Daily Sitka Sentinel
For the first time in three trips to Anchorage’s Sullivan Arena for the 3A state tournament, the Wolves will not play their first-round game at 8 a.m., a fate that always seems to fall to a team from Southeast.
In 2009 and 2011, all the talk surrounding the Wolves in the days leading up to state was about early-morning practices and getting ready for a game that would tip off as most Sitkans were finishing their first cup of coffee.
This time around, the Wolves are set for an 11:30 a.m. Thursday showdown with Nome and the mental preparation for state has been less about internal clocks and more about fundamentals like shot selection and taking care of the ball.
“We want to stay with their normal body clocks,” coach Andy Lee said Monday afternoon during an interview in the upstairs hallway at Sitka High. “At this point you’re not trying to do anything new, it’s how well you run your plays.”
Inside assistant coach Bob Potrzuski’s Sitka High classroom Monday, some of the SHS players were watching tape of a recent game between the Barrow Whalers and Nome Nanooks, the two teams who will represent the Western Alaska Conference at state this week.
Nome has been a state tournament staple in recent years and the Nanooks will make their fifth straight trip to state in 2012.
The Nanooks beat Sitka 54-45 in the first round of the 2009 state tournament – it was the first ever trip for the Wolves as a 3A school – and ultimately fell in the state championship game to Hutchison. Nome made the final game again in 2010 and dropped a heartbreaker to Kyle Fossman and the Haines Glacier Bears.
Last year, Nome lost games to Monroe Catholic and Seward and fell to seventh place. That squad had four seniors, including 3A state player of the year Christian Leckband.
This season’s Nome squad is led by senior captain Taylor Blanford. The Nanooks entered the season with a 45-game home winning streak, but saw that run of victories snapped by the Whalers.
Nome dropped its opening game at regionals to Dillingham, but Blanford came up with games of 21 and 18 points as the Nanooks battled back through the bracket to earn a state berth, the Nome Nugget reported.
Nome ended up beating Unalaska, Bethel and Dillingham to make state and coach Lee took note of the scores: 48-40, 44-42 and 46-42.
“They want to play in the 40s,” Lee said. “They want to control the ball and the tempo.”
On defense, Nome employs a few different zone sets that Lee said would “test the intelligence” of the Wolves.
Sitka showed great patience and offensive execution in the Region V championship game against Mt. Edgecumbe and will again look to score inside Thursday. The Wolves enter the tournament 21-4 overall and are looking to improve on a fifth-place finish at state last year.
The Wolves opened the 2011 tournament with a win over Seward, then lost to Monroe Catholic in the semifinals before dropping the third-place game to Barrow.
Senior Mik Potrzuksi, who will play in his third and final state basketball tournament this week, called Nome a “good, scrappy team” with dangerous outside shooters.
He said the key for the Wolves would be to “come out with high intensity,” and use defensive pressure to force turnovers and score in transition.
Potrzuski said the Wolves would be tough to beat if they can establish themselves defensively early in Thursday’s game.
And the Wolves would seem to have the advantage in state tournament experience. Potruzksi and fellow seniors Bae Widmier and Devan Romine logged plenty of minutes at state in 2011, as did junior John De La Cruz.
Widmier was named to the all-tournament team in 2011.
Seniors Hunter Lee and Shad Puletau are also part of the veteran rotation for SHS, with sophomore Brian Way typically the first post player off the bench. Clayton Stromquist, Kyle Dasalla and Kendrick Payton are also hoping for some minutes this week.
The Wolves last played on March 3, when they dropped the 3A/4A crossover game to Juneau-Douglas 42-36 in Ketchikan.
After returning to town, coach Lee gave the players two consecutive days off last week, a rare occurrence in the long slog that is the high school basketball season in Alaska. The Wolves played a tough, travel-heavy schedule in February and Lee sensed the Wolves needed to get their legs back under them.
There was a sluggish practice before the respite, but Potrzuksi said the Wolves returned from the brief layoff energized and refocused.
“In every season, there’s a point where you hit a bit of a wall,” Potrzuski said.
The hope now is that Wolves have come out on the other side ready to win a game at state and move on to a potential semifinal match-up with top-ranked Monroe Catholic.
For the SHS players, the focus is squarely on Nome. In the single-elimination format, the first game is the most important and the road to a state title goes through Nome.
But Lee said the SHS coaching staff had “studied every team in the thing,” including potential second-round opponent Monroe, a school with 120 students where the top players in the Fairbanks-area have congregated under former UAF coach Frank Ostanik. The Rams, who were upset in the state finals by Anchorage Christian School last year, have had a tremendous season, making quick work of 3A opponents, while also beating some of the best 4A teams in the state.
“I think we have the athletic ability and the skill level to compete with everybody that’s up there,” Lee said, while conceding that matching up with Monroe could be a challenge for SHS.
That’s a bridge the Wolves hope to cross.