The Nikolaevsk girls are making a seventh trip to the state basketball tournament in eight years, while the Nikolaevsk boys are making a sixth straight trip.
Both of the Warriors programs have been tantalizingly close to winning it all. The boys lost in the Class 1A state final in 2016 to Ninilchik, while the girls lost in the final to Cook Inlet Academy in 2013.
All of that state experience, and getting this close to a crown, hasn’t made girls coach Bea Klaich and boys coach Steve Klaich — the Peninsula Conference Coaches of the Year — more focused on a championship as the Class 1A tournament gets set to tip today at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.
The coaches have kept their focus squarely on the first day of play.
“We’re ready to take on Sand Point on Wednesday,” Steve Klaich said, when asked if he thought the Warriors were finally ready to get over the hump and win state.
The Class 1A state tournament features a play-in day, where winners go to the championship bracket and losers go to the consolation bracket. Lose Wednesday, and the best the Warriors can do is a consolation championship.
Both Nikolaevsk programs have been excellent since this format started in 2013. Both are 4-1 on the first day.
The Nikolaevsk boys open with Sand Point at 11 a.m., while the Nikolaevsk girls play Newhalen at 12:30 p.m.
A rarity in Class 1A first-round state play, the Nikolaevsk boys (18-5) have actually played first-round opponent Sand Point (14-12) this season. The Warriors topped Sand Point 73-57 on Feb. 15 at the Su-Valley Crowley Classic.
“We caught them at the end of a two-week trip,” Klaich said. “They were a little tired, but I think normally they are a feisty team.
“It was the next to last game of their trip. I think they’ll be more rested and ready come Wednesday.”
Klaich’s team also is rested and riding high after taking the first Peninsula Conference title in program history.
The Warriors won that title despite missing three starters due to injury. One of those starters, freshman Isaac Fefelov, returns for state.
Klaich credited seniors JD Mumey and Michael Trail with leading the charge at the conference tournament.
“I think it showed a lot of resilience, especially those two seniors,” Klaich said. “They really wanted it. Their passion carried over to other kids.”
Klaich said he told his squad that defense would dictate how the Warriors finish the season, and the two seniors stepped up and led on defense.
The coach added freshman point guard Lukah Kalugin has stepped up on defense while continuing to set the table and score on offense. Fellow freshman Justin Trail also has grown a lot this season, including on the defensive end.
The Nikolaevsk girls (17-10) open against gritty Newhalen (17-11). Tanalian beat Newhalen in three of four games this season. The Warriors lost to Tanalian by two points this season, so the matchup appears close.
“They’re really scrappy,” said Bea Klaich of Newhalen. “They’re physical and like to drive to the hole. We have to be really ready for a physical game on Wednesday.”
They certainly weren’t any fun to absorb at the time, but Klaich is hoping a 31-27 loss to Cook Inlet Academy late in the season and a 32-21 loss to CIA in the Peninsula Conference championship game will come in handy today. The Eagles also play physical, in-your-face defense.
“Those were valuable losses,” Klaich said. “We learned a lot from them. You can’t take anything away from Cook Inlet. Their defense is impressive and they improved throughout the season.”
Klaich said her squad has been working on shooting in practice under intense pressure. She added that the Warriors learned that struggles on offense can’t affect defense. If Nikolaevsk had gotten just a few more turnovers from pressing the Eagles, the outcome could have been different.
The coach said junior captains Elizabeth Fefelov and Markiana Yakunin will set the tone for the team. Fefelov leads on offense, while Yakunin sets the defensive and intensity tone. The remaining starters are juniors Sophia Klaich and Markiana Yakunin and freshman Zoya Fefelov.
While the roster is not long on state experience, Klaich said the Warriors have played in enough tournaments this season to be ready.