Gaining momentum going into the regional tournament is what gets preached to hoops teams this time of year, but it’s not always how things play out. This was the case for the Ninilchik hoops teams last week as they went a combined 1-6, with the girl’s team getting the lone win over Seldovia on Saturday. The losses weren’t for naught, as both teams gained experience, playing time and were able to find confidence in the little things going into the tournament, which began Wednesday at Skyview High School in Soldotna.
A bright spot for the Lady Wolverines comes in the form of Senior Jessica Rogers, who according to head coach Rod Van Saun, is playing the best basketball of her life right now. Rogers had 32 points in the 59-39 win over Seldovia and leads the conference in points per game with 15.4 and rebounds per game at 10.2.
“We are still working on some things though, such as breaking the press, which I think is one of our biggest challenges,” said Van Saun. “It will be interesting to see what happens on the big court, because obviously on our little court, the press is highly effective.”
Over the course of the last week rebounding was a positive, and at times played some really good defense. “If you’re going to win in the tournament though, the entire team needs to step up and contribute offensively,” Van Saun added. Cook Inlet Academy and Nikolaevsk are the top two teams in the upcoming regional tournament, and Van Saun made it clear that they’re chances of making it out of regions run through one of those teams.
“In my opinion CIA and Nikolaevsk are the favorites to make it to the state tournament and nobody in our region as beaten them, so we’re going to have to beat one of those teams to make it to the next step,” Van Saun explained.
When asked what the key to beating the top two teams is, Van Saun simply replied, “Take care of the ball.”
Ninilchik started off the week with a home loss to Nikolaevsk 38-27 and lost at CIA last Thursday, 45-24. Rogers led all scorers with 57 points in three games, Jordan Finney added 16, Melissa Ehlers had 14, Alanna Goins had nine points and Melissa Clark rounded out the scoring with seven points over the course of three games.
On the boy’s side of the ball, the last three games provided for three losses as they stare down the final stretch to the regional tournament. The first loss came at the hands of Nikolaevsk, 41-36. In that game, the Wolverines had the lead with two minutes left in the fourth quarter. “We just had a breakdown in defense, we took a couple of plays off on defense and that was it,” said head coach Nick Finley. “Other than that, we played them tough and held the number one scorer (Jaruby Nelson) in our conference to five points.”
In their second game of the week, against CIA, the Wolverines held the lead for most of the game before giving it up and losing 46-37. “The breakdowns in that game were just mental mistakes, young freshman making passes that shouldn’t have been made,” Finley added. Timmy Smithwick for CIA took advantage of those mental mistakes and put up eight straight points on breakaway layups. “Other than those breakaway points, we held him to just eight,” Finley explained.
Against Seldovia, the Wolverines came out slow but cut the lead to just seven points at halftime. The Wolverines went on to lose the final game of the season 54-42. In the third quarter, the Otters of Seldovia went on a 19-2 run to put the game away but Ninilchik game back out in the fourth quarter and went on a 20-8 run. The final run wasn’t quite enough for Ninilchik but according to Finley, this was a case of just not being aggressive. “They (Seldovia) were the aggressors and we sat back,” he said. “At regionals we’re going to have to play with a sense of urgency all the time, not just here and there, or we’re going to lose.”
The leading scorers throughout the week for the Wolverines were Austin White with 46 points in three games, Tyler Thorne with 19, Sam Mireles with 17 and Tyler Presley chipped in 11. The region tournament started yesterday for the boy’s and girl’s squads at Skyview High School in Soldotna. The girls played Birchwood Academy and the boys faced off against Wasilla Lake.
Michael Tozzo is a teacher and freelance writer who lives in Ninilchik.