If Kodiak wants to qualify for the 4A state basketball tournament, they likely will have to reach the championship game of the Northern Lights Conference Championships.
The Bears are up for the challenge.
“I can’t wait, and neither can the team,” senior Elijah Hiner said. “We are all fired up and ready to go. I really believe we have a really good chance — nobody wants to play Kodiak.”
No team is hotter than Kodiak, as the Bears enter today’s NLC Championships at Soldotna riding a six-game winning streak. No. 3 Kodiak (15-9) opens against No. 6 Kenai (7-18) at 3 p.m. The winner advances to Friday’s semifinal to play second seed Palmer in a winner-to-state game, while the loser drops to a tournament-ending consolation game at 11 a.m. Friday.
“Our expectations are to go in there and get Kenai and then Palmer the next night,” Kodiak coach David Anderson said. “I think everybody is beatable and I think our chances are just as good as anybody’s.”
The top two teams advance to the state championships that begin March 21 in Anchorage. Two at-large spots are awarded to the highest-ranked teams in the winning percentage index that don’t qualify for state in their conference tournaments. Kodiak is No. 11 in the WPI.
“We have to get into that championship game,” Anderson said. “There are too many variables on the other side.”
Despite going 1-9 in the NLC, the Kardinals enter today’s game with some confidence. Kenai’s only victory against a 4A team this season was an 18-point win over Kodiak. The Bears rebounded the next night to demolish the Kardinals by 42 points.
“I think these kids woke up after that loss,” Anderson said. “They figured they just couldn’t walk into a gym and win.”
Kodiak’s recent surge is all about offense. After starting 1-5 in the conference, Anderson blew up the playbook. The third-year coach went from a slowed down approach to what he calls a “read and react” offense. Translation: A fastbreak offense that generates a ton of points.
The switch sparked Kodiak to even its NLC record at 5-5 and end on a six-game winning streak to finish with the most regular-season wins (15) by a Kodiak boys team since the 2000-2001 team won 21 games.
“The few things that we have adjusted and changed in the past four weeks has really benefited the guys that are in this program,” Anderson said.
Nobody has benefited more than Hiner, a 6-foot-3 center averaging 20 points in Kodiak’s last four games. He averaged nine points through the Bears’ first 20 games.
“I couldn’t do that without my team,” Hiner said. “They have been giving me some open shots that are just unbelievable. With our fast breaks it just tires down a team and I can keep on going.”
Hiner scored a career-high 28 against Wasilla and backed that up with 19 and 22 points against Nikiski.
“Every time I’m driving it in, he is always there,” senior guard Jemuel Medina said. “He knows when to cut when I am driving.”
Hiner is not the only one scoring; Kodiak eclipsed 80 points in its last two wins at Nikiski. In their regular-season finale, the Bears tallied 86 points in three quarters. Medina likes the freedom he has in this offense.
“The type of point guard I am, I like to read a lot of defenders and the faster I am the more I can read people,” he said. “It gets my guys open a lot.”
And lately, that open person is Hiner.
“He has such great hands and they know it,” Anderson said. “When they pass, they know he is going to get it.”
Medina hopes Kodiak’s running-style offense sends the Bears to their first state tournament appearance since 2011.
“We had a bad start, but this six-game win streak has helped us, and we are coming back together,” he said.
Because Homer and Skyview moved from the Northern Lights Conference to the 3A classification this season, the NLC Championships look a bit different.
Instead of eight games today, there are only four — two boys and two girls games. The top two boys and girls seeds all received a bye into Friday’s semifinal action.
In the other boys games today, No. 4 Soldotna plays No. 5 Wasilla at 6:30 p.m. The winner advances to play top seed Colony on Friday at 6 p.m.
On the girls side, No. 3 Colony plays No. 6 Kenai at 4:45 p.m., while No. 4 Soldotna plays No. 5 Palmer at 8:15 p.m. The Colony/Kenai winner advances to play No. 2 Kodiak Friday at 4:15 p.m., while the Soldotna/Palmer winner plays No. 1 Wasilla at 7:45 p.m.
The losers of Thursday’s games play each other in a Friday consolation game.