It may be too early for March, but it’s never too early for madness.
Calendars won’t flip until Friday, but by that time the Peninsula Conference will already have 16 games in at its conference tournament at Lumen Christi in Anchorage.
Don’t count on the month holding its reputation for a lamb’s entrance, either, as Friday and Saturday will see 10 more games contested, including the all-important conference championship games Friday and the second-place games Saturday.
The first- and second-place teams at the tournament earn a pass to the Class 1A portion of March Madness Alaska. The 1A tournament features 16 girls and 16 boys this year and starts March 16 in Anchorage.
On the girls side of the conference tournament, Cook Inlet Academy and Nikolaevsk represented the conference at state last year and are the favorites to do so again this year.
Nikolaevsk earned the top seed with an 11-1 conference record, which includes double jeopardy games — or games which counted twice on the record because the Warriors were supposed to play the team twice but only played them once.
The No. 1 seed means the Warriors were the only team not in action Wednesday. While Nikolaevsk split with CIA this season, the next closest opponent was No. 3 Lumen Christi, which Nikolaevsk beat by 12.
“Everyone steps up at the conference tournament,” Nikolaevsk coach Bea Klaich said. “Being on their own court in Anchorage, it definitely won’t be easy to beat Lumen.”
The Warriors go into the tourney with a recent victory over CIA to boost their confidence.
“CIA is always the team we’ve been striving to go beat,” Klaich said. “When we lost against them in the second game of the season, it was a good loss. It showed us where we were.”
Klaich said keys for her team will be the inside presence of Nianiella Dorvall, the rebounding of Sophia Kalugin and handling pressure.
The Warriors return all five starters from last year’s run to state, and also have a Nenana Invitational Tournament title under their belts.
“We were playing the home team for the championship,” Klaich said. “It was a big crowd, but all of that in the long run helps us.”
The CIA girls had a 7-1 conference record and lost out to Nikolaevsk due to winning percentage. The Eagles play No. 7 seed Seldovia (0-10) today at 4:45 p.m.
“If anything it will get us used to playing on the bigger-sized court,” CIA coach Rustin Hitchcock said of missing out on the first-round bye. “Nikolaevsk took care of business and we didn’t.”
The Eagles will be looking for their fourth straight conference title and fifth straight trip to state.
Hitchcock said the team will be led by Megan Bauder, with Cara Davidson providing key defense on the interior and Nicole Moffis contributing on both sides of the court. But the coach said everybody will be key, because the Eagles must be on the same page on both offense and defense to be successful.
In other games today, No. 4 seed Ninilchik (6-6) takes on Birchwood Christian (4-8) at 9:45 a.m. and No. 3 Lumen Christi (7-3) takes on No. 6 Wasilla Lake (3-7) at 1:15 p.m. Nikolaevsk gets the Ninilchik-Birchwood winner Thursday at 3 p.m.
While CIA and Nikolaevsk are the clear favorites on the girls side, the boys tournament promises to be a scramble for the title and state berths.
“It’s going to be a phenomenal tournament,” Nikolaevsk boys coach Steve Klaich said. “There’s half a dozen schools that have very competitive boys programs this year.”
The top six seeds are as follows: No. 1 Birchwood Christian (13-1), No. 2 Nikolaevsk (16-2), No. 3 Lumen Christi (8-4), No. 4 Cook Inlet Academy (7-5), No. 5 Ninilchik (9-7) and No. 6 Wasilla Lake Christian (4-7). The final seeds are a young and improving No. 7 Seldovia (4-12), No. 8 Kodiak ESS (2-13) and No. 9 Nanwalek (0-19).
Kodiak ESS and Nanwalek start the tournament at 8 a.m. today, then the winner of that game moves on to play Birchwood at 8:15 p.m. today.
Nikolaevsk opens its quest for its first state bid since 1997 with a 6:30 p.m. game against Seldovia.
The Nikolaevsk starters have been playing together since junior high, and won the Peninsula small-schools basketball crown when many were in eighth grade.
“They’ve wanted to go to state ever since,” Klaich said.
That group is seniors Anatoli Fefelov, Frank Holub, Blake Klaich and Eric Mametieff and junior Anthony Yakunin.
Nikolaevsk’s biggest hurdle at the tournament may be wanting it too bad. Their only loss in conference came to Birchwood, in a game when the Warriors got down early and couldn’t come back.
Nikolaevsk found itself down early in many games this year.
“I think part of the problem is the boys are so up for games that they have too much adrenaline,” Klaich said. “They’re playing 100 miles per hour and the turnovers come at 100 miles per hour.”
Lumen plays Wasilla Lake at 3 p.m., while CIA takes on Ninilchik at 11:30 a.m.
The Eagles are the defending conference champions and have been to state in three of the last four years, while the Wolverines last made a trip to state in 2010.
They split games this year.
“Ninilchik fights hard,” CIA boys coach Justin Franchino said. “They are well-coached, they have a lot of size and they get after it.”
The Wolverines are led by the high-scoring Jack Wheeler. Franchino said CIA will count on the inside presence of Mylon Weems and on seniors Koebryn Mlynarik, Scott Habermann, Keefe O’Dell and Braden Chumley.
“Our biggest weakness has been taking care of the basketball,” Franchino said. “We have to be more patient on offense. Better decisions lead to less turnovers.”