Shortly before the final Class 1A girls quarterfinal tipped off Thursday at the Alaska Airlines Center, Service High activities principal James Bell sat near the baseline and mimicked an exaggerated cheering motion, hands waving above his head.
“We made it to state, one way or the other,” Bell quipped.
In the form of a set of Service girls basketball uniforms, that is. The Cougars aren’t part of next week’s 4A March Madness Alaska field.
Equal parts unfortunate and redeeming, the Shishmaref Northern Lights wore Service’s white uniforms trimmed in green and gold during their 32-24 loss to Lumen Christi. Anchorage’s ugly side showed itself the night before when Shishmaref’s team vehicle was broken into, and jerseys were stolen.
“I suppose we were all shocked,” Northern Lights coach Curtis Nayokpuk said before his game started. “But we’re going to keep the spirits up.
“Jerseys are replaceable. But we’re still here at state.”
Bell is one of those crazy Anchorage School District employees far from somewhere warm during Spring Break. He often helps work security during athletic events at UAA.
“(Alaska School Activities Association executive director) Billy (Strickland) asked me to call, and he needed a favor,” Bell said. “Maybe Shishmaref could borrow a white set from my school? I really didn’t know.”
A one-time Bering Strait School District employee, Bell knew he had to help. He detoured to the school on the Anchorage hillside and was able to find the threads in plenty of time for the Northern Lights to borrow.
“The real shame is those kids made it here to state and were unable to represent their own school,” Bell said.
Bell agreed the entire episode didn’t speak well for Anchorage.
As if Alaska’s basketball community didn’t already recognize Joelian Lane, he’ll likely leave Anchorage this weekend with a Real ID in hand.
Lane, 18, is a senior on the Tikigaq boys squad. He’s one of the state’s premier scorers regardless of enrollment classification as evidenced by his 36-point outburst in the Harpooners’ 64-51 win over Wrangell in the 2A quarterfinals on Thursday afternoon.
Now a responsible adult, Lane will also visit an Anchorage DMV before heading back to Point Hope, located above the Arctic Circle on the Chukchi Sea. He ran out of time Wednesday.
“I’m thinking (Friday morning) before our game,” Lane said.
Tikigaq plays in Friday’s 6:15 p.m. semifinal against Metlakatla, a 50-33 quarterfinal winner over Cordova.
This season, Lane’s name first came into prominence when he set a new scoring record at the 29-year-old Alaska Prep Shootout in January. He scored 114 in three games at Anchorage’s Dimond High, besting what’s believed to be the previous record by 17 points.
“Coming off the Prep Shootout only made me want to play harder and become a better player,” Lane said.
He also takes great pride in representing Alaska’s small schools on the grandest of stages.
“It’s all pretty weird because you never really plan on being in this position,” Lane said.
Ideally, Lane would love to head back to Anchorage once high school finishes later in the year. He wants to play at UAA and has enjoyed some contact with the Seawolves coaching staff.
“Thinking it’d be great to stay in this (Alaska Airlines Center) gym,” he said.
SWAN FLIES RIGHT IN THE SKILLS COMPETITION
Noatak senior Abraham Swan is a quiet kid. However, his shooting stroke made quite the noise in the skills competition prior to the 1A boys tournament.
The 6-foot-1 forward sank 15 of 20 total three-pointers, including four of five “money” balls worth five points. His final score of 53 out of a possible 70 bested the second-place finishers by 17 points.
Swan dropped nine straight shots at one point and said the nerves were noticeable.
“My hands were getting a little sweaty,” said Swan, who also won the same title at the Northwest Arctic Conference tournament in Kotzebue.
Noatak coach Shaun Adams attended the coach’s meeting and missed Swan’s show. But nothing about the performance surprised him.
“He can’t miss,” Adams said.
Hailing from a village 560 miles northwest of Anchorage, the Lynx scored a 51-45 victory over Shismaref in their tournament opener and followed with a 64-55 quarterfinal loss to Aniak on Thursday. Swan totaled 28 points in those games and made three of only seven three-point attempts.
Regardless, he’ll always have the memory of the skills competition.
“He was very relaxed, and didn’t let a single miss rattle him,” said ASAA student services coordinator Kathleen Navarre, who ran the skills competition. “(Swan) was also very unfazed by the 53 points.
“In all my years of doing the skills contest, it definitely was one of the highest scores and best performances I’ve seen.”
THE STREAM TEAM
Steve Vreeman’s game plan and strategy for March Madness Alaska is well thought out despite he and his team never needing to touch a basketball. Vreeman is the Alaska production manager for the National Federation of State High School Associations Network aka the NFHS Network, which is responsible for the exclusive online broadcasts of MMA’s 118 games played in a span of eight days.
“Busy, but we love it,” he said.
The Alaska School Activities Association is part owner of the NFHS Network. Revenue generated from NFHS subscriptions helps defray costs associated with championship events.
Vreeman has a game-by-game breakdown for each day of the tournament. He then works with his crew to make sure each contest is assigned a camera operator, a producer and a broadcaster.
“That’s where the challenge lies,” he said.
Affectionately referred to as “talent” by Vreeman, the broadcasters include Bob Barger, Brad Lauwers, Kevin McHenry, Casey Roehl, Tom Steigleman and Ken Vehmeier. Vreeman said it’s possible he may find a few others for spot duty.
The talking heads face their own test with each broadcast. More than 1,200 students and 80 teams from all corners of the state converge on Anchorage for MMA. As a broadcaster, it’s difficult to familiarize yourself with name pronunciation or any kind of historic backstories when watching a team play likely for the first time.
“I try to talk with the coaches before each game to learn something, and then I listen closely to the PA announcers to get proper pronunciations,” said Lauwers, who’s retiring from the Anchorage School District after spending portions of five decades teaching and coaching.
Last year, NFHS received more than 150,000 views during MMA games. The streams prove popular far and wide.
“Aunt, uncles, grandpas, grandmas and everyone in a village or town is either hearing about or watching the games,” Vreeman said. “It’s all really gratifying.”