The world is not going to end after this weekend’s cross-town matchup between the Juneau-Douglas and Thunder Mountain boy’s and girl’s basketball teams at TMHS gym.
But the cosmos my get shaken up a bit.
On the boy’s side, bragging rights and the regular season title are on the line. On the girl’s side, momentum going into the region tournament is at stake.
“It is a big weekend,” TMHS coach John Blasco said. “It is the senior finale. The final games of the season, which are always big games. The winner, give or take how it goes, will be the regular season conference champion and get the bye in the first round of the tournament, which is something both teams are playing for.”
The Falcons’ boys are in the state’s top five ranking for the first time ever in the school’s short four-year existence. They are fresh off a six-game road-winning streak, four straight last week at Fairbanks’ teams, and have won nine of their last 10 games. Again, eight of which were on the road, two of them just down Egan Drive.
They are becoming seasoned to the idea of playing tough northern teams in the state tournament.
The Falcons’ home stand this weekend, which features senior night appreciation on Saturday between the varsity girl’s and boy’s games, will determine the Southeast Conference regular season champion. This would be the first regular season title, although it does not come with a trophy, and bragging rights across town.
TMHS is in the drivers seat with a five-win, one-loss conference record (6-0 in hustle and effort); that one loss was a forfeit to the Kings after a win due to a player participating in too many quarters. They have won at JDHS (57-56 and 68-49) and at Kayhi (69-64 and 57-38).
The odds are that the Falcons will defend their home court. They are 5-1 at home in hustle and play (again, 4-2 on paper).
Their lone “real-time” home loss was to Lathrop 71-46, a game they avenged at the Malemutes home last weekend. 52-50. They defeated visiting Sitka (51-45, 69-65), Kayhi (“54-36” win forfeited, 64-49) and Wasilla (39-27).
“I think the fact that we beat them (JDHS) at their place twice means they want to seek a little revenge at our place,” Blasco said. “Both teams want to end the season on a high note as they go into tournament play. You want the regular season conference title and you get the bye. In our sense we would look at it as a big achievement; the first time we have won our conference.”
If ever a senior class is deserving of wrapping up a SE Conference title it is Blasco’s group of Ty Grussendorf, Sam Jahn, Travis Johnson, Josh Tupou, Vili Tupou, Joe Ia and Avery Stewart. They have paid their dues for four years, taken their lumps and bruises, and have put their school on the state basketball map.
Talk is that the Falcons’ pep band will be bringing out a Drum Line, the dance team will unveil new moves, and the cheer squad will hop up and down hard enough to send residents to higher ground on Sunday.
The Falcons will have to slow down a more aggressive Jeffrey Pusich and Gary Speck inside and the improved guard action of Jackson Lehnhart, Aquino Brinson, Adam Empson and Keith Ainsworth on the perimeter.
The Tupou brothers are going to be vital, both ways, for the Falcons’ holding of home court. Seymour and sophomore Jacob Calloway are critical in taking pressure off of them and providing a scoring punch from the arch and in. They in turn will open up the arch and out for Grussendorf.
“I think people will be excited to watch these games,” Blasco said. “I am sure they will want to see if what we did the first time was for real. And now that they have Phillip (Fenumiai) back it adds a whole new dimension to their team.”
The JDHS boys cannot be overlooked.
The Crimson Bears (3-3) took a solid hold on second place in the conference with their weekend home sweep of the Ketchikan Kings (2-6), 56-46 and 63-51. They have lost to TMHS (57-56, 68-49) in the Bears den, at homecoming no less, and split at Kayhi (winning 49-42, losing 59-54).
“Every team that is playing this weekend is looking to build some momentum going into regionals,” JDHS coach Robert Casperson said. “There has to be a balance between going all out to win the conference or keeping a trick or two up your sleeve. We have always looked at it as one game at a time. We are going to approach this series the same way. Friday is our next opportunity to play and we are excited for that. We are not looking beyond Friday.”
They too have seniors who have been with the program and chose to stay in town instead of head to the valley. Varsity players Brinson, Pusich, Speck, Ainsworth, Lehnhart, Ben Williams, Phillip Fenumiai and JV’s Danny Nore, Jefferson Estigoy and Jericho Erasmo deserve fan respect as well.
Fenumiai rejoined the varsity for the first time all season last weekend. The Falcons will face him for the first time on Friday, although they have grown up playing with and against him through their careers. Fenumiai brings a physical power in the mid-range setting and another ball handler and rebounder while in the rotation.
How the Crimson Bears deal with the Falcons S. Jahn is critical. Jahn is playing impressive inside ball and could tire both JDHS’ Pusich and Speck. JDHS sophomores Bruce Jones and Nathan Klein will be vital inside the key as are Williams and junior Dar Campos.
It will take a two-game sweep by the Crimson Bears to get the regular season title, and for that to happen it will require the JDHS cheer section packing up and moving down Egan Drive for the weekend.
It will also require slowing down the Tupou brothers, keeping the Jahn brothers out of the paint, and not allowing Calloway, Grussendorf and Seymour to get open looks or a path to the basket.
Two wins will also result in a tie-breaking scenario involving points against opponents and/or a coin flip. The Falcons would rather win outright, the Crimson Bears want what they can get.
“Thunder Mountain is much improved and their years of experience and playing time together has proven to be very difficult to over come,” Casperson said. “They have been successful in a lot of situations this season where they have not been in the past. What we are looking to do is make sure we are ready to play all four quarters against them because that is what it is going to take. They are a quality team and it is going to take a quality effort from us to defeat them on their home floor. It should be fun. It is the last time for many of these kids to play, I think the fans will be going through basketball withdrawls in another month.”
On the girl’s side, the southeast regular season title was wrapped up last weekend as JDHS (5-1 SE, 12-10 OA) swept at Ketchikan (4-4 SE). JDHS will get a bye in the region tourney March 5-9; TMHS (1-5 SE, 7-15 OA) will open with Kayhi.
“I think the biggest thing at stake is, now that we have clinched first place, is potentially letting down against Thunder Mountain and getting beat,” JDHS coach Dee Boster said. “Thunder Mountain is a team that can beat us if we don’t play our game. If that were to happen then I think the Falcons would be on a roll and have a huge confidence booster and make our kids think they may have taken something for granted. We talked about that specific thing today in practice. Do not take Thunder Mountain for granted.”
The Crimson Bears hosted and defeated TMHS (54-37, 60-39) back in January. Both of these teams are vastly improved since then.
“Both teams have grown and have had a good schedule against very good competition to improve ourselves,” TMHS coach Tanya Nizich said. “I think we have gained confidence and have learned as a team about transition. That was one of the biggest things we needed to work on is not letting any teams beat us down the court.”
The Falcons will have the home court edge and senior appreciation excitement.
Seniors Jonelle Staveland, Eyerus Tingley and Shayla Reeves would like nothing more than a two-game sweep over their town neighbors to finish their careers.
Staveland appears to have fully recovered from last season’s soccer injury and has become a scoring threat from the perimeter, tallying 21, 11, 9 and 10 points against tough northern competition last week.
Tingley and Reeves are more inclined to push the ball and score off the break or off their defensive pressure. Tingley will be crucial in keeping the ball in control.
Junior Micheala Demmert and sophomores Sarah Morris and Siosi Tupo will try to score either way, most notably on aggressive follows. Morris and Reeves can provide dribble relief.
One of the biggest keys will be the play of senior Cheyenne Ekis, sophomore Ashley Young and freshman Ava Tompkins.
Young is a tough defensive assignment inside, Tompkins is tough any time the ball is in her hands and Ekis will be depended on for inside power. It is on the defensive side that is vital; they will have to stay out of foul trouble trying to slow down the Crimson Bear’s inside force Gabi Fenumiai.
“It is something we have talked about and something we have been working on,” Nizich said. “We have to watch our fouls, especially on Gabi. We want to make her work for everything but we also want to move our feet and keep our hands off so we don’t make things easy on her.”
Physically, Fenumiai requires a double team to block out of either the zone or man defense or requires a teammate to double down from the top. That opens up scoring opportunities for JDHS’ senior sharp shooters Esra Siddeek or Emily Winters and inside work from junior Kayla Balovich.
Siddeek can slash and drive as well. Balovich is aggressive both offensively and defensively on the blocks. If Fenumiai is in foul trouble junior Ari Gross is still capable of shots off the glass.
The Crimson Bears also have the mid range games of juniors Kymberlee Kelly and Kaitlin Fagerstrom and sophomore Rachelle Roldan. Kelly and Fagerstrom out work opponents.
How much the Falcons control the pace of the game and keep control of the ball will decide the out come.
And the Crimson Bears possess the biggest game controller in 5-foot-2 guard Marissa Brakes. The senior is the front person in the defensive full court press and the main ball handler moving up court. Senior T-Jae Garcia and junior Tori Fogg are reliable bench.
Tireless and fearless, Brakes enthusiasm spreads among the Crimson Bear’ team and they roll as she goes.
The Falcons’ are no longer intimidated by that enthusiasm and will look to make history with a home win over JDHS.
“These games are going to be big for many of these kids,” Nizich said. “There are some girls that have stepped up tremendously along the way and we need them to all produce like they have been, but they have taken turns in every game and they need to all produce together this weekend. I think the biggest thing is gaining confidence going into regions. If either team has a bad game I think the level of confidence in the next set of bigger games might wane. Both teams are tough and all three (Kayhi) teams have the potential to make the region tourney very exciting.”
Said JDHS coach Boster, “ Just because we have the first seed in the region tournament does not mean we have it made. We still have to go out there and play basketball because Ketchikan has shown they can beat us and Thunder Mountain has beat Ketchikan. We are not overlooking Thunder Mountain at all this weekend, nor are we overlooking any team in regions. Our kids are pretty excited about any games and it is great to see that this late in the season.”
Game times for Friday and Saturday are girls at 6:15 p.m. and boys at 8 p.m. Senior Appreciation for the Falcons’ basketball, cheerleading, dance team and pep band seniors and their parents will be after the girl’s game on Saturday and before the boys warm up to play. Junior varsity action is 2:30 p.m. both days for girls and 4:15 p.m. for boys. C team action is on Thursday, 4:30 p.m. for girls and 6:15 for boys.