The nearly empty gym echoed as the Skagway Panthers played the Noatak Lynx in basketball last weekend during the Juneau Small Schools Tournament at the Juneau-Douglas High School main gym.
With fewer than 100 people in the stands, few Juneau residents were taking advantage of a rare opportunity to see some of the state's smaller school stars. But even though there weren't many people watching, the small school stars took advantage of their chance to shine Thursday, Friday and Saturday in the loosely organized tournament.
The tournament brought together two Class 2A boys and girls teams from Southeast (Angoon and Skagway) and two Class 1A boys and girls teams from Northwest Arctic Borough villages near Kotzebue (Buckland and Noatak), in addition to the Juneau junior varsity boys and girls. The tournament allowed the teams a chance to play teams they might never see normally during the course of the season.
Since the teams didn't play all of the others and didn't play the same number of games, there was no true tournament winner. But the tournament served as a nice showcase for some of the teams Juneau fans rarely get to see.
For the Juneau JV, which features predominantly freshmen, sophomores and a couple of juniors, the tournament was a chance to play against some older athletes. Even though there may not be as many players to pick from in the smaller schools (Class 1A schools have between five and 50 students while Class 2A schools have 51-100), there are some talented athletes even if there's not as much depth as there is at a Class 4A school like Juneau, with nearly 2,000 students.
"This is a good opportunity for us to play some varsity players," Juneau boys JV coach Steve Potter said. "There's a little more physical strength of the players in the small schools. They're older so they're harder to rattle. We see a lot more zone from the small schools, but they have more maturity and strength. I like having a mix of large school JV teams and small schools."
The only boys team that didn't lose during the tournament was Skagway, which is currently ranked No. 1 in the Class 2A state poll. The Panthers (now 5-0 this season) beat Noatak 58-44 on Friday and topped Buckland 79-64 on Saturday in their only two games. The Panthers are led by 6-foot-2 senior guard-forward Mitchell Snyder, who scored 35 points against Noatak and 31 against Buckland.
"I think he and Anthony Dolan of Kake (who wasn't at the tournament) are the top two Class 2A players in the state," Angoon boys coach Kevin O'Brien said of Snyder. "He's a really good player. If he played with his back to the basket he'd be a lot more dominant at this level."
O'Brien, whose team won the Class 2A state championship last year, thinks Dolan might be a bit more fluid in his moves and better at creating his own shots on the perimiter than Snyder, and he thinks the two players are about even in shooting from the 3-point circle. But he said Snyder is stronger than Dolan and is better at breaking down a zone defense and a better rebounder. O'Brien also said he thinks his own player, Michael Pitka (who wasn't eligible for the Juneau tourney), might be a better true guard since both Snyder and Dolan switch between playing guard and forward.
Snyder is helped because he has some teammates to take some of the pressure off him, teammates like Tyson Ames, Thomas Cochran, Jerod Moore and Ray Hosford who all scored at least nine points in one of Skagway's two games this weekend. But this summer Snyder really worked to improve his game, taking part in a Lower 48 tour with Carlos Boozer Sr.'s Elite Basketball Organization-Alaska team from Juneau. Snyder also went to Australia with one of two ISSI basketball tour teams from Alaska (this one coached by Rich Caulkins of Haines and Brendan McMahan of Kotzebue), where he made a USA all-star team.
"We've got a huge team this year," Snyder said. "Early in the year our emphasis is to play our bench. When we play other teams we have to isolate their star player and the bench has to step up. If Ray, Thomas or I are being isolated, the guys on our bench can step up. I always try to get Thomas and Ray started, because if they get involved early it picks us up both on offense and defense."
"Mitchell is really unselfish, but he can be more aggressive sometimes," Skagway coach Lee Hartson said. "He's got the green light to shoot whenever he wants. If I put Mitchell in the post, he'd score 50 points a game."
Snyder, who said he cheats when he said he's 6-2, suffers from one of the common problems of small school players. He's tall enough to be a dominant forward at the Class 2A level, but if he plans to move up to the college level he needs to play enough guard so he becomes comfortable handling the basketball in traffic. Few Class 2A players make the jump to college, but there are some like former Cook Inlet Academy guard Travis Knutson and former Yakutat center Nate Endicott who are both making occasional starts for the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
While Snyder was the top star of the tournament, he wasn't the only one.
Angoon 5-10 freshman guard-forward Ozelle Jamestown made his high school debut by scoring 36 points as the defending Class 2A state champion Eagles won their season opener in overtime, 81-72, over Buckland on Friday. Jamestown also scored 21 points in a 54-52 Angoon victory over Noatak Saturday morning and he had 28 points as Angoon lost to the Juneau JV 79-44 Saturday afternoon.
"Ozelle's tough," Hartson said. "He's a handful for a ninth-grader. Hopefully my guys won't let him go coast-to-coast on us when we play Angoon later this season."
"Ozelle's going to be one of the better Class 2A players to come out of the state," O'Brien said, adding that Jamestown had more then 10 assists in the Buckland game. "He's dedicated. I've coached a lot of players, and he's a good one."
Another star who shone over the weekend was Buckland senior Jason Hadley, who was matching Jamestown bucket-for-bucket until fouling out with 25 points early in the fourth quarter of the Sissauni's overtime loss to Angoon. Hadley also scored 22 points in Buckland's loss to Skagway on Saturday, while Craig Moore added 16 against Skagway and 15 against Angoon.
Noatak's offense didn't rely on one dominant player, with E.J. Howarth, Kevin Luther and Jeff Luther all hitting for low double-figures in the Lynx's losses to Skagway and Angoon.
The Juneau JV boys claimed a 79-44 victory over Angoon on Saturday as Alex Heuman scored 22 points and Kirk Mearig had 13. Earlier in the tourney, the Juneau JV boys lost to Buckland 59-55 and lost to Noatak 47-44 in a pair of Thursday games.
"It's still a team sport, but it helps to have a go-to guy at the end," O'Brien said. "You know who the ball is going to, but they still get the job done."
In the girls games Friday and Saturday, Buckland used a balanced attack led by Krystal Geary's 10 points to beat Angoon 48-34 on Friday and then Corita Thomas scored nine points as the Sissauni topped Skagway 33-26 on Saturday. Carmen Estrada scored 15 points to lead Angoon and Kristina Knorr led Skagway with 18 points.
The Noatak girls beat Skagway 55-32 on Friday as Barbara Monroe scored 17 points and Mary Jones had 16. Knorr led Skagway with 18 points and Ashley Law had 12 for the Panthers. Noatak also beat Angoon 42-35 on Saturday as Louisa Jones scored 13 points for the Lynx and Estrada led Angoon with 10.
The Juneau JV girls closed out the tournament with a perfect 3-0 record by posting a 48-31 victory over Angoon on Saturday as Latashha McKoy scored 10 points and the duo of Alida Bus and Katie Staton had eight each for the Crimson Bears. Marcie Kookesh scored 11 points to lead Angoon. On Thursday, the Juneau JV girls needed overtime to beat Noatak 48-45 and also beat Buckland 49-36.
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.