You can call them the Seldovia Sea Otters boys basketball team and you’d be correct. Better yet, and equally correct, they also can be called the 1A State basketball champions.
In a final tournament game against the Scammon Bay Eagles at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage on March 18, the Otters scored a 62-34 victory, proving themselves worthy of the crown they’ve worked for years to earn.
“(It is) amazing and at the same moment it is something we had worked on envisioning since these kids were in sixth grade,” said Seldovia Head Coach Mark Janes. “My starting five have been together for four years. I always thought they someday could be the top team.”
The main gym of the Alaska Airlines Center was packed with fans from around the state who traveled to Anchorage to cheer for their hometown athletes. The opening round of 1A small schools games began March 14, with the competition becoming more and more intense as the top teams moved through the tournament bracket. Four days later, the final battles began with the Nikolaevsk Warriors girl’s team playing the Newhalen Malamutes, and scoring a 59-33 fourth-place win. That was followed by the Nikolaevsk boys team taking on the Manokotak Lynx, and claiming a 66-60, fourth place.
With each game, the bleachers continued to fill in anticipation of the final match-up for first and second place between Seldovia, who came into the tournament 17-3, and Scammon Bay, with an impressive 21-0. Seldovia took the tip-off and never looked back.
“Once the game started, it was never really in doubt who was going to win once we got going,” said Janes.
By the end of the first quarter, the Otters held a 15-8 lead and widened it to 29-15 by the half. During the third quarter, Seldovia packed the paint and formed a tight defense that kept the Eagles away from the rim. The quarter ended with the Otters at 44 and the Eagles at 17, a two-point gain earned with free throws.
“Aidan Philpot led the team in defending the 1A State player of the year, Angel Medina,” said Janes of the battle between Seldovia’s Philpot, a junior and the team co-captain, and Medina, a senior, who only managed four points throughout the Seldovia-Scammon Bay game.
Seldovia’s Calem Collier, also a junior and co-captain, and teammates Philpot and Dylan Waterbury “never faltered and never panicked against a swarming full court press,” said Janes.
Seth O’Leary, one of two seniors on the Seldovia team, made the most of Scammon Bay’s weak defense, weaving through holes near the basket and repeatedly adding to the Otters’ score. The strength of Chance Haller’s charges caused hesitation on the part of the Eagles, while Waterbury’s ball handling in the backcourt overpowered Scammon Bay’s defense. All of that, plus Collier’s and Philpot’s three-pointers, toppled the undefeated Eagles and even surprised Janes.
“I was stunned at how well they executed and amazed to see everything we practiced show up on the court,” said Janes. “We shot almost 60 percent from the field and (Scammon Bay) was around 25 percent. We beat them almost every way possible. … The Otters really played the best game I have ever seen them play. Everything we practiced showed in the game.”
This isn’t Seldovia’s first shot at the state title. They were the 2014 runner-up, one step away from being champs, but “losing is not as nice as winning,” said Janes, comparing the two experiences.
This is the last year of high school basketball for seniors Haller and O’Leary.
“(Haller) is an amazing defender and understands the floor spacing on offense. (O’Leary) has an amazing nose for the ball and always seems to find the hoop even though he is the least tall person under the basket,” said Janes. “They won’t be replaced and we will have to develop our other players to assume those roles.”
Nikolaevsk girls finish in fourth
It was a closely matched game between the Nikolaevsk girls and Newhalen. At the half, the score was an even 24-24. In the third quarter, the Warriors began inching ahead to a 39-30 lead. From then until the finish, the Malamutes only saw the Warriors’ backs as Nikolaevsk widened the lead, allowing their opponents a single three-pointer at the end of the game.
“(Nikolaevsk was) happy that they finished strong, taking fourth place, going 3-1 at State and with the one game they lost only losing by four points,” said Nikolaevsk Head Coach Bea Klaich, proud of her team’s “consistent hard work on the court, great sportsmanship, never giving up and playing tough calls.”
That sportsmanship was evident when a Newhalen player was injured during play. After it became clear assistance was needed to get the player off the court so her injury could be assessed, Nikolaevsk’s Nadejda Gordeev rushed from the bench to offer aid, drawing applause and cheers from the crowd.
“Nadejda is a compassionate young lady and I’m proud of her,” said Klaich. “That was totally her own doing.”
The tournament wrapped up high school basketball for the team’s two seniors, including Veronica Jones.
“(Jones) was a great support and encourager to her teammates and always ready to play her best,” said Klaich.
The other senior is Klaich’s daughter, Kilina, “who does a great job making her team better. She was my assist leader by quite a bit.” Klaich’s daughter, Kristin, a ninth-grade student, played on the team this year. Klaich’s eighth-grade daughter “along with some of her classmates who are terrific athletes” will join the team next year.
“I’m excited about next season already,” said Klaich. “As long as the girls are committed and work hard on their game by going to camp and working out in the off-season, we should have another great year of basketball coming up.”
Nikolaevsk boys also finish in fourth
The Nikolaevsk boys also saw close competition, but the Warriors never lost their lead. During the first quarter, Nikit Fefelov went on a three-point roll, boosting Nikolaevsk to a 20-17 lead. By the half, tight team play kept the Warriors ahead, 37-29. A 49-40 score at the end of the third quarter, with Nikolaevsk still leading, was evidence of how well the two teams were matched.
With little more than two minutes left in the game, the Lynx trailed by only three points, 58-55. A fierce two-minute battle drew repeated fouls and free-throw opportunities for both teams, with the Warriors claiming the fourth-place win.
“I am very pleased with how the boys finished the tournament after a disappointing loss on Monday,” said Nikolaevsk Head Coach Steve Klaich of the Warrior’s loss to Southeast team Angoon. “(Nikolaevsk) bounced back with grit and determination. Obviously, we wanted a shot at the title, but we did finish the tournament with three wins and one loss. Only one out of 16 teams did better than that.”
The Nikolaevsk boys team is in the enviable position of having no seniors “and one or two good players moving up,” said Coach Steve Klaich. “ We should have a very competitive team next season.”
Janes summed up the value of the Alaska School Activities Association’s State basketball tournament by saying it meant “nothing and everything.”
“The families and people who have deep roots here understand the accomplishment that we have attained,” he said. “Seldovia has never had a State championship in basketball and it takes years of work to tune up a group of student athletes to be the best.”
However, any changes in this small community of 250 residents on the far side of Kachemak Bay also mean changes to sports activities.
“With so few kids in the school and even fewer coming to open gyms, it will be harder and harder to get a team to the floor here in Seldovia,” said Janes.
McKibben Jackinsky is a freelance writer who lives in Homer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.