Don Hather tallies the scorebook, Jesse Ellis deflects a Hoonah pass, the kindergarten class entertains at halftime, and Logan Weber scores for the boys. Jeff Brady

‘Panther Power’ is back
Skagway girls unbeaten, boys on a roll

The start of the 2009-2010 basketball season couldn’t be any sweeter for Skagway Panther fans.
The girl’s team has picked right up from its State runner-up performance last season, jumping out to a 15-0 record over some very tough competition. And the boy’s squad (8-4, 6-1 conference) is off to its best start in nearly a decade.
There’s still a lot of basketball to be played, especially on the road, but the prospect of seeing two Skagway teams go to State this year is realistic.
The only team to beat the Skagway girls thus far was an alumni group including a couple of former college players, Savannah Ames and Courtney Mason. But that didn’t count. A week later, the SHS squad was facing some potential college players in the Mt. McKinley Bank Holiday Classic in Fairbanks. The Lady Panthers dispatched 3A host Monroe and also 4A Lathrop and Thunder Mountain. Turns out, SHS has its own college prospects.
Coach Lara Labesky said her team’s performance out of the gate against bigger schools surprised even her.
“I definitely did not expect us to be undefeated (at this point in the season),” she said. “I thought we might drop one or two against the big schools. I knew they would be good games and a learning experience, but we played very well against them.”
But what pleased her even more, along with co-coach Mark Jennings, was the team’s performance in Yakutat. Skagway had not beaten the two-time defending state 2A champions in five years, and the Panthers swept the Eagles in two close games, and then beat them again in the finals of the St. Elias Tournament.
After trailing Yakutat by 18 at the start of the title game, the Lady Panthers came back to win by 2. Jesse Ellis was the MVP and Kaylie O’Daniel and Rori Leaverton made the all-tourney team.
“We don’t lose our cool out there if we do get behind,” Labesky said. “We play within our system and get back on track. That’s a sign of maturity.”
But the cherry on top at the Yakutat tournament was the boy’s championship run. After splitting with Yakutat in their league games, the SHS boys dropped its first tourney game against Ninilchik, but rallied to defeat Noorvik and Yakutat again. SHS captain Thomas Etue was the MVP, and Mickey Wilson made all-tourney.
Returning home, the girls were too much for their Yukon competition in the Don Hather Tourney Jan. 14-16, while the boys struggled against taller FH Collins and Vanier. But when they returned to league play against Hoonah and Angoon, both Skagway teams shined at home.
Boys coach Chris Wassman said his team is best when they take it to their opponents. This was very evident during a huge burst at start of the second half against a competitive Hoonah squad, and when they jumped on Angoon at the start of this week’s games.
“These guys have the potential of taking the whole thing if we can stay focused,” Wassman said.
Like the Skagway girls, this year’s boy’s squad is deep, and Wassman is enjoying having “five or six guys who can come in, and we don’t miss a step. If someone turns up slow, we can instantly take care of it.”
He says the team is enjoying playing together and winning.
“Playing team ball, that’s the important thing,” he said. “They all trust each other.”
Aside from senior guards Etue and Wilson, Skagway has seen double figure nights from starters Quinn Weber, Logan Weber, and Ian Klupar, as well as reserve Nick Ackerman. And there has been heady play all the way down the bench by Danny Moore, JR Madden, Devin Fairbanks, John Doland, Bryce Jones, Sam Madden, and Airk Cochran (8 in the final quarter against Angoon Monday).
A year ago, everyone was amazed at where the SHS girl’s team of mostly freshmen and sophomores was heading. Now they are there, and more experienced.
Labesky said many of the girls honed individual skills in camps over the summer, and are bigger.
“I think we are playing well as a team, distributing the ball around,” she said. “We’ve had quite a few games with four girls in double figures. You can’t just shut down one person on this team, and that makes us pretty hard to defend.”
Defensively, she says they have also “picked it up a knotch,” she said. Their press is unmerciful. The girls swarm opponents and have quick hands that knock the ball away. If anything, they have a tendency to reach, so the press can get even better with improvement, she said.
“I don’t have many complaints,” she added. “We need to just focus on what we are good at.”
The Lady Panthers are starting Ellis, O’Daniel, Leaverton, Kaitlyn Surdyk, and Anna Korsmo. They have welcomed back four seniors to the squad, Emily Herbig, Amanda Jensen, Elise Doland, and Kayla Henricksen, who are getting a lot of minutes, along with younger reserves Jayce Ellis, Avi Vogel and Polly Brown.
Labesky said there is good leadership on the team. “The older girls are bringing the younger girls along,” she said. “There’s no yelling on the court. They’ve fallen into that teaching role nicely.”
Up next for the Panther teams is a very long road trip. They will play at 3A Petersburg Feb. 1-2, and then head to Prince of Wales island, always a tough place to play. There the teams will open with Thorne Bay and Klawock, and then the girls will play Craig and the boys will take on Hydaburg before they head home Feb. 12.
First place tourney seeding could be on the line for both squads. After this trip, they have a home finale against Kake Feb. 17-18 and start preparing for region tourney in Juneau March 3-6. Keep up to date with results, stats and more photos on the SHS Basketball Page.