Tournament play starts Thursday at 1:30 PM when the Mt. Edgecumbe Lady Braves meet Nikiski.

Tournament play starts Thursday at 1:30 PM when the Mt. Edgecumbe Lady Braves meet Nikiski.

Basketball teams from Sitka have a realistic shot at reaching the finals of the state tournament this week — and could even win.

Both the Mt. Edgecumbe Lady Braves and the Sitka Wolves are well-positioned to advance, when tournament play begins on Thursday.

Tom Hesse is the sports editor at the Daily Sitka Sentinel. He dropped by our studios to share his thoughts on the teams’ chances with KCAW’s Robert Woolsey.

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Tom Hesse has covered every home basketball game this season, and he also went to the regional tournament in Juneau. He’ll be traveling this week to Anchorage, where he says the Mt. Edgecumbe girls are going to be dangerous.

You could call them a favorite for this conference. The thing that Mt. Edgecumbe has going for them is that the top team in the entire state, which would be ACS – Anchorage Christian School — they’re on the opposite side of the bracket. So Mt. Edgecumbe doesn’t have to see them unless they were to face them in the championship game. But first, they have to get through Nikiski, then through the winner of Barrow and Valdez. Across the board for Mt. Edgecumbe, it’s really a matter of keeping in their style, working their game inside out. Because they get their best looks when they feed inside, kick back out, and play great defense. They play great defense without fouling. At one point in the season, they beat Juneau — a 4A school — 50 to 10, and didn’t have single foul in the entire second half.

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During the regular season Mt. Edgecumbe beat its opening round opponent, Nikiski, by two points, but it was only the second game of the season. The Lady Braves have also beaten their prospective second-round opponent, Barrow.

Hesse says these early-season wins aren’t really significant going into the state tournament. He expects tournament opponents to try and double-team Mt. Edgecumbe’s low post, Taryn White, who’s averaged 13 points a game this season. But that strategy could backfire.

So that will open up a lot of room for Mt. Edgecumbe’s shooters. Payton Weisz has possibly the smoothest stroke in Southeast — possibly in the state — boys or girls. She’s got an incredible shot, shoots all the time — a real gym rat — she’s been shooting over 30-percent from 3-point range this year and Renatta Olson also’s been shooting over 30-percent. So, they’ve got some shooters to balance out this approach.

Like the Mt. Edgecumbe girls, the Sitka boys are also on the opposite side of the tournament bracket from perennial powerhouse ACS, and defending champions Monroe Catholic — dramatically improving the odds of the Wolves reaching the finals.

The Wolves face Grace Christian in the opening round — a team they met at home for the first game of the season at the Holland-America tournament.

The Wolves dropped that contest, but came back to win tournament by defeating Thunder Mountain, a 4A team visiting from Juneau.

If they survive Grace Christian, Sitka would then meet Bethel in the second round — a team which traveled here in the early season and split a pair of games with the Wolves.

Hesse says the matchup with Bethel was a learning experience for Sitka.

In their first game against Bethel, Bethel hit a dozen 3-pointers, and they beat Sitka by something like 25 points. They handed it to Sitka. All five players from Bethel can shoot. All of them. You can’t leave anybody open. Second game Sitka comes back: They don’t have Brian Way, they don’t have Tevan Baine, they don’t have Ryan Samuelson. So they’re missing two bigs and a guard — three big contributors for Sitka, and they beat them by ten points. One of the biggest differences was, they played a lot more man-to-man, and were more aggressive defensively. You’d talk to the team afterwards and they were like, No we’re not going to lose this game. This is a game they set up for us because we might see this team at state.

Except for one sophomore, Sitka starts all seniors — the same team that started last year. In theory, the Wolves could meet a worn-down ACS or Monroe Catholic in the final, and have their best chance at a 3A championship in years.

Hesse believes Sitka’s boys have been on this track for a long time.

I keep saying this is a team that’s been built over two years — it’s really a team that’s been built over multiple years. These are kids that played in middle school together, they played baseball, basketball together. They’ve seen a lot of each other so well. They’re well-built to play really balanced basketball. And so they have to get up for this tournament, because the cards have fallen in such a way that — they’ve spent so long preparing for this moment — if they’re not ready now, they never will be.