Eagle River’s basketball teams are gearing up for another season as they build a legacy of excellence in the face of stiff competition from larger schools in the Anchorage School District and impart life lessons to athletes.
Coach Sconiers of Chugiak High School (CHS) says, “I think basketball is a tremendous instrument for life,” saying that it teaches teamwork and other life skills they will need later.
“Teaching and coaching go hand-in-hand,” Coach Landers of Gruening Middle School says, continuing by saying that coaching is the reason he pursued teaching. He loves seeing the smiles on athletes’ faces when they accomplish something they have never done before.
For him, basketball also fills a void that some students might have in their lives.
“I think there’s nothing more important to some kids than just being part of a team in general because they may not have the family life and structure outside of school,” Landers says.
Coach Doerflinger, Mirror Lake Middle School, enjoys the basketball season because it gives her the opportunity to build relationships with students. She says, “I love the relationships I get to build with the kids through coaching,” pointing out that she only gets 40 minutes with them in class, but she gets 90 minutes with them each day at practice.
However, Eagle River and Chugiak’s basketball teams face a daunting obstacle from the stiff competition with which they compete. They are pitted against Anchorage schools with sometimes double their student population.
Aaron Davis, a senior at Eagle River High School (ERHS), is not intimidated by the larger schools in his conference. Davis has played basketball his whole life and loves the sport’s competitive nature, the thrill of it, and sometimes even the defeats because it makes the victories that much sweeter.
“We just go in there with the mentality that we have nothing to lose and that we’re just going to go in there and play as hard as we can,” Davis says. “We’re high school kids just like them. We can compete with anyone.”
Another obstacle for Eagle River’s basketball teams this season will be the state’s remoteness.
Coach Sconier says, “I believe there are kids with talent here [in Alaska], they just don’t get the chance to get out there and get exposed to the other types of schools around the country, so they never know what it truly takes to get to that next level.”
Even with the odds against them, Eagle River’s schools are improving across the board. Coach Bob Adkins of ERHS says, “When you come to Eagle River [High School], you see the excitement that’s building here from our pre-game, to the mentality of our kids, to the faculty, to the parents. There’s a definite excitement about Eagle River athletics.”
Coach Adkins has seen ERHS’ varsity basketball team improve from a win/loss ratio of 1-20 to finishing at 8-14 last season.
The school won its first tournament last year as well. Adkins aims to elevate ERHS’s athletics to match its academic rankings, in which it is the third in the state.
When Coach Sconiers took over as head coach four years ago at CHS, he entered this tough atmosphere with a team largely comprised of freshman. Even with that being the case, their motto was “no excuses!”
CHS’s team has developed to the point that last season the team missed qualifying for the playoffs by a single point in a game against West High, improving their wins from 5 two seasons ago to 17 last season. This year, Coach Sconiers is focusing on competing throughout the game and the season.
Regardless the win/loss ratio and other challenges, the basketball season is long and demanding of athletes.
Outside of the physical strain of practices and games, there is also the stress of traveling and balancing school. The kids are excited to be a part of these programs, even as they sacrifice.
“A lot of times you’ll have friends who watch a movie over the weekend or something like that,” Davis says. “You sacrifice stuff like that so you can put in work and improve your basketball team.”
Coach Landers, Gruening Middle School, says that his school’s large program, 92 students last season, forces them to host separate practices, one which meets at 6 am. However, athletes and parents alike are willing to sacrifice.
“We have good community support out here,” Landers says. “For the most part, we haven’t had anyone complain about it [early workouts] or miss practices.”
Coaches shared their expectations for the upcoming season.
Chugiak High School
Coach Sconiers – “We know we play defense but we’re going to push the tempo and continue to play really good defense with no breaks during the game.” CHS has a team largely comprised of seniors this year, seniors that Coach Sconiers has had the opportunity to develop throughout their high school careers. They will be a seasoned team.
Eagle River High School
Coach Adkins – “We’re going to improve our defense and focus on being a team that leaves it all out on the court every night.” The team has few seniors but Coach Adkins, who also is the head football coach at ERHS, brings nearly 25 years of coaching experience to his second season of head basketball coach at ERHS. They will focus on improving their execution on the court every game as they develop team chemistry.
Mirror Lake Middle School
Coach Doerflinger – “I expect them [the athletes] to come out and play with the heart that they always have.” Continuing, she says, “People should expect to see growth, the kids having fun, and new kids stepping up who haven’t been in a leadership role yet.” With all but two athletes from the varsity team graduated last year, the team will need to establish cohesiveness during the six week season.
Gruening Middle School
Coach Landers – “My expectations every year is that we are going to do well and we are going to be successful. My kids know those are my expectations, so they’re going to try their hardest throughout the year.” Gruening has three returners on the varsity squad from last year, so they will lean heavily on the JV squad from last season. The school benefits from the expertise of numerous outstanding coaches who mentor the JV squad to be able to compete at the varsity level.
Coach Sconiers encourages Eagle River’s community to support the basketball teams in Eagle River and Chugiak because many of the athletes have been competing in this town their whole lives.
“They’re finally at the point where all their hard work is going to manifest itself on the basketball court,” Sconiers says. “By watching the games, you see their progression and how things can turn around.”
Jamin Goecker is a local writer who recently moved to Alaska. When he’s not writing about local events and personalities, he can be found hiking, running, skiing, or editing his manuscript for a novel. Email him at Jamin@echoak.com and follow him on Instagram at Jgoecker1 or Twitter at @jamin_goecker