Homer Alaska - Sports

Story last updated at 6:34 PM on Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Region III basketball tourney brings area-wide excitement

By Lindsay Johnson
Staff writer

Homer basketball teams finished their regular season with games against the No. 1 4A teams in the state last Friday. The Ms lost, but they're ready to take on the Warriors again today, this time on their home court.

The Region III 4A basketball tournament begins today at 8 a.m. at the Homer High School gym.

Mariner boys fell 34-65 to Wasilla, a team with a 9-1 record who went on to beat Skyview 77-33 Saturday.

"We played well, just not well enough to beat Wasilla," Boys Head Coach Mark Casseri said of the Friday game. "The kids are just getting better every game. They've been playing wonderful basketball."

The Wasilla girls were undefeated this season. They beat Skyview 65-15 last Saturday after pounding Homer 69-13 the night before.

Homer Girls Head Coach Dennis Welch said the Warriors were ruthless, but the Mariners kept their heads up.

"It may not show in the scoreboard, but we are making progress," he said. "Our goal at the start of the year was to improve — whether it's a baby step or a giant step — on something every game. This group is pretty tight, and it says a lot about them to stick with it and show up for practice every day."

With loyal supporters, no long drive and a season of practicing on a larger-than-average floor, Mariners' home court advantage is substantial.

"Our floor is bigger than the rest of them ... 94 feet starts wearing on those guys," Casseri said.

Wasilla, Colony, Palmer, Kodiak, Soldotna, Kenai and Skyview will each bring a girls and boys team.

The 16 teams face off for three boys and three girls berths to the state basketball tournament.

"The basketball will be really intense," said Homer High School Athletic Director Pam Newton.

The top two teams in the double elimination tournament automatically qualify for state, with the third place game determining the third berth.

"I've been telling the teams I think we can sneak through the back door for third place. When our kids are on, when they're playing our A-game, I don't think there's a team in the region we couldn't beat," Casseri said.

Along with 14 teams of basketball players comes coaches, cheerleaders, pep bands, relatives and fans from out of town. The masses of school color-clad visitors are a welcome addition to the mid-winter landscape here at the end of the road, bringing spirit and appetites to liven up commerce.

While businesses hope to see some new faces this weekend, basketball fans really won't need to leave the high school to meet their basic needs.

The Mariner Big Booster Club will operate a food court, featuring a baked potato bar, soup bar, coffee cart, cheeseburgers, kielbasas on a stick, pizza by the slice, fruit, ice cream, home-baked-goods and more.

"We just want to offer them something really nice to eat," said Big Booster club president Tammy Marsengill.

"What we're trying to do is raise money for Big Booster to help offset some travel expenses — because we don't get the funding the bigger schools get — and get the kids involved, teach them about sales and raising money and everybody pitching in," Marsengill said.

"It's a whole school effort."

It's a community effort, too. The food court is possible through donations from Save-U-More, Fritz Creek General Store, Ulmer's Drug and Hardware and Two Sisters Bakery. Other businesses help stock the hospitality rooms.

There will be plenty to see and eat at the high school, but businesses outside school walls also are ready to serve.

"This time of year is always great 'cause there's hockey tournaments and ski races ... there's always something going on. Any of that stuff bumps up our business in some way from all the people coming in," said Carri Thurman, co-owner of Two Sisters, while cooking up a pot of fish chowder for the booster club.

"They'll often swing in and grab treats to take up the road."

The high-stakes nature of the regional tournament means more teams will be booking hotel rooms instead of sleeping on floors.

"We will be sold out over the weekend. The reason we're selling out is because of the basketball," said Land's End Resort General Manager Patrick Cashman.

Land's End held a spaghetti feed last night and offered special pricing for teams and visiting referees.

"We're extremely excited, we're extremely supportive," Cashman said.

Other establishments, like Ocean Shores Motel and Faith Lutheran Church, also have opened their doors.

The Wasilla Pep Band and cheerleaders are bringing their sleeping bags.

"One of the members at St. John Palmer asked if we had space for them to sleep during the tournament," said Pastor Gary Syth.

Tina Day, interim director of the Homer Chamber of Commerce, conservatively estimates the event will bring an additional $20,000 into the community per day.

"It's a nice little boost to our economy," she said. "The other thing it says to people throughout the state is Homer is open for business all year long."

She said large sporting events are an important part of the winter tourism industry. The fact that visitors come from elsewhere in Alaska doesn't reduce the positive impact.

"A good percentage either haven't been to Homer in the past or find it's a lot easier to get to Homer than they may have anticipated, and they take advantage of our Pratt museum and our arts and the restaurants. It's that multiplier effect again," Day said.