March Madness continues in Anchorage today for five Interior teams, including the No. 1 seed in Class 4A West Valley High School boys basketball team.
Fresh off a regional championship victory over Monroe Catholic, today’s ASAA State Tournament in Anchorage will include the No. 5-seed Rams in 4A boys, Monroe Catholic’s girls in Class 3A, Lathrop’s girls in Class 4A, and Delta’s boys in Class 3A.
The Rams’ boys team will open with Colony at 6:15 tonight. The No. 2 seed Monroe Catholic girls will play Kenai Central at 11 a.m.; the seventh-seed Lathrop girls will face Wasilla at 12:30 p.m.; and eighth-seed Delta will take on Grace Christian at 9:30 a.m.
Boasting a 24-1 record, the Wolfpack is eager to hit the court and — after coming up short of a title in the past two seasons — see the tournament through to the end.
“There has not been a Fairbanks 4A state championship since 1990. I’m hoping that we show up ready to play and we provide ourselves some opportunities to go as far as we can and make the best run we can and have the best three days out of any other team there,” said Coach Colten Growden, who was born the same year West Valley brought home the trophy.
Now in his fifth season with the Wolfpack, Growden has built a talented team that he describes as “battle-tested” — its lone loss was to No. 2 seed Dimond 57-54 — and able to control the game by creating chaos for its opponents.
“Our strategy is we like to speed you up, we like to play the game fast. We like to use our athleticism to our advantage, and we like to defend 94-feet … and just kind of get you playing at an uncomfortable pace,” Growden explained.
It’s a strategy that’s proved itself year over year as the Wolfpack’s senior players have only felt defeat six times in their high school careers. Those seniors are Malachi Bradley, Kolten Thompson, Eliyah Dominique and Stewart Erhart — who recently received his second-consecutive player of the year honor.
“That’s cool, but that’s an individual award. I want a team award,” Erhart said. “I’m here to win it. Out of everything, I want my teammates to win. I want my coach to win, I want Kolten to win, I want (assistant coaches) Mike Titus and Kelly Growden to win. I just want my whole team to win because I already felt like I won.”
That desire is echoed by Bradley.
“I feel like not many kids can say (they’ve only lost six games), but we also put in the time and effort as a program to reach that expectation of being the No. 1 seed in the state,” Bradley said. “I’d like to see how well my team does and try to bring back the hardware. It’s been a drought for many years, so we’ve got to put on a show this year.”
“Those are guys that grew up playing basketball together since they were kids,” Growden said. “They are good friends on and off the court, but they just kind of got a feel for each other and a knack for knowing where each other’s going to be, and they really like to try and play through each other.
In addition to the natural dynamic between his seniors, Growden also credits the team’s success to how they view defense — or as he terms it, “offense-offense.”
“We don’t look at it as we’re playing defense because a lot of people don’t like to play defense,” he explained. “We like to play defense; it generates our points.”
Whatever they do at that end of the court, Growden highlights Dominique’s performance.
“Defensively, he’s a havoc himself,” the coach said. “He really speeds up the game and you know guards on the other team and so he doesn’t get near the credit that he deserves because he doesn’t score the ball, but he limits the other team’s best players from getting their opportunities as well.”
Ahead of the state tournament, where the Wolfpack will open play today against Juneau-Douglas at 11 a.m., the reality is sitting differently for everyone. Whereas Growden feels excitement, especially going in as the top seed, Erhart feels anxious, and Bradley exudes calm.
“I mean honestly to me it feels like another game that the team can get better at moving forward,” Bradley stated.
Erhart, who returned to the court during the Mid-Alaska Regional Tournament following a minor injury during the school’s senior night game against North Pole, has handled his pre-state tournament nerves for the past 10 days through preparation.
“Working hard at practice is like the base of our foundation,” he said. “And then (we spend time) just watching film and looking at like what do they do what their tendencies are and how and why do they do it and then counter that with how we’re going to play them.”
Should they beat Juneau Douglas today, the state semifinal would pit them against a familiar foe in Monroe Catholic (whom they’ve defeated three times this year) or Colony, whom they beat 75-56 at Palmer last month. If the seeds play out, they’d have a chance to again meet Dimond in the championship game.
“Well, a lot of these guys have been on the team for multiple years now and we’ve had a chance for the last three years to really make some noise and potentially get to that state championship game,” Growden said. “So a lot of them have felt the impact of not being able to get there and coming up short and I think that has really attuned their focus in for this year knowing that they don’t want to feel like what they felt the last two years.”