Wolverines win second state championship
March 23rd | Sean Pearson
White named Gatorade player of the year for Alaska
When you are a Class 1A, K-12 school in a tiny Kenai Peninsula village in Alaska, you can pretty much kiss your chances of fielding a high school football team goodbye. You might be able to scrape up enough players for a lean baseball team, but hockey and soccer are definitely out.
Then there's basketball.
Ahh yes ... basketball; it's a sport the Ninilchik Wolverines know very well — and tend to be very good at. And sometimes ... when all the right elements come together ... they can be the best in the state.
Whether through a stroke of luck or an act of divine intervention, eight Ninilchik basketball players and a couple of Wolverine-alumni coaches came together in 2017 and made the decision to win their second-straight state basketball tournament in as many years.
Under the direction of head coach Nick Finley and assistant coach Jesse Leman, they did just that.
The Wolverines defeated the Gambell Qughsatkut 79-39 in Saturday's title showdown at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage. It was their 37th-straight win against 1A opponents.
And Finley saw it coming a long time ago.
"I started working with Tyler and Matt in the sixth grade," Finley said. "Tyler (Presley) was short and stout, and Matt (Bartolowits) was a tiny little guy who never stopped talking."
Then, Dalton (Geppert) came along in the seventh grade.
"He was a long, lanky, uncoordinated little guy, but all three boys were very coachable," Finley said. "They seemed like they wanted to do everything I could do, so I started teaching them — and they soaked up everything."
A year later, in 2010, a young man transferred from Idaho to Ninilchik, and was recruited at the local dentist office.
"Austin was 6-foot, 4-inches, and still had baby teeth," Finley said, laughing. "My wife sent him over to middle school practice after his dental appointment."
"When I got to Ninilchik, it was pretty easy to get comfortable with the other guys," the now 6-foot, eight-inch White said. "And they seemed to take me in pretty quick, too."
Finley said when White first arrived, he was "tall and a bit uncoordinated," but fit in well with his willingness to learn. And, while the 12-year-old was certainly not lacking in height, he did have a few other things that needed a little polishing.
"I still remember his first time running down the court and back, dribbling a ball," Finley said. "He wound up on his face."
Things got better — and White said it was Finley's self-control and patience that really helped him learn the game.
"He'd sit there for hours every day and watch me do the same move wrong over and over again," White said. "He wouldn't leave or get annoyed. He'd just sit there with me and keep critiquing me until I had it down."
Ninilchik fans had high hopes for the Wolverine program when the boys started high school.
"We got our butts kicked all over the floor," Finley said. "The team used that as motivation to get better, and when the off-season came, they put in a lot of hard work in the weight room and the gym."
Things looked a little brighter when sophomore year rolled around, but Finley said the 10th-grade season was a lot like the boys' freshman year. Again they used it as motivation, and when junior year came along, things started to change.
"We went undefeated in our tough conference, and won State," Finley said. "And their senior year — well, we know how that ended."
Ninilchik started the championship game on a 15-0 run, and took a comfortable 34-13 lead into the half. Geppert scored 16 points in the first quarter, and went on to end the game with 24 points off nine 3-pointers. The senior also received player-of-the-game honors and was named to the all-tournament team.
Senior and team captain Matt Bartolowits scored nine points and grabbed five rebounds in the championship blowout. White picked up 23 points, while Presley scored 12.
"This was an ideal ending to a phenomenal run for these boys," Finley said, adding that both the team — and coaches — were feeling the pressure at the start of the tournament, and opened up a little tight.
"The night we beat Shaktoolik by only three points, Jesse and I talked, and decided we were over-coaching the boys," Finley said. "We were trying to put too much emphasis on getting the ball inside to our big guy."
That's certainly a good plan when your "big guy" is 6-foot, 8-inches. But what makes the Wolverines so dangerous is that everyone on the floor is a threat.
"We told the guys to just go out and play, and don't worry about getting the ball inside," Finley explained. "We said, 'If you're open, shoot the ball. Just play our basketball and the rest will take care of itself.'"
And it did. Quite nicely.
"We were very confident going into this tournament; we actually expected to win," White said. "I don't think any of us really doubted that we would."
"As a coach, this is what you wait and wish for; guys that want to get better and guys that believe in what a coach is teaching," Finley said. "It really has been a pleasure coaching these young men."
White returned the compliment to his coach — and then some.
"I'd say Coach Nick helped teach me to be humble," White said. "He told me when I did well, but if I ever did or said something arrogant or cocky, he'd straighten me back out. He taught me to be confident, but not egotistic."
White will play college ball at University of Alaska Anchorage next year; a goal he set after his first season playing.
"I knew in my heart that — because of the athleticism and height I've been blessed with — if I put in the work, I could play college ball somewhere."
Before that, White and his senior teammates will play under the guidance of coach Finley one last time at the senior all-star game April 14-15 in Anchorage.
As for Finley, he said his free time now will be spent in the gym with the next group of kids.
"And spending time with my wonderful wife and two kids."