A Region V tournament game featuring the Mt. Edgecumbe Braves and Sitka Wolves begins at Mt. Edgecumbe High School’s B.J. McGillis gymnasium in 2019. (Photo by Klas Stolpe)

A Region V tournament game featuring the Mt. Edgecumbe Braves and Sitka Wolves begins at Mt. Edgecumbe High School’s B.J. McGillis gymnasium in 2019. (Photo by Klas Stolpe)

What’s at stake for Region V basketball tournament teams and fans

JDHS, TMHS and Ketchikan face each other in 4A division starting Tuesday.

Bragging rights, broken eardrums, breath-taking cheer stunts and innovative dance moves await those who enter the BJ McGillis Field House at Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka beginning Tuesday as schools from across Southeast Alaska participate in the 2024 Alaska Airlines Region V 2A/4A Basketball Championships and the 3A Eastern Conference Tournament at Sitka High School.

“The kids will focus on playing ball,” said MEHS Residential and Activities Principal Andrew Friske of the two venues. “Our kids will scream and yell and it will be loud…I’ve been involved in this thing (Region V tournament) for 30 years, and I know what people who are not here are missing.”

Friske coordinated and facilitated the housing of roughly 800 students — players and pep band, cheer and dance team members — their parents and fans, and 117 tournament staff, including officials and administrators.

“There are enough people arriving to fill up both ferries, north and south, fill up all the Alaska Airlines jets, and they have upgraded the jets to their largest ones,” Friske said, acknowledging the transportation help. “And all hotels and areas that are available to house are completely full, and there is a waiting list for rental cars.”

This is the first time the 2A/3A/4A tournaments have been in the same community since Juneau hosted five years ago.

“A lot has happened since then,” Friske said. “Region V does not house out to private homes anymore, and I can say our community really stepped up.”

Friske said Allen Marine has lent a vessel and buildings for housing over 130, the Sitka Fine Arts Camp is housing the pep bands for a total of 260 people, and businesses and lodges, such as the Sitka Cruise Terminal, have opened their facilities.

“This was contingent on having the tournament here in Sitka because Ketchikan and Juneau had bought all the hotel rooms in the fall for their athletes and when 2A went to buy hotel rooms they were completely packed,” Friske said. “They (ASAA) gave us a month to figure it all out so we started calling.”

To house parents, Friske said, “It was a really coordinated effort between the schools and the local hotels. When we confirmed there was going to be housing for the students, the schools worked with myself and the hotels. Instead of just opening them up we did it systematically. So schools knew when more hotel space was opening up. From what I understand pretty much everybody got what they needed.”

What also was needed is food.

“We are actually going to have a food court,” Friske said. “We have contacted all the different food trucks in Sitka…the community of food trucks in Sitka is super excited. It is the biggest event they have ever done in the community of Sitka….you add 1,000 people coming in, plus 380 hungry Edgecumbe students and it is quite the opportunity to sell some food…and without the AMHS, this tournament doesn’t happen. It’s impossible. With the weather coming in we knew the ferries are reliable, people will make it in….This is the first time we have had two separate tournaments at the same time in the same community. I think it may create some issues, there is a lot of logistics to deal with…we are going to make it the best we can for everybody. What it boils down to is people will have to decide which championship games they want to go to on Friday.”

Winning regions is a must to earn state in the 4A girls tournament.

“Whether it is by one or by 10 or by 20 we have to win,” TMHS girls coach Andy Lee said. “I think if we are the best version of ourselves, offensively and defensively, we’re going to be pretty hard to beat.”

The Falcons are the top Region V seed with a 7-1 Southeast Conference record, 20-3 overall, and a ranking of fourth in the Alaska School Activities Association’s (ASAA) Rating Percentage Index (RPI) which is used as a seeding criteria for the state tournament and at-large bids into it. Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé (5-3 SEC, 13-10 OA) has a ninth-place RPI and Ketchikan (0-8 SE, 5-18 OA) sits at 14th.

“In Southeast, we play each other four times, we see each other on a regular basis and every game is a challenge,” Lee said. “Every game is a chess match. Coaching will come into play but at the end of the day when the referee throws up the ball, whichever kids show up will win the game. The kids are going to decide this. There will be 2,000 people in the bleachers. It is overcoming those outside influences and focusing on the game.”

The Northern Lights Conference’s Colony High School (22-2 overall), Mountain City Christian Academy (19-2) and Wasilla (16-5) each have 8-2 conference records and sit first, second and third, respectively, in the RPI. So barring any major upset they all should move to state with one receiving an at-large bid. If another NLC team wins their conference tournament, or is runner-up, for automatic selection, the conference could also earn both at-large bids to state for half the tournament field.

The Cook Inlet Conference has a similar scenario with Dimond (13-1 CIC, 21-5 OA), Bartlett (12-2 CIC, 15-8 OA) and Service (11-3 CIC, 15-9 OA) sitting at fifth, sixth and seventh, respectively in the RPI.

However, one automatic state bid will go to the winner of the Mid Alaska Conference, where West Valley (4-0 MAC, 14-9 OA) is eighth in RPI. North Pole (2-2 MAC, 9-9 OA) and Lathrop (0-4 MAC, 4-20 OA) will probably not change that scenario.

“I think we need to have cleaner games,” JDHS coach Tanya Nizich said of her Crimson Bears, one of the only teams to beat TMHS this season, along with Colony. “Less turnovers, more rebounds and more buckets. Defensively we have been in a good spot. That has been our focus but we can’t forget to be aggressive offensively. Regions has always felt special here. I’ve always felt that, as a player and coach. We are excited. It’s neutral ground and on center stage. Our focus is regions and we will worry about the at-large bid later, if need be. We had a good practice today and we are ready to play.”

For the 4A boys, the region tournament is particularly important because there is no clear favorite.

“Win all our games so we go to state,” TMHS coach John Blasco said. “That is everybody’s goal, right? A successful region tournament is winning it. That is obviously the goal for all three teams and definitely ours as well. We’re playing Juneau-Douglas again. This will be their fifth straight game against us. They have had three straight weeks breaking us down in film and practice so we have got to make sure we’ve improved our game… hopefully we can make adjustments that put the outcome in our favor.”

All three teams finished with 4-4 conference marks and Ketchikan (11th RPI) is the top seed via various season SEC point spreads, yet JDHS and TMHS sit higher in the state RPI, sixth and seventh, respectively.

Tournament teams will play on a raised court with stands on four sides filled with fans, bands and peers, cheerleaders on the side or end lines, and a practice court in the background.

“Honestly with what has been building for the last couple weeks it has been the perfect setup for this,” Blasco said. “We played four region games in five days against Juneau and Ketchikan here at home and then those last two games with not only senior night but the consolidation decision by the school board, there was a build up of a ton of emotion. Then you add the environment, the packed crowd in the stands with standing room only… you can’t replicate those environments in practice. For region preparation they were great experiences those last six games we played. The guys are excited to play at Edgecumbe. They all enjoy the gym, the bounciness of the floor and playing in front of the southeast community.”

JDHS coach Robert Casperson said consistency will make the difference.

“The least number of games we would have to win is three and the max we play could be five,” Casperson said. “We have guys that have played in regions so they kind of understand the pressures and the intensity but we also have some new guys and it will be a new experience so I am looking to see how they respond….I love the facility but I think the last experience we had on it was when our seniors were freshmen…it is a great environment, the way it is set up with the lighting and raised floor, it is a nice place to play. I always liked it as a player in high school and then again in men’s league. You feel like you are isolated, in a sense, from the crowd but also on display. That is one of the things we talked about is how incredible it is when you can get to a point as a player where chaos is happening all around you but you are really just focused on your teammates and what you need to do to execute and you’re able to block all that out. That is such an important part of being successful.”

Win and in is the ticket for Region V.

However, the MAC showings of West Valley (20-3) and Monroe (18-5), second and fifth, respectively, in the RPI, with one getting an automatic bid and possibly the other at-large; the CIC showing of East (23-1), Service (19-7) and West (16-8), first, third and fourth RPI, respectively, which could advance two automatics and the other at-large, could doom a second SEC team. The NLC tournament is guaranteed two spots, even though their top three teams of Colony (14-8), Wasilla (11-11) and Soldotna (13-10) sit ninth, 12th and 13th, respectively, in the RPI.

“The region and conference tournaments still count in the RPI,” Casperson said. “When I looked at it the other day we are the only conference with all three teams in the top 10…wouldn’t that be something if all three got in? A lot of people around the state have talked about how competitive things are in Southeast. I can’t argue with them, they are extremely competitive.”

The true 4A double elimination format tournament begins Tuesday with the JDHS girls facing Ketchikan at 6:30 p.m. and the JDHS boys playing TMHS at 8:15 p.m. Winners advance to Wednesday facing for girls, top-ranked TMHS at 3 p.m. and for boys, top-ranked KTN at 4:45 p.m. The loser out games are Thursday. Friday is the championship game. An if-necessary game is scheduled for Saturday if Friday’s loser has one loss.

Sitka High School will host the 3A Eastern Conference tournament, including MEHS, Houston and Redington, in a modified double-elimination tournament beginning Thursday. All four Southeast schools — the MEHS and Sitka boys and girls — should advance to state as they sit in comfortable RPI placings.

The top eight 3A boys teams are top-ranked MEHS (20-0), Nome-Beltz (15-4), Grace (20-4), Barrow (12-7), Valdez (13-5), Seward (12-6), Sitka (11-9) and Bethel (8-10). The top eight 3A girls teams are Grace Christian (20-3), Barrow (19-3, Monroe (20-4), MEHS (19-3), Homer (13-7), SHS (13-7), Bethel (10-7) and Valdez (11-6).

The 2A Southeast schools advance to state via winning the region tournament or winning the tournament’s second-place state play in game. There are no RPI at-large bids in the 1A/2A classifications. Craig, Haines, Metlakatla, Petersburg and Wrangell will begin play on Wednesday at MEHS through Saturday.

Sitka will also host the cheerleading and dance adjudications at noon on Saturday, while MEHS will host the free throw competition on Thursday (9:45 a.m.), 3-point competition on Friday (9:45 a.m.), and Saturday’s Girls and Boys Rookie Games (9 a.m. and 10 a.m., respectively).

According to MEHS’ Friske, the venue will bring in roughly $1 million to Sitka.

“It helps fund different things,” he said. “It was definitely worth the extra effort to make it happen.”

Friske also noted that a new region award — the Coach George Houston Service Award — will be presented to an individual Wednesday, and retiring MEHS coach Archie Young will be honored Saturday.

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