After last week’s Peninsula Conference Tournament, with four days of play and 24 total basketball games, the Nikolaevsk girls team and Seldovia boys team are in the same spot they were a year ago: tournament champions.
The Nikolaevsk boys and Cook Inlet Academy girls also are where they were a year ago: in the tournament’s second-place slot. The four teams will advance to state championship play this week in Anchorage.
“My girls were clicking on all cylinders and played great team ball,” Bea Klaich, head coach for the Nikolaevsk girls, said following the tournament. “I was very pleased with their teamwork.”
With the tournament held at Lumen Christi in Anchorage, Klaich was well aware of the advantage that gave the home team, Nikolaevsk’s first tournament opponent. Lumen Christi was “playing well late in the season so we didn’t want to give them any confidence.” CIA, Nikolaevsk’s opponent for the tournament crown, also posed a possible barrier.
“CIA is a very good team and always gives us a tough game,” said Klaich.
Nikolaevsk won that game 40-22.
While winning the championship for the second time “wasn’t as exciting as the first time around, it was more satisfying because we proved we earned it,” said Mark Janes, head coach for the Seldovia boys team. “The team is pretty talented and usually you have one or two starters, key members, but I have five pretty good players that start for me and a couple coming off the bench that can add to the line-up as well.”
Janes has been coaching since the juniors on the team were in the eighth grade. “They always have played tough, the kind of games that are really about having a mental advantage over a lot of other teams,” he said.
Seldovia faced CIA in the final game for this year’s championship.
“We were really dominant in the first half and went up by almost 20 points and then CIA) got scrappy and fought back. They won the second half, but not by enough,” said Janes.
For Steve Klaich, head coach of Nikolaevsk’s boys team, “winning two games on Saturday to punch our ticket back to the ASAA State Tournament” was clearly a highlight. The Warriors began with a 69-64 win over Wasilla Lake on Wednesday, then lost 58-47 to CIA on Thursday. That loss put Nikolaevsk back on the court with Wasilla Lake, winning by a narrow two points, 54-52. After CIA lost the championship game to Seldovia, Nikolaevsk and CIA battled for second place, with Nikolaevsk taking the game 58-45.
“This was the strongest boys bracket that we have ever had at the Peninsula Conference Tournament,” said Steve Klaich.
His team was up for the competition, however, hitting 32 three-point shots over the weekend, 19 of them made by team captain Nikit Fefelov. They also made 42 of 64, or 66 percent, of their free-throws.
“I am extremely thrilled how the Nikolaevsk boys played this past weekend,” said Steve Klaich. “They are starting to play consistent basketball, tough defense and are taking care of the ball better than ever.”
Also representing the southern Kenai Peninsula were Nanwalek’s boys team, Seldovia’s girls team, and the boys and girls teams from Ninilchik. Nanwalek lost its first game against Lumen Christi, followed by a loss to Kodiak ESS. The Seldovia girls lost their first game against CIA and won a game with Lumen Christi.
The Ninilchik girls lost their first game to Lumen Christi, but battled back wins against Birchwood and a close 35-32 win over Seldovia. That put them in an unsuccessful battle with CIA for second place.
“The high point of the tournament was getting into the game to play for a chance to go to State,” said Rod Van Saun, head coach for Ninilchik’s girls team.
Of the competition, Van Saun said the teams Ninilchik played “had a ton of heart.” For his team, Van Saun said the lesson is to remain active between seasons.
“You do not get better just because you get older. If you really want to win, you make basketball part of your life on a year-round basis,” said Van Saun. “If you want to be an elite player or team, it is all about the off-season.”
The Ninilchik boys team began the tournament with a win over Birchwood, followed by a loss to Seldovia and a final loss to Wasilla Lake.
“It was a tough road for us,” said Nick Finley, head coach for Ninilchik’s boys team. “We played Seldovia really tight and a couple boys gave it their all in that game. I don’t know what it is about them (Seldovia), but they bring out the best in our team. Always.”
The downside was that the intensity of the game and the loss was tough “for a couple of boys that really poured their heart and soul into the Seldovia game and were crushed when we came up short. That was the game to make it into the championship. It was so close, but we just couldn’t quite pull it off.”
Finley credited his team as being “a great group of kids” and expressed his appreciation to senior Peter Pasqua, who played his first season of basketball.
“He brought some leadership to the team and is super athletic,” said Finley.
Aside from Pasqua, the team Finley took to the tournament is the one he’ll have next year.
“We’ve got a great group that’s coming back,” said Finley. “I had some compliments from some of the other teams about how far our team has come in a year. They really think next year we have a chance to do something special.”
Seldovia heads back to Anchorage on Thursday to prepare for the State competition.
“I’ll have the team under my wings for an extra day, get everyone settled in, make sure everyone sleeps well and is prepared for the tournament,” Janes said.
Heading to Anchorage on Friday, Steve Klaich said the biggest lesson he strives to teach his team isn’t necessarily the rules of basketball. It’s “mental toughness. In life, along with basketball, we experience disappointments, struggles and challenges. Often the way we respond to adversity indicates character in a more clear way than when things go well,” he said. “Playing two games in a day was tough, but I am very proud how my team responded and hope that these lessons will benefit them throughout their lives.”
As the coach, Steve Klaich also has been taught a thing or two by the team.
“This is the most unselfish team that I have ever coached,” he said. “The boys don’t care who scores how many points. They buy into the team concept and want what is best for the team. I am honored to be able to coach such a wonderful group of young men”
Bea Klaich said the biggest lesson she tries to impart to her team is that “a great attitude, commitment to working hard and trusting each other, results in success in life, regardless if it’s academics, sports, work or in everyday life. Our team motto this year is ‘ACT like a champion.’ Attitude. Commitment. Trust.”
What she has learned from her tournament champion team is “to look beyond the surface in people, be supportive of others and to always have fun.” The team gave a prime example of that support following their tournament victory.
“They celebrated by making posters to cheer on our boys on Saturday,” said Klaich. “They knew the boys had a big, tough day ahead, having to win two games in a day against quality teams in order to go to State with us. Our celebration wasn’t complete until the boys won Saturday afternoon.”