Nothing struck such excitement, and fear, in my youth along the panhandle in Alaska as the opening of the high school basketball season.
As elementary age lads carrying physical education class red rubber balls larger than our torsos we were drawn to the extreme squeaks and squeals of old converse high tops on freshly polished floors, the sound of which would escape out through cracked gymnasium doors and windows as the high school boys practiced.
In middle school we wrapped double scarves around our necks and walked through snow drifts to one of the only outside courts, shoveled it off, and played until our toes felt like thumbs; and then crammed along the side lines of the high school gym to watch our local Vikings team against a variety of behemoths and wizards and shape-shifters that left our mouths agape.
When it was finally our turn, when the first whiskers of adolescence and pimply maturity was upon us, we knew what had to be done and why.
We had to practice; at all times, at all hours, and in all weather. Why? Because in my day… well basketballs were still round, but the league was all one smorgasbord of hoops. Small schools played large schools, and more often than naught, the competitions were even and fierce and came down to the final minutes.
And the largest school was Juneau.
With Juneau, we knew what would come. We saw it when we traveled as ‘middlers’ to Floyd Dryden and Dzantik’I Heeni.
We knew the Crimson Bears would be physical inside and fast outside, that they would have a man inside your uniform on defense as soon as the referee put the ball into the center jump circle.
That center jump begins again on Friday in Ketchikan. If you could see me now you would notice the horned Vikings helmet is pushed forward on my head, my converse are double knotted, and my inseams have been let out a notch or two over the years.
But the excitement and fear is still there.
The Juneau-Douglas and Thunder Mountain teams are part of a new fangled triangle of schools seeking an automatic bid to the state basketball tournament in Anchorage. To do that they have to win the region tournament or amass the newly implemented Alaska Scholastic Activities Association’s WPI schedule.
The WPI, or Winning Percentage Index, is decided by a team’s win-loss record against 4A teams and their opponent’s win-loss record. If you balance your checkbook as bad as I do, this is roughly what can happen:
Beating a team with a bad record can hurt your ranking; Losing to a team with a good record leaves you safe on the surface; and beating a team with a good record helps you move to the top of the heap.
Now, the champions of the Southeast, and the Mid Alaska, and the top two teams in the Cook Inlet and Northern Lights automatically qualify for state. The remaining two berths, which had previously gone to third place teams in the CI and NL, are awarded to the two teams with the top WPI’s that don’t automatically qualify.
The Crimson Bears have been snatching regional titles left and right, boys and girls, since James Naismith dreamed up this kooky game in 1891 (FYI, he was Canadien and is also credited with inventing the first football helmet).
The Falcons are just on the verge of making a point as to where the round ball rolls best.
JDHS travels to West Anchorage, Service, Wasilla and Palmer; and hosts Chugiak, Kodiak and Mt. Edgecumbe. Don’t giggle, the MTE Braves pulled a number on “us” during the regional championships crossover game last season, remember? The Braves are considered a power. They may not factor into the WPI but they still pack some OMG.
The Falcons travel to Anchorage Christian and Kodiak and host Palmer, West Valley and West. Yes, ACS is a 3A school (but refer to OMG above).
The JDHS boys are the team that I feared growing up. Tony Yadao and Lance Ibesate will be in your shorts 24-7. A week from any game you play against the Crimson Bears it will still feel like 10 games. Yadao can shoot as well, and at 5-foot-11 he can post if needed on smaller guards. And here is just a giggle: they could start 6-foot-9 Taylor Swofford, 6-foot-7 Evan Gross (both over 230 pounds),6-foot-5 Bruce Jones, 6-foot-4 Alec Calloway, and 6-foot-3 Phillip Fenumiai. And have four more 6-foot-somethings ready and waiting. By the way, Jones is a freshman. It has been a while sine a freshman has made the adjustment to varsity ball.
New head coach Robert Casperson has brother Kevin, Steve Houlihan, Greg Huebschen and Akeem Micheli to assist.
Oh, and did I say fast? Like in your shorts? Just wanted to make sure you were listening Thunder Mountain.
The Falcons meanwhile, are no slouches. Think football, minus the helmet and pads and there you go. Coach John Blasco has Camden Thomas, Josh and Vili Tupou, and Sam and Ben Jahn looking pretty darn smooth off the grass and on the hard wood. Keith Ainsworth, Ty Grussendorf and Matt Seymour are three of the streakiest shooters on the planet and will present an interesting matchup in southeast.
The girls are another matter. JDHS graduated what should have been the second straight state championship team. Their final game at Anchorage’s Sullivan Arena last year was just a total miscue. It happens.
This season new coach Dee Boster features Nicole George and Sierra Tagaban as the only graduates to be, and George brings the competiveness of lots of time spent watching what to do right. Junior Esra Siddeek is possibly one of the top shooters in the state and classmate Marissa Brakes brings breakneck speed and leadership. Surprises loom as the season progresses and two to keep an eye on are rapidly improving sophomore post Ari Gross and lighting quick T Jae Garcia.
The Falcons’ girls are also young, but heavy on experience. Shale Kibby and Kinsey Marshall are the lone seniors; Jonelle Staveland, Eyerus Tingley, Shayla Reeves and Kylie Ibias are juniors with plenty of game time; Michaela Demmert and Makayla Pierce are impact players; and Ashley Young and Sarah Morris are freshman that have made the cut. Coaches Tanya Nizich, Arnold Ibias and Danielle Larson are at the helm.
The JDHS boys are in Ketchikan this weekend. On Dec. 16 the Falcons host the Crimson Bears in a double header boys and girls games, then travel down Glacier Highway to the JD gym on Dec. 17. If you can’t wait until then, check out the middle school madness beginning today at Floyd Dryden and Dzantik’i Heeni; or check out the junior varsity and ‘c’ team games at JD beginning tommorrow.
Don’t forget your calculators though. There is something to find exciting about each of our four teams. It may be size, speed, hustle, ball control, or just the colors blue and silver and red and black.
What matters is when the color maroon comes to town. Then I can wear my black/blue/silver/red armbands high enough to cover my old PHS Vikings tattoo…and I can start to figure out the WPI index, because only one of my two teams gets the automatic bid.