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The Southeast Conference girls’ basketball schedule opens Friday with the first of four regular-season matchups between defending champion Juneau-Douglas and archrival Ketchikan at JDHS.
The Crimson Bears and Kings were two of the state’s best teams last year, with Juneau-Douglas marching on from the Southeast Conference Tournament to win the 4A state championship.
The Bears are loaded again with aspirations of another state crown while the Kings are in rebuilding mode. The upstart Thunder Mountain Falcons are entering their second year of conference play light years ahead of where they were last year at this time. Thunder Mountain, though still young, has already won three games this season.
The Crimson Bears and Kings tip off at 8 p.m. Friday and at 6:15 p.m. Saturday at JDHS, and the Bears and Falcons meet at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at JDHS for the first of four meetings.
Ketchikan Kings (5-4)
Coach: Kelly Smith
Ketchikan graduated nearly all of its scoring and rebounding from last year’s 21-6 team that beat Juneau-Douglas twice during the regular season. Seven players that mostly saw spot duty last year return. The returnees totaled just 121 points in 27 games, or about 4.5 points per game.
Coach Kelly Smith said Ketchikan has had trouble scoring so far this season, so they’ve had to make up for it at the defensive end.
“We haven’t scored a lot of points but we’re playing defense and playing hard, and that’s the main thing,” he said. “It’s a very positive group that never gets down on each other and they stay together and support each other. We’ve been in a lot of games and it’s just a great group of kids to work with.”
The biggest hurdle facing the Kings this season is inexperience, Smith said.
Five-foot-2 senior guard Erin Doherty is Ketchikan’s leading returning scorer after putting up 55 points last season for an average of 2.4 per game. Five-foot-10 senior forward Lucy Ortiz returns as the Kings’ top post player after subbing in for defense last year.
“Varsity basketball is pretty new to this group. There are only two that had ever really played in a varsity game and only one (Ortiz) that played meaningful minutes (last year),” Smith said. “Erin got some time but it was mainly end-of-the-game minutes. Lucy came in and just played defense for us last year. She’s working hard and is getting more confident offensively. She never had to be an offensive threat with our prior group.”
Smith said the Kings’ biggest strengths lie within the team concept.
“It’s how well they support each other and play together, and how hard they work,” he said. “Basketball-wise, we’re all new and that’s coming, hopefully, but we’re taking care of the team part first.”
Smith said Juneau-Douglas has to be the conference favorite this year, but Thunder Mountain is building while the Kings are rebuilding.
“I hear great things about Thunder Mountain, and I know Tanya has already gotten three wins this year,” he said. “With the two young teams we have — I’m playing freshmen, sophomores and juniors that have never played varsity — we’re probably pretty evenly matched.
“Juneau-Douglas is just a powerhouse,” he continued. “Coach Knight has that program we’re all shooting for where they’re state contenders year in and year out. She’s where Tanya and I want to be. I know they’re a great team. One (Juneau school) has great tradition and one’s trying to build it, and both coaches are doing an excellent job. I’m excited for our girls to be a part of it because we don’t have a lot of teams in our league, but we’ve got the most exciting environment in the state.”
Thunder Mountain Falcons (3-5)
Coach: Tanya Nizich
Thunder Mountain is in its second year of competition and the Falcons have already made great strides. After not winning a game last season, TMHS has already won three this year and hopes to soon pick up its first Southeast Conference victory in school history.
“Coming into the second season I’ve already noticed a tremendous difference from last year,” Nizich said. “The kids took matters into their own hands as far as their willingness to work out over the summer.”
The Falcons are still young, but the returnees worked through their baptism by fire last year and have come out better for it.
“We have a solid sophomore crew that was put on varsity last year, and losing every game they realized they needed to pick it up and they act like juniors and seniors on the court now,” Nizich said. “They’ve had just as many minutes as juniors and seniors on the varsity level because they started two years younger. I know freshmen can make varsity, but having your entire team based around a young class like that is asking a lot.
“They’ve figured it out and they’re ready to go get after it when they step on the court.”
Two sophomores, Jonelle Staveland and Katie Tarver, lead the Falcons in scoring at 12.7 and 12.2 points per game, respectively, and sophomore point guard Eyerus Tingley has come a long way, Nizich said. Tingley is scoring four points per game, dishing 2.7 assists and getting nearly 2 steals.
“We have a couple of solid threats from the outside this year from Jonelle and Katie, and they take it to the hoop when they want to,” Nizich said. “And ball handling has increased tremendously for Eyerus. She really controls the tempo and the offense and has the ball in her hands 85 percent of the time.”
Staveland is making nearly 39 percent of her shots from beyond the arc, knocking down better than three per game. She’s also had two games this season where she made seven 3-pointers. Tarver is making nearly 43 percent of her shots from the perimeter, though she shoots the triple less often, making one per game on average.
Nizich said the big key for her team is rebounding. The Falcons are pulling down 16.8 boards per game, with senior forward Janie White leading the way with 3.5 per game.
“We really stress blocking out and rebounding,” Nizich said. “We’re a smaller team with not a lot of height, so we have to use our ability to throw a butt into somebody and block out. We’re slowly putting all of the pieces together and that’s one thing us coaches are trying to drill into their minds — if a shot goes up, you don’t think, you just try to block out.”
Nizich also tabbed the Crimson Bears as the team to beat.
“JD lost four key players but they still have a strong team,” she said. “They had a great bench last year and now that bench gets to be on the court and shine a little bit, and it’s great seeing Nani (Ostrom) out there. They’re just as tough. They lose four seniors and you think you’re in good shape, but they’re just as solid of a team and they’ve been playing together for many years. Karli is still advancing the ball up the court just as fast as she can and Taylor (Larson) and (Sarah) Tarver are strong inside. They are solid all the way around.”
Ketchikan is a bit of an unknown, Nizich said.
“I know they lost six seniors and are starting from scratch in a way on the varsity level,” she said. “I expect them to be conditioned and to press all game long. Coach Smith will make the best with what he has for sure.”
The Falcons open conference play at Juneau-Douglas at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears (7-1)
Coach: Lesslie Knight
Juneau-Douglas started the year with five straight wins before tripping up at Wasilla a week ago today in a rematch of last year’s state championship game. The Bears rebounded the next two days, blowing out Colony and Palmer on the road.
The calling card of the crimson and black under coach Lesslie Knight remains pressure defense, and though Juneau-Douglas lost five key players from last year’s title team, the Crimson Bears return a wealth of talent, experience, quickness and above all else, height.
Ballhawking defenders like Emily Johnson, Annette Highley and Mahlet Tingley are gone, but Knight is pleased with this year’s effort and growth on the defensive end.
“Our defensive pressure has been the focus for us and I’m pleasantly pleased with how we’ve progressed in that area,” she said. “Some of our scrappy kids from last year are gone, Annette and Mahlet and Emily in particular, but we’ve had people fill their shoes and it’s been nice to start off the year with some strong defensive showings.”
Compared to their Southeast Conference counterparts, JDHS has an embarrassment of riches in the post with seven players standing 5-foot-9 or taller, including two 6-plus-footers. Knight has been tinkering with the lineup to see what the best rotation will be.
“We’ve changed our lineup a little bit at different times and one of the things we’ve added the last couple of games is Maria Weyhrauch into the lineup,” she said. “It makes it tough for people to get past our tall, long arms. The combination of Tarver and Weyhrauch equals very long arms with some speed.”
But it’s a growing process that will continue to develop throughout the season, Knight said.
“We still have some rotation issues in our defense,” she said. “We’re running, doubling and trapping a lot, and so we sometimes miss the second rotation. So we’re still ironing out some wrinkles.”
Knight said the offense also continues to be a work in progress. Having two All-State returnees, senior point guard Karli Brakes and senior forward Taylor Larson, always helps, but two other starters are new.
“Offensively, we’re still building some confidence with our non-starters from last year for them to feel the ability to take charge, shoot the ball and attack the basket,” she said.
Knight had the chance to see some of Thunder Mountain’s players during the JV tournament just before the Capital City Classic, but she’s not quite sure what to expect from the Kings this year.
“They lost six seniors last year, which is a huge hole for them,” she said. “So we’re anxious to get a look at them but we recognize they’re probably in a rebuilding year.”