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Basketball is a game that rounds out the rough edges of life
It can be found in the farthest northern villages of Alaska, where tundra drops into the ocean. In Utqiaġvik, the high school gym is open all night and when the sun doesn’t shine for months on end, time is measured by who is on the basketball court.
In tiny Pilot Point, along the western shore of Bristol Bay, there are a handful of families but a stretch of three outdoor baskets along a four-wheeler road. In the summer, village youth battle red salmon fishermen in pickup games, both sides in rubber boots.
In the Interior, hoopsters add mosquito netting to their gear as they swish threes from deep in swarms of black flies and no-see-ums. Where the smell of DEET becomes forever trapped in “23” jerseys.
But Alaska basketball history also has roots in Southeast. The first Southeast basketball game (on record) was in 1905 in Sitka and featured Sheldon Jackson School losing to the United States Marine Corps. Prep teams were members of city league play. Opponents could be miners, fishermen and lumber jacks who hated to lose to young whippersnappers.
Norwegian lads from the fishing town of Petersburg traveled for a week to bring home the state’s first Alaska Territorial High School Tournament Championship in 1929.
There are still remnants of old hoops littered about my hometown of Petersburg, just as with many others. Old garage rims honed the skills of many youth from the past. Old streets feature ghosts of jump shots fired from one edge of the street over cars traveling slowly up the hill. Buried in the muskeg are the floorboards that skinned the knees of hustling guards. They lie next to shouts of “foul” and “play another.” Out the road rest rusting rims that gave friendly bounces to whoever lived at the site, but was a steel lid to those who came in challenge. Snow has been shoveled from courts, rocks swept from dirt roads, full-length mirrors broken as they were placed under baskets to perfect shooting form, and leather balls turned to slime as games carried through the rain.
Before he passed, PHS 1933 graduate John Enge told me, “We’d play anybody who had a team. There wasn’t too many teams around in those days. In 1932, there was no basketball in Petersburg, we didn’t have a gym. They wouldn’t let us play in the Sons of Norway because they couldn’t afford to furnish heat.”
The “new gym” was then built. It was one of the bigger facilities in Southeast. It would be a few years before showers were installed. The back part of the gym was a plain old wall. Heat was provided by double oil stoves on each end. Many gyms of that time were especially inhospitable in the visitors locker room, most offering no electricity or indoor plumbing, and pot-bellied stoves at the ends that the hometown boys used for screens on opposing players.
“The spectators that came to watch our ball games had to come well dressed,” Enge laughed. “It was a cold place, that gym in the winter. I can remember stoking up those double drums, trying to get some heat in that building. We did everything, stoked the fire, cleaned the floor…We only traveled to Ketchikan and Wrangell, just two games each place. The three of us would battle it out for the southern division championship. The winner would challenge Juneau or whoever won in the north.”
Teams traveled by Alaska Steamship Company or primarily fishing boats. A trip to Ketchikan along Clarence Straits in winter could leave a team irritable at tip-off but engine trouble seemed to be a reliable excuse to stay an extra day or two and mingle with their hosts.
Months after one game, a 1940 gossip editorial from the PHS paper, the Ripple, stated that, “although letters are still coming from Juneau the hearts of most of our lads and lassies remain in the keeping of Kayhi…”
Wrangell was the best team in Southeast from 1921-23. In 1922 they won the tournament at season’s end and all agreed they were Southeast champions. But the Board of Control, the early offering of the Southeast Alaska High School Activities Association (formed in 1954), scheduled the first Southeast Activity Conference and basketball tournament. Wrangell objected and refused to attend, but other members sided with the board. In 1923 the season-ending tournament was in Wrangell. The board offered a trip to Washington, Oregon and California for the winner. Wrangell beat the Douglas Huskies 25-10 in the finals. Just when Wrangell headed to the Lower 48, the board scheduled the 1923 activity with a basketball tournament. Douglas defeated Juneau in the finals 48-22. The touring Wolves and the town of Wrangell were upset but the team won all nine of their games out of state. Douglas won the Activity title in 1924 but Wrangell was not there. The Wolves won the season-ending tournament by stopping Juneau 15-3, Douglas 14-12, and Ketchikan 24-10. They saw no reason to attend the Activity. Ketchikan used height and skill to dominate Southeast from 1925 to 27.
From 1928 through 1953, there were two divisions in Southeast basketball, Northern and Southern. The South consisted of Ketchikan, Petersburg and Wrangell. The North held Skagway, Douglas, Sitka and Juneau. In 1954 the tournament format for basketball was adopted. Added next was the “B” tournament in 1969-83 for small schools. Reclassification came in 1984.
I don’t know when my passion for basketball began.
But I remember signs in local businesses that proclaimed “Closed: At The Game – Why Aren’t You?” or “Gone To Game, Back After We Win,” and I knew I had to be there too.
I remember standing on my tippy-toes to sneak a peek inside the old high school barn gym as idols and heroes plied their craft. I remember the unseen hours of practice put in alone.
I remember shoveling snow off concrete, sweeping rocks off driveways. I remember the bump, bump, splat as I dribbled through a puddle, girlfriends who grew tired of rebounding for me as I practiced and left me, white canvas Chuck Taylor Converse shoes and saggy wool socks, and my very first time I scored an official basket against Wrangell Institute in fifth grade. I remember meeting the ferry in the summer with a basketball under my arm to scout the seafood and forestry workers who might show up at MY gym during their seasonal stay.
Back in my day our hair was longer than our jersey shorts. We traveled almost exclusively via the Alaska Marine Highway System and were housed out among the opponents.
Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka, Wrangell, Petersburg, Mt. Edgecumbe and Haines were in the “A” Division. The other towns played in the “B” division and the winner of their tournament would be the eighth seed in our tourney. Some of my biggest bruises came from teams perceived as lesser opponents.
I was lucky to be a varsity starter all four high school seasons (1974-78) for Petersburg. To get there, however, I spent my younger years as a constant whipping boy on defense to my idol, Vikings’ great Dave Ohmer. As a 5-foot-8 sophomore guard Ohmer helped the Vikings to the 1971 region title and runner-up state finish, as a senior, and still 5-foot-8, he set the single game state scoring record with 69 points against Mt. Edgecumbe during an old-school four-game road trip that lasted a week.
“The Southeast Tourney was the mecca of our high school sports lives,” Ohmer said. He coached the Kake boys in ’78 and ’79. “In the ‘70s all the teams, all the bands, all the cheerleaders and drill teams at one place, was the most exciting time of the year. Forget the prom, homecoming, spring break or even the end of the school year, the Southeast Tourney was what we dreamed of and waited for. The tournament was the chance to prove ourselves, the time to test our team and our hard work against everyone else. These games mattered, and if you won it felt like you made history. I was fortunate enough to be part of a team that fought everyday to be good, and at the Southeast Tourney, we got to prove it.”
Ohmer said the 69-point game was like drifting through a dream.
“It happens in lots of sporting events when you get hot and everything just flows,” he said. “Baseball hitters suddenly can’t miss the ball and golfers have days that every putt rolls it. For me I remember more the 200 shots a day I took most of my life that made shooting a natural and confident part of me…”
In that game 50 years ago he had 11 points at the half, then 31 in the 3rd quarter — even one from half court at the buzzer that tied John Swanson’s school record — and another 27 in the 4th quarter. He was a perfect 13-13 from the free-throw line, and the 3-point line did not exist at the time.
“Don’t know why our coach left me in,” he said. “but I remember his words in the aisle to the locker room as we left the court…’Wow, 69…only 1 more and you would have got 70….that would have really been cool.’ To tie these two stories together…it is far, far more exciting to win a Southeast Championship, than (to) score a bunch of points!”
No, but he loved to score over me.
It made me stronger, and I grew to love defending. Defense is the one thing players are shocked by as they head off to college. I earned some junior college wounds that pushed me on to a final stint in an NCAA DI school that sent a teammate onto the professional ranks and me to only practice time.
But one of the best I faced showed up at my home gym in the summer of 1990 or ’91. Wrangell’s Archie Young was fresh off graduation and a season in which he scored 52 points in a game, and I was in the best city league shape of my life. I still hear our sneakers singing on the court, see sunlight shining through a high pane of glass, smell our sweat in the air and feel the 6’3 Wolves guard as we collided over the course of two hours with no one around to interrupt the ebb and flow of youthful swagger and elder desperation.
Davids have beaten Goliaths occasionally. That is an appeal of the tournament.
Haines coach Don Nash remembers having a 16-4 3A team in 2001 that was upset in their opening region tournament game to Metlakatla under the old tournament single-elimination setting.
“We had 6-9 Ben Egolf,” Nash said. “It was in Ketchikan and the whole city of Metlakatla came over to root for the Chiefs… the intensity of the region tournament, you have to be ready to play pretty good basketball at regions.”
As a junior, Cameron Severson and seniors Trevor McCay and David Mazzella led the Petersburg Vikings to their second straight region V title in the 2006-07 tourney on their way to the school’s first state title in 78 years, and, for the first time in 24 years defeated the 4A tournament champion on the 4A’s home court in the crossover game. Fans would get to watch Severson, the defending 3A state Player of the Year, push the Vikings to their third region title the following season and Severson would go on to win a NCAA Division II championship at Western Washington University.
In 2003 the Craig Panthers, en route to a state title, would win the 3A region title at Ketchikan and defeat 4A champ Juneau-Douglas in the crossover game behind Fred Hamilton, Jordan Savage and Raymond Douville. That same season Hydaburg’s Vinny and Darren Edenshaw and George Peratrovich propelled the Chieftains to 2A region and state titles.
In 2004 Metlakatla toppled Ketchikan in the same crossover scenario at Juneau as the Chiefs’ Christ Bryant and Bryan and Beau Hayward were key in slowing down Kings junior Jesse LeBeau. The following season Mt. Edgecumbe tried the same trick but LeBeau showed the flashes that he would turn into becoming one of today’s premiere basketball trick artists in his career as a motivational speaker.
The Wrangell girls (1990 over JDHS), Mt. Edgecumbe girls (2001 and 2019 over KTN) and the Mt. Edgecumbe boys (2011 and 2018 over JDHS), among others have toppled giants.
The 2013 Craig Lady Panthers won a 2A region and state title with a roster that included an exchange student who had never touched a basketball in her life, a player who had given birth two weeks before the season began and five players who would rarely be able to take a substitution during games.
Players became household names at the region venue. Ketchikan’s John Brown helped the Kings win four straight region titles and four straight state championships (1965-68) while garnishing the state tournament MVP four times. Talisa Rhea’s four region championships and a state title for JDHS led to Oregon State, Seattle University, pro ball in Poland and her current position as general manager of the Seattle Storm. Carlos Boozer helped the Crimson Bears to a string of region titles and back-to-back state championships, won another at Duke University and had a successful professional career. The aforementioned Archie Young taught his siblings Keith, Kevin and Kurt well and they pushed the Wolves to four straight state tournaments. Kake’s Danielle Knudson led the Thunderbirds to two region titles and four state tournaments and she earned four All-State tournament selections. The Yakutat girls won four region titles (2006-09) and three state championships (’07-’09). The Skagway girls motivated their ’09 loss in the state championship game on to back-to-back state titles (’10, ’11). Marcus and Chris Lee propelled Ketchikan to the 2019 region and state championships; Kaleb Tompkins, Bryce Swofford and Erik Kelly helped JDHS earn the 2016 region and state banners.
Every name remembered from a region tournament had a supporting cast and it is overwhelming to list them all. A few that jump out to me through my playing days, fan days and media days will omit so many but, here we go: Fred Angerman (WRG), Steve McDonald (KTN), Stan Wilson (HNS), Paul Haavig (SIT), Kevin Fagerstrom (JDHS), Leslie Knight (JDHS), Jonna Ashenfelter (Kake), Tina Isaac (KLK), Karen Rocheleau (SIT), Jennifer Robinson (WRG), John Leavitt (JDHS), Rudy Bean (Kake), David Nix (HYD), Matt Carle (HYD & JDHS), Andrew Friske (HNS), Phil Daetwiler (ANG), Derek Gibb (PSG) Anthony Lindoff (HNH), Tammi Stough (WRG), Anthony Dolan (KAKE) Ozelle Jamestown (ANG), Louis Walcott (KLK), Kayleigh Short (PSG), Mary Scudero (KTN), Danielle Knudson (KAK), Rose Fraker (YAK), Jesse Ellis (SKG), Nicole Fenumiai (JDHS), Kaylie O’Daniel (SKG), Hannah Esbenshade (YAK), Helen Decker (WRG), Danny Marsden (MET), Stewart Conn (PSG), Kylie Wallace (PSG), Marie Yates (CRG), Ben Jahn (TMHS), Catherine Sunny (MEHS), Tawny Smith (SIT), Bear Brown (MEHS), Jayley Taylor (KTN), Lainey Beaver (MEHS), Sara Morris (MEHS), Damen Bell-Holter (MEHS), Aaron Severson (PSG), Jacob Calloway (TMHS), Mary Rehfeld (JDHS), Kenai Holien (KLW), Cooper Kriegmont (JDHS)…
… the names will continue through these region championships. The players will live their dream of playing before school pep bands, cheerleaders and fans, their unseen hours of youthful practice days culminating with a tip off and a final buzzer.