Peninsula Conference hoops tourney preview: Tons of basketball on the horizon

For those area hoops fans despairing that both the Northern Lights Conference and Southcentral Conference tournaments are happening off the Kenai Peninsula this year, don’t despair.

There is still basketball this weekend at the Peninsula Conference tournament at Skyview High School. A lot of basketball.

The tournament opened with eight games Wednesday, with a total of 27 games scheduled to be played by the time the tournament wraps up Saturday.

The event is so big that the Peninsula Conference had to tap Lara McGinnis as the tournament director because it would be too difficult for just one school to host.

“No school in the region except Lumen (Christi) has a facility that can handle the size the tournament has grown to,” Ninilchik coach Rod Van Saun said.

Van Saun said the 16 teams come with an average of 12 to 14 people, meaning 192 to 224 can be in the gym before anybody even pays to get in.

“There are a lot of long-term, small-schools basketball fans on the peninsula that come and support the kids and travel a long way to do it,” he said.

At stake at the tournament are two girls passes and two boys passes to the Class 1A state tournament in Anchorage.

The general consensus among coaches is that somebody will have to pull an upset to keep Nikolaevsk and Cook Inlet Academy from the girls berths, while the boys berths are up for grabs.

On the girls side, Nikolaevsk and CIA have represented the conference at state the past two years.

Last season, Nikolaevsk won the conference title but the Eagles topped the Warriors for the 1A state title.

Nikolaevsk finished 12-0 in the league this year and 20-2 overall, with one of those losses coming out of the league to CIA. The Warriors have a first-round bye and open with the Ninilchik-Birchwood Christian winner Thursday at 5 p.m.

Warriors coach Bea Klaich said the girls teams have improved a lot this season, so the championship game is no sure thing for her squad.

“Ninilchik played us pretty close just last week,” Klaich said. “We only beat them by 11.

“Compared to the beginning of the season, they’ve come a long way.”

CIA, whose only two losses in the conference came to Nikolaevsk, opens with seventh-seeded Wasilla Lake Christian at 5 p.m. today. The Eagles and coach Rustin Hitchcock will be seeking a fifth-straight trip to state and a fourth conference title in five years.

Lumen, the No. 3 seed, faces No. 6 seed Seldovia at 1:30 p.m. today. The Sea Otters finished 2-10, including double jeopardy games, in the conference and 1-14 overall.

Seldovia coach Tiffany Haller wrote that her team will be working on the basics — running plays aggressively, blocking out, following shots and shooting when open.

“If our girls could grow 10 inches in the next 48 hours that would be awesome too,” Haller wrote in an email.

Ninilchik has been buoyed by the return of Jessica Rogers in the middle this year.

“She missed the first part of the season and it’s been quite the learning experience for those that have never played with her because she’s a dominant scorer and center,” Van Saun said.

Van Saun said that for his team to threaten for a state berth, his guards need to complement Rogers by handling pressure and scoring when the opportunity presents itself.

On the boys side of the tournament, expect a wild ride. While CIA and Nikolaevsk girls have held sway on the girls side for several years, there is no such stability on the boys side.

The two boys squads to make state last year — Lumen Christi and Birchwood Christian — are the Nos. 9 and 6 seeds, respectively.

A tournament in Seldovia at the end of February featuring No. 1 seed Nikolaevsk, No. 2 seed CIA, No. 3 seed Seldovia and No. 7 seed Nanwalek showed just how crazy things may get over the weekend.

Nikolaevsk won the tournament, but defeated Seldovia and CIA by three points. The Warriors also had just a two-point lead on Nanwalek after three quarters.

The Seldovia-CIA game also was close, with Timmy Smithwick nailing a trey at the buzzer for the win.

The Warriors, who get the winner of Kodiak ESS and Lumen Christi at 8 p.m. today, finished 15-1 in the league and 16-6 overall.

But Nikolaevsk boys coach Steve Klaich is doing anything but resting easy as his squad chases its first state berth since 1997.

“We’ve had a lot of close games,” Klaich said. “There’s a lot of very good basketball teams in this conference.

“It’s been a season of three-point games.”

Under coach Justin Franchino, CIA has reached the conference title game the last four years, but has turned that into state berths twice.

CIA beat Nanwalek by double digits twice this season.

“They’ve come a long way and can score a lot of points,” Franchino said. “John Romanoff is one of the best players in our conference.

“We can’t overlook them, and we can’t overlook anybody else at this tournament. There’s at least five teams that have a legitimate chance of winning it.”

Franchino said he will count on the senior leadership of Mylon Weems to keep the Eagles focused on the title.

At times this season, the coach said his squad has struggled with mental focus, and that has led to some huge comebacks both by CIA and by CIA’s opponents in games.

“The positive way to say it is it keeps me on my toes because it’s exciting and you never know what is going to happen,” Franchino said. “But it can also be super frustrating to have so many ups and downs.

“The last couple of weeks, we’ve focused on putting stuff together, and we’re potentially peaking at the right time.”