EDITOR’S NOTE: Jeff Lund is the varsity girls assistant basketball coach at Ketchikan High School in Ketchikan, Alaska. Ketchikan High School has a student population of 500 and Ketchikan has roughly 12,000 year-round residents. The Region V basketball tournament was hosted by Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, March 8-12 where 20 teams from three divisions played 29 games over five days to crown six champions.
Lund is a 2003 graduate of the University of Arizona.
KETCHIKAN, ALASKA —
It’s Monday afternoon and we’re on the red-eye to regions tonight.
Red-eyes aren’t so bad because once you get to your seat, you can fall asleep. Unless you’ve caught the Alaska Marine Highway red-eye and you’ll be traveling by boat through the night, the entire next day and arrive at 1:45 a.m. on the day of your first round basketball game.
It’s making me second-guess my decision to be both pep club advisor and assistant girls basketball coach. All season I’ve traveled with the team but this is the regional tournament, and the pep club has been fundraising all year to attend. So while my team takes Alaska Airlines and stays in a hotel, I’ll be on the ferry for 22 hours with the pep club, pep band, dance team and cheerleaders from our school as well as Craig, Wrangell, Petersburg and Metlakatla. Taking a boat with hundreds of other kids to play basketball might sound like an epic, roadless road trip, but when you live in a region comprised of 1700 islands, replacing busses with boats really isn’t a big deal.
Two ACLs ago, we were primed for a run at the state championship. We’ve still got a shot, but one of those ACL’s belonged to AJ, our best 3-point shooter. She hit seven in a game against Mt. Edgecumbe and scored 14 points in a quarter against Thunder Mountain. Kreylynn’s left ACL held together half of the fastest set of legs we had. We lost her in the first game of the season.
Our 21-2 record is the best regular season in school history, and that’s great, but teams like this don’t come around very often so we want to see how far we can take it.
We went 3-0 at a tournament in Fairbanks where the daytime high was -13 degrees one day. The roads were white sheets of ice and our all-wheel drive rental vans twice glided past car accidents on our way to games.
One of the wins came against last year’s state runner-up that has a 6-foot-3 senior who will be playing for the Oregon Ducks next season. She passed the 2000 career point mark a few games ago just before she paired 32 points with 28 rebounds against one of the top teams in the state.
Our two losses came in a tournament in Anchorage against the top and No. 4 ranked teams in the state. We know where we stand.
By 9 p.m. there are almost 100 students at the ferry terminal. Tickets are distributed and we board. My team and the rest of the coaches are already in Sitka at the hotel. Their flight took 40 minutes. It takes us 40 minutes to get kids on the boat and settled.
The ferry system requires adult supervision during night hours, so we chaperones break up the night with two-hour shifts. I have 1-3 a.m., so I take a nap before and after in the chaperone stateroom that is a bathroom-less cell with a sink, but at least I don’t have to sleep on the floor.
The kids are in the two aft lounges and have overflowed into the forward lounge. Bodies are in sleeping bags all over the floor with inflatable air mattresses, mattress pads or seat cushions as buffers.
The teenagers emerge at some point mid-morning to watch movies on laptops, play cards or talk to pass the time without cell phone reception. They yelp when we sail into an unexpected patch of 4G offshore. Stored Snapchat stories are updated at the expense of a lot of battery power and communication with the world is briefly restored.
Before we left, the culinary class prepared dozens of individual pizzas and bagel sandwiches which the kids eat, but plenty still prefer a bacon cheeseburger for $9 or chicken strips for $7 from the cafeteria.
So it goes for all of Tuesday. The boat slowly rocks port to starboard, port to starboard, port, starboard.
The sun doesn’t really set, the grey just gets darker and eventually becomes black. The rollers increase as we meander around the northern edge of an island and get into waves funneled up a strait directly from the Gulf of Alaska.
By the time we arrive at 1:15 a.m., we’re exhausted from inactivity and overeating. We’re bussed from the ferry terminal to the auditorium at Mt. Edgecumbe High School where we sleep on the floor for four hours, then get shuttled to the First Baptist Church, our headquarters for the next three nights. Pep band, dance and the cheerleaders are all housed in small groups by local families who are reciprocating the favor of their own kids being housed on previous trips. With eight schools and dozens of teams in town, there are only so many homes, so we get group housed in a basement. Better than a school classroom.
Mt. Edgecumbe is a boarding school in Sitka with a predominately Alaska Native enrollment from all areas of the state. The gym is an old World War II hanger, so there are two full-length basketball floors and space for a third. One of the courts is surrounded on three sides by stands. All 29 games will be played on this surface, while the secondary floor is used for warming up, getting extra shots, or for bored students to shoot when indifferent about the outcome of the game.
There is nothing to deaden the sound inside so it swirls and takes awhile to die. The environment is electric for 14 daily hours of basketball. It’s not McKale Center, but I can’t imagine a high school gym anywhere matching it. It’s a training ground for blue-chip student section recruits. While few will go Division 1, there is little doubt many of these kids are already NCAA conference tournament ready.
There are painted faces and painted chests; a dude performing a violent head-banging waltz with the tuba he’s somehow playing; a vocalist from the Mt. Edgecumbe Pep Band screaming out her rendition of Rage Against the Machine’s, “Killing in the Name of.” On the last day, all the pep bands combine to form a mega band jam before a game. There’s enough rock to necessitate earplugs and enough cowbell to satisfy Christopher Walken.
There’s trash talk. Posters: “Sitka is the Region V champion – Steve Harvey” “We called your mom, she said you forgot your game at home.” “We searched Google but couldn’t find your game”
There are choreographed cheers, group dabs and students sticking around to loan their services to other pep clubs. Intelligent students strategically move to specific students sections because, for instance, a Juneau win over Thunder Mountain in the boys championship will help Ketchikan get an at-large bid to state. Ketchikan and Juneau are bitter rivals, but we’re talking state here.
Being the top seed we get a bye to the semi-finals. We’re taking on a team we’ve beaten every time this year, but they’ve got a shooter and a freshman post who could give us trouble. But the real problem is our transition defense. We’re down 7-2 early and missing shots. We start trading buckets, then comes the spurt we hope for and opponents dread.
We reel off six then give four back but the offensive engine is primed. We score the last eight of the half for a seven-point lead. We start the third by scoring 13 straight and the rout is on. The 21-0 run puts us in control and we cruise to the win.
We stay for the boys game. They trail by 20, tie it, but lose. They’ll get another shot in the loser’s bracket.
Our win gives us Thursday off while teams work through the loser’s bracket in a desperate attempt to get another chance at state.
The boys are upset and eliminated, but at 20-6 with wins over East Anchorage, Juneau and West Anchorage, they have a chance at an at-large bid.
After the boys game, the pep club and I walk the mile and a half over the bridge to the church. The basement floor is hard linoleum and 26 kids along with myself and the other chaperone return to our sleeping spots with a gender divider down the middle.
At 5:45 the next morning, a group of kids is up and walking down the frozen streets to the rec center to pay a buck to shower. Later they are painting their faces and bodies with black, green and brown since we’re playing the Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears. We’re going hunting.
It’s hard being an assistant coach sometimes. You can’t recycle everything the head coach says before the game just because you want to put it in your own words. I just hope that Kelly says everything I would want to say or doesn’t give me a chance.
He asks if Dave or me want to add anything.
“Leave no doubt” is all I say.
We’re up 8-1 early and it looks like we’re about to get rolling, but the shooter we schemed for gets loose on the baseline and hits a corner three. Game on. They don’t have the firepower to stick with us, but they’re playing stingy D and when we get easy shots, we miss. They are at arm’s length until they pull to within 4 with a 10-2 run just before the end of the third.
We tighten up on defense and with no shot clocks in Alaska, we force them to burn 48 seconds on an offensive possession halfway through the fourth. It ends in a tough shot and miss that we rebound and turn into points. We shut them out down the stretch and win by 10. We could have, should have, won by more, but cutting nets is cutting nets and for the first time in school history, the Ketchikan High School girls team has won three-straight 4A regional championships.
The team goes back to the hotel and gets pizza, the coaches have a crab dip appetizer and prime rib. Our team celebration dinner will wait until we are back in Ketchikan.
Saturday is the free throw, three-point and dance contests, along with a pair of 2A games that will determine who will get the second spot at the state tournament. We have a cross-over game against the 2A champion. We’ve only got 10 players in uniform, so with two players out for the season and Kyra battling nagging shoulder soreness, we let our role players play the entire game – that is essentially meaningless since it doesn’t impact seeding at state – to get them more experience for state. Of course the shoulder is injured anyway, but not seriously. We lose, and Petersburg is probably disappointed they didn’t get a chance to upset the best possible version of a school five times its size, but our eyes, and theirs, are focused more on the state tournament.
In addition to the regional championship, we put four girls and three boys on the All-Conference teams, two on the All-Conference cheer and dance teams, the cheerleading team wins the regional championship for their role in engaging fans as well as their halftime routine, and the dance team received superior ratings at the adjudication.
After the awards ceremony is the dance. Coaches play the annual coaches game on the game court while the dance rages on the other.
We’ll miss it, because we’ll be on the boat for another day. By the time everyone else arrives home Sunday afternoon, I’ll still be on the boat with a couple hundred kids, eating, sleeping and rocking gently from port to starboard.
The Madness of March indeed.