The Skagway girls basketball team was handed a postseason lemon last year.
This year, the Panthers are hoping for a much sweeter season finish.
Skagway is the top-seeded girls team entering the Region V-Class 2A Tournament, which starts Thursday and continues through Saturday in Ketchikan. Defending state champion Hydaburg is the top-seeded boys team.
The top two boys and girls teams qualify for the Class 2A state tourney in Anchorage next week.
Last season, the Panthers lost star guard Savannah Ames for a few games and suffered a couple of losses to Klawock in an otherwise strong 17-7 season. At the region tournament, those Klawock losses knocked the Panthers into the same side of the bracket as an even more dominant Kake team led by now-graduated Danielle Knudsen.
Kake beat Skagway and advanced to state, along with Angoon. Skagway - in search of its first state berth since 1984 - stayed home.
This season, Ames - now a junior - has stayed healthy, and with a talented supporting cast the Panthers cruised to an 11-1 region record. Their only region loss came in a split with Yakutat, also 11-1 in Southeast, but Skagway won the tiebreaker for the top region seeding.
"They've definitely matured over the past year," Skagway coach Lara Labesky said late last month; she inherited the team from former coach Jeff Kasler this season after previously serving as an assistant.
"They're all smarter. ... They all worked hard this summer. They're a really focused team, and they all work hard at practice. They play with all their heart, without me having to pull it out of them."
Last season, Labesky said, "we were such a young team. When (Ames) was out, as our floor leader, we couldn't pull it together."
This year, the team feels more cohesive and balanced.
"There's a lot of teamwork," said junior Crystal Ketterman. "We're in the same mindset."
"We read each other really well," Ames said, noting how that has helped the Panthers' game on both sides of the ball. "Everyone is well-conditioned and knows what to do."
In addition to Ames' offensive output, Ketterman and her sister Candi, a sophomore, have made notable contributions this season. Sophomores Michelle Harris, Audrey Neitzer and Tiffanie Potter also have seen significant playing time. The team is strong at guard, but does lack a post presence.
While the Panthers have high hopes for this postseason, the best may be yet to come. With no seniors on the roster, the entire team will be back next season.
"It feels really good to know you'll be coming back with the same team, knowing the same stuff," Ames said.
"The future is bright," Labesky said. "Not only do we have these girls coming back, but we have a strong eighth grade."
At this week's region tournament at Ketchikan High School, boys games begin at 9:30 a.m. Thursday with second-seeded Angoon facing seventh-seeded Klawock. No. 3 Hoonah will play No. 6 Skagway at 1 p.m., No. 4 Kake takes on No. 5 Yakutat at 4:45 p.m. and No. 1 Hydaburg will open with No. 8 Thorne Bay at 8:30 p.m.
On Friday, the Angoon-Klawock winner will play the Hoonah-Skagway winner at 4:45 p.m., and the Kake-Yakutat winner will face the Hydaburg-Thorne Bay winner at 8:30 p.m.
The winners of those two games will qualify for the state tournament, and will play each other at 8 p.m. Saturday to determine the region champ.
Girls games start at 11:15 a.m. Thursday with fourth-seeded Kake playing fifth-seeded Klawock. No. 3 Hoonah will take on No. 6 Angoon at 3 p.m., and No. 2 Yakutat faces No. 7 Hydaburg at 6:45 p.m. Top-seeded Skagway has a first-round bye, since Thorne Bay did not field a girls team.
On Friday, Skagway will play the Kake-Klawock winner at 3 p.m. and the Hoonah-Angoon winner will face the Yakutat-Hydaburg winner at 6:45 p.m.
The winners of those two games earn state tourney berths, and will face off at 6 p.m. Saturday to determine the region champ.
Boys and girls consolation games will be held early on Friday and Saturday.
Andrew Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.