The Susan B. English Sea Otters left their home court in Seldovia for some away games last week, taking on the Cook Inlet Academy Eagles on Feb. 14 and a scrimmage with the Homer Mariner JVs on Feb. 15.
It was a win one, lose one trip to Soldotna for the Otters, with the boys claiming a 56-53 victory against the Eagles and the girls a 57-17 loss. In Homer, the boys racked up another victory with a 62-31 win over the Mariner JVs. The girls lost their game against Homer, but narrowed the spread to 34-21.
For a K-12 school of 50 students, putting together a team can sometimes be challenging. The eight girls on the roster include a foreign exchange student, senior Aydanna Omar of Kazakhstan, and a player from Port Graham, sophomore Kelsey Meganack, who flies to Seldovia the day before a game in order to get in some pre-game practice with the team.
“That’s rural ball,” said Head Coach Tiffany Haller, who is in her first year coaching the Otter girls.
When the coaching position opened up at the last minute, Haller decided to sign on.
“There has been a bit of a ‘revolving door’ in the coaching in the past few years, and I thought I could do something long-term, build a girls program that the school and community could be proud of, like our current boys program led by Coach Mark Janes,” said Haller. “What I lack in experience, I make up for in dedication. I absolutely love these girls, and I learn something new from them every day.”
The team includes another senior, co-captain Xandria Swick, who advanced to state competition as a freshman. There are four sophomores, in addition to Meganack: co-captain Olivia Turner, who played for the Mariners last year; returning player Marina Chissus and new-to-the-game Jenna Crosby. Freshman Violet Mitchell picked up her basketball know-how in junior high. Rounding out the team is eighth-grader Axcenia Waterbury.
The biggest challenges facing the team are easy to spot: its size, new-to-the-sport members and the lack of experience playing together. However, Haller keeps it positive.
“It’s been a learning experience for us all,” she said. “We have some good ball-handlers and shooters, and a true love of the game.”
Part of the learning has come from playing teams from bigger schools.
“Thankfully, when Coach Janes made the boys schedule last year, he also scheduled the girls team,” said Haller. “The girls have learned a lot and seen places in Alaska that they had only heard of. It’s been fun. They are an amazing group of girls and even though they have had some huge losses, they finish every game with a smile. They just want to play basketball.”
This is Janes’ third year coaching the Otter boys, some of whom have been playing high school basketball since they were in the eighth grade, something that can be done in small schools if there aren’t enough players to fill a varsity team, according to Janes.
This year’s team includes 10 players. Among them are juniors Souleymane Sidebe of Mali, who, like Omar, is a foreign exchange student, and Seth O’Leary. There also is junior Chance Haller and his cousin, sophomore Tim Haller. Other sophomores include Austin Crosby, Calem Collier, Aidan Philpot and cousins Robert and Dylan Waterbury. The team has one freshman, Jaren Swearingen, and no eighth-graders.
Like the girls team, the Seldovia boys have played schools outside their 1A area. For instance, there was the trip to Cordova, where some of the team took Dramamine to calm their motion sickness crossing Prince William Sound. Arriving in Cordova, they discovered they were scheduled to be one of the first teams on the court.
“No excuses, but we were a little dragging,” said Janes.
Then, there was the game against 2A Unalaska.
“We actually beat them,” said Janes.
Although the boys team is relatively young, it has the advantage of having members who have played together since junior high.
“And we have a couple of quick shooters,” said Janes. “Next year we’re really going to shine and that’ll be fun.”
Of the 14 games the boys team has played, excluding Saturday’s scrimmage, the Otters have scored eight wins and six losses, putting them second in the IA Peninsula schools. Cook Inlet Academy was first in the 1A Peninsula standings, with Nikolaevsk in second and Seldovia in third. However, the Otters’ Feb. 14 upset of the Eagles moved Nikolaevsk to the top position with Seldovia right behind them.
“We haven’t played Nikolaevsk yet,” said Janes.
The Otters will get that opportunity Feb. 28, when the Seldovia teams travel to Nikolaevsk. First, they face a rematch with Cook Inlet Academy during a basketball tournament in Seldovia that begins today and continues through Saturday.
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.