The Mount Edgecumbe boys basketball team had just four returning varsity players this season. The Mount Edgecumbe girls had nine new faces at their first practice.
Yet the Brave boys and girls - both state qualifiers last year - finished their respective Class 3A conference schedules with the best regular-season records in the league. They each hold top seeds and first-round byes going into the Southeast Conference-Class 3A/4A Tournament, which starts today at the Juneau-Douglas High School main gym.
"The biggest surprise is how successful we've been after losing so many kids, and it can be attributed to the four seniors we've had this year," Mount Edgecumbe boys coach Archie Young said. "They've really stepped up in leadership, and they have a real desire to win."
"The girls get along really well," Braves girls coach Rich Calkins said. "They enjoy playing with each other. I've got a lot of very unselfish ballplayers."
The Class 3A tournament opens at 3 p.m. today as the Craig girls play Haines. Other games today are: Wrangell boys vs. Haines, 4:45 p.m.; Petersburg girls vs. Metlakatla, 7 p.m.; and Petersburg boys vs. Metlakatla, 8:45 p.m.
The Mount Edgecumbe boys and girls, Craig boys and Wrangell girls all have first-round byes. They'll play Thursday against the winners of today's games.
The Class 4A portion of the tournament starts Thursday and includes Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka. A preview of that tournament will run in Thursday's Empire.
The Mount Edgecumbe boys (16-2 overall) finished the regular season with a perfect 14-0 conference record - something not accomplished by recent Southeast Class 3A powerhouses Metlakatla in 2004 (13-1) and Craig in 2003 (11-3). Each of those squads won the region title and beat the Class 4A boys champion in the traditional crossover game.
"It's something we don't talk about, but at the same time we're pretty proud of it," Young said. "As much as any team I've had, this team seems to be ready to play every weekend."
The Braves are well aware that their past accomplishments mean nothing at this week's tournament, where one loss can end hopes of earning one of the region's two state tournament berths.
"It's good, but we're going into regions 0-0," Braves senior center Brandon Thomas said. "We just have to go one game at a time at regions and play to our ability."
Thomas and his three fellow Braves seniors - Josh Thomas, Tommy Stasenko and Carlin Hoblet - have played a big role in the team's success, filling the shoes of graduated players like Matt Mercier. They have been joined by some talented newcomers, including 6-foot-5 freshmen center Damen Bell-Holter - who hails from Hydaburg - and guard Caleb McGraw, from Sitka. Junior point guard Earl Alstrom is back after being injured last season.
"The mixture of newcomers and seniors - every weekend they're getting better," Young said.
They give the Braves a multi-dimensional offense. Josh Thomas, a guard, frequently leads the team in scoring but is far from the only offensive threat.
"A few teams try to stop Josh, and someone else steps up," Young said.
The surging Craig boys hold the other first-round bye among Class 3A boys team. The Panthers were 4-7 overall at the end of January, but finished strong to post a 13-8 record, 9-5 in conference. Craig is led by senior Eric Hamilton, who had four straight 20-plus-point games last week. Petersburg (14-8 overall, 9-7 SE) was the only other Southeast-Class 3A boys team to post a winning record in the regular season. The Vikings are led by senior Sam Jensen.
The Mount Edgecumbe girls (19-1 overall, 13-1 SE) received a big influx of new talent this season, including a number of upperclassmen. Sisters Jennifer and Carlotta Evan - a senior and junior, respectively - arrived at the boarding school from Tuntutuliak, junior Kim Rychnovsky came from Newhalen and junior Skeeter Atoruk came from Kiana. All have made significant contributions this season. Carlotta Evan, playing off the bench, won MVP honors at a tournament in Bethel last month.
They've joined returning starters Ellie Jackson, a senior, and Nicole Akaran, a junior.
Like the boys, the Mount Edgecumbe girls team is aware that its regular-season success means little in the region tourney.
"There are three seasons," Calkins said - regular, region tournament and state tournament. "We've completed the first, and now everybody is 0-0."
Wrangell (9-7 overall and SE) holds the tournament's other first-round bye. The Wolves finished first place in the conference's South Division thanks to a pair of wins over Craig last week. Petersburg (16-6 overall, 12-4 SE) was the only team to beat Mount Edgecumbe during the regular season; the two teams split a conference series in a late January.
Andrew Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.