Schools have changed classifications, the venues have rotated, and things like online streaming have changed the experience, but there are elements of the Region V basketball tournament that do not change. The schools. In normal years, the crowds. The lasting memories.
I was a 5-foot-2 freshman with a helmet of puffy, blond hair when the ball found me in the first quarter of the 1A Region V Championship game.
Of course I shot it.
I had five total points during the regular season. I scored six that game.
My brother, a future Rudy-esque member of the George Washington University basketball team, had six in the final 50 seconds including a layup to put us up 1 with 5.5 seconds left.
Years later, Craig fans probably remember the game-winning play. Klawock players do, too, but not without the memory of one of our starters suffering a gruesome compound fracture to his leg during pre-game warmups. That was the team, and we should have won. But we didn’t. Craig did win and should have taken state, but lost to Noorvik, who claimed the title again the next season.
So it has always gone for basketball players not only in Region V, but everywhere. You had your shot, now it’s just a memory.
Some better than others.
The Right Stuff
The Right Stuff is the well-known phrase to articulate ambiguous ideas about chemistry, grit and heart. Though the game has become increasingly about analytics, no statistician has been able to quantify the Right Stuff within the context of high school basketball. Especially at a tournament (pre-COVID) in which so many teams play so many games in so few days.
So, what does it take?
Juneau-Douglas head coach Robert Casperson (‘96) was part of the first half of eight-straight Region V titles from 1993-2000, and coached the Crimson Bears to the 2016 state championship.
“I think it comes down to trust and caring,” says Casperson. “If they trust and care, they are going to be willing to work and go that extra mile.”
But trust goes both ways.
“That  group of seniors I trusted a lot, possibly the most I ever have, even to the point where I let them call the defense, because I trusted they knew what they wanted to do and that they were going to work really hard at it.”
Along with two-way trust, Casperson says that teams still need to rise to the occasion. The only Alaska team to beat JDHS in 2016 was Ketchikan, but going into the state tournament Casperson knew it was going to be a tough road.
“When you’re in those situations, you have a target on your chest, teams are coming for you. You have to withstand those challenges.”
Right team, wrong time
Sometimes success is a matter of timing. Casperson didn’t make the traveling squad on the state runner-up team that lost to future Duke star and NBA player Trajan Langdon’s East Anchorage team in 1994, but Matt Carle (’94), who won a state title with 1A Hydaburg in 1992 before transferring to Juneau-Douglas, says that Crimson Bears team was championship caliber.
“We were actually loaded.”
But it was the right team at the wrong time.
East outscored Sitka and Palmer by a combined 200-60 on their way to a 93-60 win over Juneau-Douglas.
“Yeah, it was a bloodbath in the championship,” says Carle. “Their margin of victory was, like, 33 a game that year. Nobody came close in Alaska. It’s actually become a cool thing to me. I look back and think I was part of history, on the wrong side of it, but was part of a landmark moment in the state’s basketball history.”
Great teams and great seasons are often lost in the historical shuffle.
As a senior, Casperson’s team went 25-2, and dominated for most of the season but had to settle for fourth. Trailing Bartlett late in the fourth quarter of the first round at state, Josh Lockhart scored and was fouled to pull the Crimson Bears to within one. He missed the free throw, freshman Carlos Boozer grabbed the rebound, but was stripped. Bartlett made free throws down the stretch to win by 4, and eventually went on to take the state title thanks largely to 6-foot 7 inch Cameron Rigby, who went on to play at Division 1 Bradley, then San Diego.
Boozer led Juneau-Douglas to back-to-back titles the next two years, but his 1999 team lost to East and failed to complete a three-peat. Boozer, of course, went on to be a national champion at Duke, two-time NBA All-Star and a gold medalist at the 2008 Olympics.
Picking a winner
Uncertainty is what drives the excitement of the tournament, and teams that rise to the occasion become part of Region V lore long after the flights or ferry rides home.
With the exception of last season when the top-seeded Thunder Mountain boys won their first Region V championship since 2014 and the Juneau-Douglas girls won their 19th title since 1990, recent history has shown that the regular season doesn’t always mean a lot at the 4A level.
In 2017, the Ketchikan girls went 1-4 against Juneau-Douglas, lost again on the second day of the tournament, but won three games in three nights to take the region title. The Lady Bears again dominated the Lady Kings during the 2019 regular season, but thanks to a buzzer-beater by freshman Shaelyn Mendoza, the Lady Kings took the first match up between the two teams, and won their sixth straight title two nights later.
Conversely, the Juneau-Douglas boys team was 1-3 against Ketchikan, but beat the Kings on consecutive nights in 2017, then again in 2018 to claim their second and third straight Region V championships.
The year Juneau-Douglas won the state championship in 2016, the regular-season series with Ketchikan was split, but JDHS won both postseason meetings, once at regions, and on a Kaleb Tompkins buzzer-beater in the state semi-finals.
“[After setting up the play] I never thought once that [Tompkins] was going to turn it over, but he almost did twice on that play,” jokes Casperson. “We had a lot of guys who really wanted it, really bought in, and really enjoyed their teammates. That group had taken a lot of lumps but hadn’t lost their focus.”
Know your role
Casperson says his role when he played was to “get the ball across half court then get the ball to someone else.” This understanding has helped him build the sporting cast and increase buy-in which improves the team’s chances to be successful.
“You have to be willing to enjoy that grind and maybe not find a lot of external rewards. You have to learn to be a good teammate and how to contribute.”
Though JDHS has had its share of top-tier players, a program cannot simply wait around for the next one and suffer through the years in between.
“Your star players come around once in a while. You’re most likely going to have a group of average, to above average players that you have to get to buy-in so everyone can be better.”
But when the star does come around, he or she might have the most important role.
Mt. Edgecumbe head coach Archie Young won three Region V titles in Wrangell as a player and was a state runner-up his senior year in 1991. He has guided the Mt. Edgecumbe boys team to four region titles and a third-place finish at state in 2005.
“Our best teams were teams whose best player was also the hardest worker,” says Young. “When your best player is your hardest worker, the team will have success.”
Though the team his senior year was upset at state, the success the team enjoyed was thanks to their best player – Josh Lockhart – setting the tone.
“We really enjoyed each other’s success,” he says. “Josh Lockhart enjoyed when I made a basket or someone made a really good screen and that was infectious. That’s also been a staple in our program. Our most talented players are often our hardest workers.”
With this year’s tournament approaching, Casperson says he is prepping his players to have the right mindset.
“Enjoy it, enjoy the build-up, enjoy the work that goes into getting prepared,” he says. “You never know how it’s going to end, so you just have to go out there and get after it. If you feel like you played as hard as you could, you can’t ask for anything more than that.”
Typically, coaches have a chance to put in new wrinkles during practice in preparation for the tournament, but with this year’s schedule altered by Covid-19, teams have a flurry of games leading up to a single-elimination tournament format.
“With nine games left, it is still about trying to get better, simple as that,” says Young. “Are we playing as hard as we can? Are we doing the little things?”
Young says he focuses on getting his players to match the effort needed to be successful and to understand that the results are a reflection of attitude.
“One thing I have really tried to get players to understand is ‘earning the right…to play, to celebrate, or to cry’ at the end of the year. You can’t be mad if you didn’t put the time and effort in to be successful in March. You have to earn the right to be upset or disappointed, or even better, you have to earn the right to feel the satisfaction or happiness of victory at Regions.”
My brother says he was only able to walk-on at George Washington University because we lost that region championship game his senior year. He was driven by the desire to have his career continue after that disappointment. He now has a much better memory of a championship winning shot – a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by teammate Shawnta Rogers to beat Xavier 77-74 and win the Atlantic-10 Championship in 1999.
Stories of great success and missed opportunities are hidden in the personal histories of all athletes. For some, the Region V tournament is the last time they put on a jersey, simple as that. For others, the tournament, or basketball itself, can be a catalyst.
Young says that his basketball experiences have impacted the way he coaches and the way he lives.
“I wouldn’t say they have shaped me as much as revealed who I am,” says Young. “I believe that sports, success, failure don’t mold you as much as they reveal who you are.”
Statistically speaking, hardly anyone ends their high school career with a win, which means there can be a lingering feeling of disappointment. But there’s a profound difference between a group of losers and a team that didn’t score enough points.
Carle’s son, Jaren, was a junior at Dimond when the Lynx lost in overtime to Ketchikan in the 2019 state championship game, and “next year never came” due to COVID-19.
“He was crying in the car after the game, but I told him it’s going to mean so much to that community,” Carle says. “Those wins and losses, as much as they feel like everything, they are really not going to define whether or not you’re going to be a successful adult. It can define you if you let it, but it doesn’t have to.”
• Jeff Lund is a freelance writer based in Ketchikan. His podcast, “The Mediocre Alaskan,” is available on Spotify and Apple Music. He is, of course, on Instagram @alaskalund.