By CRAIG GIAMMONA
Courtesy Daily Sitka Sentinel
After leading the MEHS girls to a history-making state title in 2010, fifth-year coach Carl Blackhurst is trying to mold a crop of mostly inexperienced varsity players into a team that can compete for a Southeast title, and make the trip north to Anchorage for the state tournament.
It’s been a long time since the Lady Braves have failed to qualify for state. Both Blackhurst and the coach he took over for, Rich Calkins, put the streak at about 15 years, a run that Blackhurst is not eager to see end on his watch. Ironically, the Lady Braves came within an inch of missing state last year, only to recover and knock off Anchorage Christian School in a stunning state finals upset that brought a state title back to Japonski Island for the first time.
“We’re working on the little things right now,” Blackhurst said Wednesday. “We’re just trying to get where we need to be.”
The Lady Braves are off to a 1-8 start in the 2010-11 season, after losing conference games to Petersburg Jan. 14-15. So far, the Lady Braves are 0-2 in Southeast play, and 1-3 against 3A teams. But the Lady Braves early-season record won't matter much if they can put together a postseason run. Prior to losing two games to Petersburg -- the Lady Braves led both contests in the third quarter -- MEHS lost to Haines. But Blackhurst said the girls got better over the three-game stretch, a progression he hopes will continue.
“If we can fix a few things and the girls settle in I think we’ll be a much better team,” Blackhurst said. “They understand they have work to do. We’re just going to work hard and see where we end up.”
During a tournament earlier this month in Kodiak, Blackhurst said he found himself getting frustrated with his team, but remembered that they are young and inexperienced. He said he’s trying to be patient with his 2011 squad.
“We have to re-teach everything to everybody,” the MEHS coach said. “They’re starting to get it.”
Blackhurst also bemoaned what is known on Japonski Island as the “Edgecumbe Curse.” Each year, practice starts in late November only to be interrupted for a holiday break that lasts nearly three weeks. Blackhurst said conditioning takes the biggest hit during the stretch, as players, some without access to gyms, head home to villages and towns around Alaska to relax with home-cooked meals. Last week, the Lady Braves led Juneau’s Thunder Mountain at the half, but “ran out of gas” and couldn’t hold on for the victory. The flip side, or the silver lining, is that Edgecumbe teams sometimes surge down the stretch and play their best basketball at exactly the right time: when the Southeast tournament opens in early March.
"I don’t like to make excuses,” Blackhurst said. “It’s just part of the Edgecumbe reality.”
He added: “We can come on like gangbusters.”
The 2011 Lady Braves were hurt by graduation, losing a strong group of seniors that included all-state players Nicole Pingayak and Lainey Beaver. Christina Fields, who also made the all-tournament team at state last year, stayed in Kotzebue for her senior season.
Brandi Hale, a junior from Hooper Bay who was a big part of the state title run last year, is back for Blackhurst, and has been joined in the rotation by Kristin and Brenna Johanson, Kailyn Kashevarof, Minnie Simon, Karmen Tittle, Venita Demoski, Mariah Martin and Scarlett Beaver
Beaver, a freshman from Kotzebue, is Lainey’s younger sister. She had 18 points in the MEHS win over Nikiski last month. Hale and Kristin Johanson, a Hoonah senior, are the team’s captains.
For the most part, the players on this year’s team didn’t see significant varsity playing time as the Lady Braves made their state championship run in 2010.
But Blackhurst said this year’s team has been working hard, and keeping a positive attitude. As he tries to develop his team, Blackhurst will perhaps draw on his experience in 2008, when the Lady Braves got hot in February and ran the table in the conference on their way to a Region V title and an appearance in the state semifinals.
For now, Blackhurst said the Lady Braves are “taking it one game at a time.”