SITKA -- Sitka High School boys basketball coach Bob Potrzuski stood in the background, a wry smile on his face as he watched his players, one by one, climb up a ladder to take their turns cutting down the net.
The Wolves had just upset the eight-time defending Region V-Class 4A champion Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears, 63-57, in Friday's title game at Mount Edgecumbe High School's B.J. McGillis Gym, and Potrzuski was savoring the moment. Finally, with the net dangling from the hoop by one strand, it was Potrzuski's turn to climb the ladder and make the final snip. After the cut, Potrzuski pumped his fist in the air and draped the net around his neck, where it stayed the rest of the night.
"This feels all right," Potrzuski said.
"This is the best thing that's ever happened to me in high school," Sitka's Brett Haavig said.
Not only did Sitka end Juneau's run of region titles, it also means the Crimson Bears will not be sending a team north to Anchorage for the Class 4A state tournament March 22-24 at Sullivan Arena. instead, the Wolves will get to make the trip while Juneau's season is over.
"They're playing pretty well right now," Juneau coach George Houston said of Sitka's chances at state. "There's a lot of parity right now and any team could win."
Sitka entered Friday's championship game as the underdog, having finished behind Juneau in the region's regular-season standings. But the Wolves (15-8 overall) won the final regular-season meeting between the two teams, 70-49 two weekends ago, and Potrzuski said that victory played a major role in Friday's upset. The victory two weekends ago prevented Juneau (15-8) from posting a perfect 8-0 record in region play, and it took away some of Juneau's aura of invincibility.
"If we don't win that one, we don't win this one," Potrzuski said. "That set the whole thing up."
"Well, we beat them last time and that helped," Sitka's Brian Friske said. "We knew it wasn't going to be an easy game, but we got that early lead."
The Wolves, who were 4-4 in region regular-season play, jumped on top early as they took a 9-0 lead to open the game. Juneau closed to within 14-9 by the end of the first quarter, but wouldn't take a lead until Curtis Lane hit a 3-pointer to make it 22-21 with 1 minute, 3 seconds left in the half. Friske made a pair of free throws, but a dunk by James Severin gave Juneau a 24-23 lead at halftime.
In the second half, Sitka reclaimed the lead and never trailed again. The Wolves led 41-33 at the end of the third quarter and took their biggest lead of the night, 48-37, early in the fourth quarter. Juneau made a couple of runs at Sitka in the fourth quarter, chopping the lead to five points, 50-45 with 4:21 left and 59-54 with 50 seconds to go. But that was as close as the Crimson Bears would get.
"They got off to an early start, and we were playing catch-up the rest of the game," Juneau's Junior Cumlat said. "We had the momentum, but we let them take it back."
"We knew they'd be tough," Juneau's Leon Bus said. "It seems like we were trying to come back for so long."
Jason Mooney scored 16 points to lead Sitka, while Haavig added 14 points and Friske had 12 for the Wolves. Severin led Juneau with 17 points, with Ryan Monagle adding nine and Bryan Hamey eight for the Crimson Bears.
When Sitka jumped out to the early lead, Potrzuski said he told his team to be ready for Juneau to make a couple of runs.
"I told the kids they (the Crimson Bears) were going to hit us and hit us and hit us, and they (the Wolves) were going to have to take it," Potrzuski said.
"We knew it wasn't enough to get the early lead," Friske said. "We had to keep going."
The Wolves made most of their shots early in the game, and that gave them confidence as the game progressed. Meanwhile, Juneau struggled with its shooting as several times shots seemed to lip in and roll around the rim before kicking out of the basket.
"They shot pretty good tonight, I think that's the best I've seen them shoot," Juneau's Jon Carlo Malacas said of Sitka's shooting.
"We just couldn't get a shot to drop tonight," Houston said. "They changed their offense on us, to a high stack, but that wasn't what won. They definitely outplayed us and did some things it takes to win. We missed at least six free throws in the last minute or two, and they were gagging them too. If we're going to win, we have to take advantage of these opportunities, especially when we're behind. We didn't play well enough to win."
Free throws were a major problem for both teams in the fourth quarter, as the teams combined to miss 22 in the fourth quarter alone. Juneau only made six of 16 free throws in the period, while Sitka made 16 of 28. For the game, Juneau was eight for 20 while Sitka was 26 of 45 from the line.
"Free throws are something we've been struggling with all season," Haavig said.
"We could have shot better than we did," Juneau's Ryan Monagle said. "They shot very well. I thought we had a chance to come back until that first intentional foul, when the lead was four or six or something like that. That blew some time off the clock."
Twice in the game's final minutes Juneau was called for an intentional foul, which not only awards the other team two free-throw shots but also gives the fouled team the ball after the shots. In both cases the fouls looked like normal reach-in fouls instead of intentionals, and the two Juneau players looked like they were going for the ball rather than the player.
Juneau trailed by eight points, 57-49, with 1:18 to play when Hamey was called for an intentional foul against Sitka's Greg Blankenship, who made both shots to put the Wolves up by 10 points. Juneau trailed by five points, 59-54, with 48 seconds to play when Juneau's Clay Brown was called for an intentional foul against Mooney, who made one of his two shots and then Sitka scored on the in-bounds play to make the lead eight points.
With their season over, the Juneau players are already focussed on what they have to do to reclaim the region title. Only four players graduate for the Crimson Bears -- Severin, Bus, Malacas and Brown -- and the rest of the players are back.
"If losing like this doesn't motivate them, I don't know what would," Houston said.
"Monday's the first practice of the offseason," Monagle said. "We've got to work every day."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.
WOLVES 63, CRIMSON BEARS 57
Saturday's Region V-Class 4A boys championship game from Mount Edgecumbe High School
JUNEAU-DOUGLAS (57) -- Joe Ayers 1 1-5 3, Jon Carlo Malacas 0 0-0 0, Ryan Monagle 3 3-4 9, Junior Cumlat 2 0-2 4, Curtis Lane 2 0-0 5, Sterling Henderson 0 0-0 0, Leon Bus 0 0-0 0, Clay Brown 2 1-2 5, Bryan Hamey 3 0-0 8, Jake Miller 2 0-0 4, James Severin 6 3-7 17, Byron Wild 1 0-0 2. Totals: 22 8-20 57.
SITKA (63) -- Mike Schneeberger 3 0-0 7, Greg Blankenship 3 2-9 8, Brett Haavig 4 6-8 14, Jason Mooney 5 6-8 16, Brian Friske 1 10-16 12, Colin Kambak 2 2-4 6, Tristan Hanson 0 0-0 0, Karel Uddipa 0 0-0 0, Cody Campbell 0 0-0 0, Elgin Hollins 0 0-0 0, Dalton Bergman 0 0-0 0. Totals 18 26-45 63.
JUNEAU-DOUGLAS 9 15 9 24 -- 57
SITKA 14 9 18 22 -- 63
3-point goals -- Juneau-Douglas 5 (Severin 2, Hamey 2, Lane 1), Sitka 1 (Schneeberger 1). Fouled out -- Juneau-Douglas 2 (Monagle, Brown), Sitka 1 (Schneeberger). Technical fouls -- None. Total fouls -- Juneau-Douglas 32, Sitka 21.