The 2013-14 Southeast girls basketball season could be the story of who has taken the biggest hits in the off season.
The Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears suffered the front court losses with the graduation of post Gabi Fenumiai, senior Kayla Balovich tearing her ACL during volleyball season and senior Ari Gross moving with her family to a warmer climate.
The Thunder Mountain Falcons suffered its own losses as junior spark plug Sarah Morris tore her ACL in a pickup game in open gym two weeks prior to the first practice and will miss the season. Graduation took leading scorer Jonelle Staveland and hustlers Shayla Reeves and Eyerus Tingley, but the Falcons return the more potent lineup between the two schools
Falcons’ senior Micheala Demmert is the lone returning senior for TMHS and averaged a modest 4.8 points per game last season.
“She is a quiet player,” Thunder Mountain coach Tanya Nizich said. “There are games where she is unstoppable and others that you are trying to find her. We are hoping she is the leader of the pack this year with her demeanor, and we are confident in her.”
Demmert has the ability to bring the ball up court or play the swing guard, and can score anywhere on the court.
The Falcons shot 38.6 percent from the field (34.2 from three-point land) and 60.1 percent from the charity stripe, which helped to accumulate their 23.3 rebounds per game. They averaged 46.8 points per game but had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 8.4 to 12.4.
The Falcons’ goal is to push the ball and find easy baskets in transition and stay away from the set offense. Their weakness from last season was the turnover bug.
“A lot of our players like to score in the paint this year,” Nizich said. “We will have to control our passing to lighten those mistakes from last year and get them the ball.”
Top returning scorers are junior Ashley Young (10 points, 6.3 rebounds) at center and sophomore guard Ava Tompkins (7.3 points, 4 rebounds and 1 steal.
Young is one of the few post players on a guard heavy team. Teammates and coaches are expecting a lot of her.
“Last year we saw some ups and downs,” Nizich said. “We think Young can average a double-double this year and we will be happy with that. It is what she is capable of.”
Tompkins plays more like a senior than her class standing and has added a few inches of height and muscle. She will miss the opening tourney trip to Kenai due to a family commitment but is a proven force on the court.
“She has the presence of an upper classman,” Nizich said.
Juniors Siosi Tupo at shooting guard and Cheyenne Ekis at forward bolster the experience level. Tupo will play a big role solidifying the guard position, scoring from long range, putting up power shots inside and providing a feisty mentality on defense.
Three freshmen will make an impact during the season: Allyson Strong and Haleigh DiCarlo at guard and Alondra Echiverri at forward.
“They will definitely see some minutes,” Nizich said. “I expect a lot out of them. I love their attitudes and admire their hustle, and that has earned them a spot on the varsity team.”
Echiverri has the potential to be in the starting lineup.
“I wouldn’t be shocked if she comes out and is a key player for us this year,” Nizich said. “I don’t want her to play like a freshman. She has the full capability to play like a junior or senior.”
The Falcons will also be joined in January by sophomore Siniva Maka, a transfer from JDHS who has to serve the 90-day ASAA transfer rule.
Thunder Mountain opens with a tourney in Kenai today against the host Kardinals, Soldotna and Nikiski; travel to the Ketchikan Clark Cochran Christmas Classic (Dec. 26-28), opening against Craig in bracket play with Chugiak playing Wrangell and the host Lady Kings, North Pole, Homer and Klawock playing opposite; and play at the Monroe Invitational (Jan. 2-4) with Lathrop and Palmer.
There’s another tourney in Ketchikan the following week, and one in Fairbanks soon after.
“We are excited to get that first game under our belt to see what we can improve on,” Nizich said. “We won’t have a lot of time in practice for the next three weeks but we can focus on those things for the remainder of the season. Time will tell and we will learn a lot. Both Ketchikan and Juneau have always had strong programs. We know they will come out with some force and we have to be ready for that.”
The Falcons have bought into a 6 a.m. practice schedule that allows studies and family time in the evening. Even Morris, who had surgery and is currently confined to crutches, has attended each early workout.
“She is very supportive of her teammates,” Nizich said. “She is part of our team and we are glad to have her around.”
JUNEAU-DOUGLAS HIGH SCHOOL
In addition to Fenumiai, Juneau-Douglas also graduated southeast’s top all-around player Esra Siddeek, lightening quick ball handler and defender Marissa Brakes, and guards T-Jae Garcia, Emily Winters and Amberli Fitka.
The Crimson Bears return just four experienced varsity players and two others with limited court time.
“Our first goal is to learn how to gel as a team,” JDHS coach Dee Boster said. “We are getting there but we have some steps to make. Our second goal is overcome the player losses from last year.”
Senior returners Kaitlin Fagerstrom and Kymberlee Kelly each averaged just over seven points per game at the forward positions. Kelly also averaged six rebounds per game. Classmate Tori Fogg will now handle starting guard duties along with junior Rachelle Roldan to provide the familiar pesky-quick defensive mentality of the program. Fogg’s offseason work should translate to more offense and Fagerstrom’s athleticism will help on the glass.
Junior Izzy Watts and sophomore Cristina Arehart, who played both varsity and junior varsity last season, will be two of the first called off the bench. Arehart tore ligaments in her ankle and will join the team mid-January.
Senior Kacey Jackson will make her varsity debut in a starting post position and six-foot sophomore Maddie McKeown will bolster play and is expected to improve as a force in the key as well.
Also new to varsity are juniors Monika Rivera and Sam Heidersdorf, sophomores Kallen Hoover, Tona Fogg, and Julie Noreen, and freshman Sophie Hultberg. Noreen has an Achilles injury but is expected to join the team in the post position.
“We have young kids and a lot of playing time available,” Boster said. “It is going to be fun to figure out.”
The Crimson Bears strengths will be their quickness, defense and the chance that other teams overlook them this season.
They could also get into trouble with a lack of post experience and relying on their quickness too much. If Jackson can contribute from the opening tip of the season and McKeown learns to play to her height, the Crimson Bears can vie for the conference title again.
“Every single practice our goal has to become better as individuals and as a team,” Boster said. “Ketchikan and Thunder Mountain will be tough this year. We can’t overlook them. We have been in this position before. Kids saw that the harder they work the more success they have.”
The Crimson Bears open with three games in the Princess Cruises Capital City Classic (Dec. 27-30), facing Lathrop, Gig Harbor (Wash.), and Curtis (Lake Union, Wash.). After a day of rest they play at the Wasilla Invitational (Jan. 2-4) against the host Warriors, Soldotna and Galena, and then return home to face West Anchorage (Jan. 10-11). They also have tourney play at Lathrop (Jan. 16-18) against the host Malemutes, Monroe and Kodiak.
“We are going to find out really quick what we need to work on and what our strengths and weaknesses are,” Boster said. “It is a long season and we can’t judge anything on how we open.”
KETCHIKAN HIGH SCHOOL
Ketchikan will return one of the state’s best players in senior Jayley Taylor and classmates Alexis Crellin, Brooke Simmons and Faith Clark. Their sophomore class features athletic post players Eliah Anderson and Courtney Kemble. Both should be a handful for most teams in the state. Also expected on the court are juniors Sonja Christensen, Felicia Ruaro and Tabitha Gordanier; and sophomores Leesa Murphy, Charley Edwardson and Alexis Biggerstaff. Freshmen AJ dela Cruz, Sara Mclennon and Kyra Welker finish out the Kings’ roster.
The Lady Kings will show a strong inside-out offense and the program’s trademark trapping, pressure defense. They have always been a fast-paced team and this season should up the intensity.
Kayhi coach Kelly Smith stated in the Ketchikan Daily News that the Region V championship is “definitely ours to win. Our mindset is that anything less than a region championship will be a disappointment.”
The sentiment is echoed by their players and fan base and many journalists statewide, meaning that the traditional Southeast inter-town battles will feature even more rivalry and competitiveness — both fan favorites.
The Lady Kings opened season play with losses at West Anchorage (62-38 and 69-47) and then beat 3-time state champion Wasilla 38-33 on the road. Although the Warriors graduated starters Alexis Imoe, Alysha Devine, Kyla Dinkle, Jenna Ford and Savannah Burke, winning at Wasilla is a feat for any basketball team.
Kayhi last won the region in 2009 behind all-state players Laci Effenberger and Crystal Blair, and were robbed of a key state win by an official’s call. If this Lady Kings team doesn’t have the opportunity to avenge that loss it means a Juneau team has stepped up to their potential.
Adding to the local hype is that JDHS hosts the Region V championships this season, meaning both home teams get to rest in their own beds at night.