PREP HOOPS 2018: Local teams eye postseason play
With a full slate of preseason tournaments now complete, local prep basketball teams are settling in for the regular season. Cook Inlet Conference play began the week after teams returned from holiday break, with each team set to play 14 conference games (two against each of the CIC’s other seven teams) between now and the end of February.
Here’s a rundown of each of the four Class 4A varsity teams from Chugiak-Eagle River
Chugiak looks to reload with new talent
Chugiak head coach Ryan Hales has a young, talented team that could be downright scary by season’s end.
“The future is really, really bright for us,” Hales said of his squad, which features just two seniors.
“But we just have to get there.”
Hales said the young Mustangs will be a work in progress this season — a challenge he’s looking forward to.
“It’s challenging, I guess that’s why coaches do it. It’s always a challenge to see what you can accomplish and how you can motivate and reach individuals,” he said.
But there will also be growing pains.
“It’s frustrating at times as a coach knowing how good they are and them not seeing their true potential,” he said.
Chugiak has had some solid success in the early season, knocking off perennial powerhouse Wasilla in a preseason meeting in the Mat-Su and opening 2-0 in the CIC with wins over West and Service. But Hales said the team still has a long way to go.
“I don’t think we’ve played to our potential yet,” he said.
Chugiak finished third in the CIC regular season last year and second in the league’s postseason tournament. The Mustangs lost in the opening round at state before bouncing back to claim fourth place at the Alaska Airlines Center last March.
Last year’s squad was a senior-laden bunch led by first-team All-State guard Nicole Pinckney and first-team All-CIC forward Ashlynn Burgess, but this year’s team is fully in the hands of sophomore star Chasity Horn, a dynamic guard who was first-team All-CIC and second-team All-State as a ninth grader.
“We have great guards,” said Hales, who will also rely heavily on point guard Eva Palmer, a junior who ran the point much of last season as well.
In addition to one of the state’s top backcourts, Hales will have a healthy stable of bigs up front, with 5-foot-10 sophomore forward Layla Beam and 6-foot-1 forward Patricia Houser anchoring a unit that includes five players who are 5-foot-9 or taller. Having talent in both the frontcourt and back will give the Mustangs flexibility to attack in different ways, Hales said.
“We have both, and I think that’s going to separate us so we can take advantage of teams that don’t have post players and teams that don’t have as strong of guard play,” he said.
The Mustangs have six underclassmen on their roster, meaning Hales will spend much of his time teaching and working to turn his young talent into a seasoned group by the time the postseason rolls around in March.
“It’s exciting,” he said.
Hales said he thinks East and Dimond will again be strong contenders for the CIC title, and mentioned East’s Azaria Robinson as a player to watch in the CIC.
“She can grab the rim with two hands,” he said of the athletic T-bird forward.
If Chugiak can figure out how to put its talent to work, Hales thinks his team will be right there with Alaska’s top 4A teams by season’s end.
“We’re going to be deadly, but right now we’re a talented group of kids trying to figure it out,” he said.
— Matt Tunseth
Eagle River girls hope to improve
Eagle River head coach Rashard Boston said his team continues to take small steps forward in the Cook Inlet Conference.
“We are trying to build something from the ground up and each year we’ve been getting better,” the third-year head coach said after his team’s 87-15 loss to CIC power East in the first conference game of the season. “The first year, we won one game, the next year we won five, and this year we have already won two games so we’re building a basketball program that is respected.”
The culture shift needed for this change appears to be in progress. Instead of playing conservatively, Boston said his players did not back down to East and remained dogged in blocking, creating space, and maintaining mental toughness.
The Wolves have four returners from last season, making this year’s team a fairly young one. Boston credits the team’s improvement from previous years to his athletes quickly learning the fundamentals like dribbling, shooting and running a 2-3 defense.
The team has also benefited from the leadership of Chyna Finley, who scored 12 of the squad’s 15 points and was named a second-team All-CIC performer as the Wolves finished sixth in the CIC. The senior has been contacted by basketball coaches from several universities.
“She always gives us a boost and she’s our main ball handler and our main scorer. She pretty much runs the ship on the floor,” Boston said.
Finley maintained an almost constant presence on the court in the conference opener, leading the Wolves as they scrambled for possession and fought to the end of the fourth quarter.
Finley said she thinks the team’s attitude will be key to its success this season.
“We know in our hearts that we can play hard and go out there ready to fight without having a losing mentality,” she said. “We’re Wolves and we have that killer instinct.”
Boston said he likes that attitude from his star player.
“The girls have a chip on their shoulders,” he said.
Boston said he hopes to build a program that can challenge for conference and state accolades.
“We are trying to be competitive and win region championships and state championships and it starts with our character,” he said. “First off, believing that we can compete and beat any team. Starting tomorrow, I told the girls they have to do some soul-searching and decide how they’re going to respond in tomorrow’s practice.”
— Jamin Goecker
Mustangs set sights on state tournament
After watching his team hang on to win the third-place game at the annual Dimond Prep Shootout, Chugiak head coach Jocquis Sconiers wore a tired smile.
“We make things so hard,” he said after his squad’s nerve-wracking 45-43 win over Grace Christian Jan. 13 at Dimond High.
Nothing is likely to come easy for this year’s Mustangs, a gritty, hard-working group that could end up having one of the state’s stingiest defenses.
“Defense is our catalyst,” said Sconiers, whose squad is giving up fewer than 50 points per game this season.
The Mustangs finished fourth in the CIC during the regular season and missed out on state with a first-round loss in the CIC tournament. A number of key rotation players are back from that team, including guards Josh Wilson, Anthony Jones and Tyler Trevino; along with forwards Ty Carlos, Hunter Harr and Kade Worley. Also joining the team is Derryk Snell, a 6-foot-2 senior forward who brings toughness and athleticism in the person of Alaska’s reigning Gatorade football Player of the Year.
“He’s just such a tough kid, a tough competitor,” Sconiers said of Snell, who made the all-tournament team after averaging 10 points per game at the Dimond tourney.
Hunter Harr — who captained and quarterbacked Chugiak’s football team — will serve as team captain for the hoops squad as well.
“He’s the hardest worker we’ve got,” Sconiers said.
Chugiak isn’t blessed with exceptional height — at 6-foot-7, Worley is the only true “big” — but the Mustangs have good overall team size, with nine players listed at 6-foot-2 or taller. Sconiers said the team has good depth and will likely play 10 players in its regular rotation.
While Chugiak should be able to match up with anyone on defense, the team’s true challenge will be finding consistent scoring, Sconiers said.
“If we can figure out ways to consistently put the ball in the bucket and capitalize on the mistakes that we are enjoying, the game will be much easier,” he said.
With a veteran team, Sconiers said he hasn’t been shy about getting on his players for making mistakes in the early season.
“My (college) coach Al Sokaitis (at the University of Alaska Fairbanks) told me you love on the bad teams and you’re hard on the good ones,” he said.
Sconiers said he thinks this year’s squad has a chance to be one of the good ones.
“We’re getting there,” he said. “I think we’re going to be playing some real good basketball by midseason.”
— Matt Tunseth
Wolves stare down CIC heavyweights
After watching his team 59-54 in the first Cook Inlet Conference game of the season earlier this month against East, Wolves coach Bob Adkins was proud of the way his team matched the T-birds’ intensity step for step.
“There were a few times we were behind but we kept our composure and stayed with our game plan,” Adkins said.
The difference was a lack of clutch free throw shooting down the stretch.
“We missed quite a few free throws and had some key misses in the first half that would have helped us gain momentum. But, we calmed down a little bit and made some of those shots but we were still lacking in our free throws.”
The Wolves have historically struggled against CIC teams because of the size of the schools Eagle River competes against. Whereas East has a student population exceeding 2,000, ERHS has approximately 900 students.
Regardless the size of the school, Eagle River’s Jean Gonzalez — who scored 15 points against East — said the team feels like it belongs with the CIC heavies.
“I feel that we can play with anyone and beat anyone. It [Tuesday’s game] gives us confidence that we can compete,” he said.
The Wolves showed they have teeth in the team’s second CIC game, a victory over Service that improved the team to 1-1 in the CIC.
Adkins’ vision is for Eagle River High School’s athletics to match its academic excellence, in which it is one of the best in the state. The Wolves’ willingness to fight to the final buzzer, and the enthusiasm from the home crowd, speaks of a bright future for the Wolves providing, as Adkins said, they do not settle for coming close but remain hungry for success.
“It’s a long season and our goal is to improve each week,” Adkins said. “We have a lot of potential but we just need to close these games out.”
— Jamin Goecker