, but it didn’t last long. The Mariners had the ball knocked out of bounds on the next possession, and on the ensuing inbounds pass, Akers collected the ball and laid it in for the 30-29 lead.

From there, the Mariners worked hard in pressing the Hawks, which helped force a Houston turnover with 24 seconds left. The sequence forced Houston to start fouling, and Waclawski helped build the lead to three points on a pair of clutch free throws with 16 ticks on the board.

“Aurora has ice in her veins,” Felice said. “It doesn’t affect her, she just knocks them down.”

Waclawski offered her explanation of her clutch gene.

“I guess I don’t remember to get nervous,” she said.

From there, the Mariners held strong to clinch the win after a full-court shot by Houston bounced off the rim at the buzzer.

“This was a good win for us,” Felice said. “Last week’s (44-38) win over ACS was good, but this one was big to put us in state.”

Akers said with the Mariners’ second consecutive state berth locked up for certain, she plans on heading to states with her teammates with one goal in mind.

“I want to end my high school career with three wins,” she said.

Nikiski boys 56, Homer 37

The Mariner boys’ March 10 game against Nikiski began with a Homer lead, ending the first quarter with a 11-9 score. However, after some turnovers and missed shots in the second quarter, Nikiski jumped ahead and went into halftime with a 28-17 lead. Nikiski held their ground in the second half, finishing the game 19 points ahead. 

“It was a good start, but we didn’t quite hold on,” Carroll said. “We weren’t quite strong enough.” 

Homer News reporter Anna Frost also contributed to this story.