State Tourney Championship Notebook II

The Lady Panthers pose with their second straight 2A State Championship Trophy: Bottom row, from left - Kaitlyn Surdyk, Kaylie O’Daniel, Jesse Ellis and Anna Korsmo; top row - Jayce Ellis, Jade Cook, Hannah O'Daniel, Lisa Buschmann, Rori Leaverton, Cora Jacobi, Polly Brown, and co-coach Lara Labesky (not pictured co-coach Mark Jennings and assistant Savannah Ames). Jeff Brady

Back-to-back State Champions

Tough team takes tough bracket, cements legacy


By JEFF BRADY

State Tourney Intro
Destination: no dream

While waiting for the jet to arrive in Juneau, everyone on the team has their phones out and is checking whatever it is kids check or text to pass the time at 7 a.m. Then one looks up and notices a light blue jet taxiing across the tarmac.
“It’s the Disney plane...with Tinkerbell” and someone starts singing the first lines of “Once Upon a Dream” or “Wish Upon a Star” or some other Disney song with dreams in it.
It’s just after 7 in the morning after all, but this team is awake. They have been practicing at this hour for a week now, getting ready for an 8 a.m. game.
But the singing fades, and the focus is back on the texting and the destination.
They had also learned this morning that Jesse Ellis was the State 2A Player of the Year in a recent poll of coaches compiled by Alaska Newspapers (mostly western AK papers), but no other Skagway player made the All-State teams. Everyone is happy for Jesse, but upset that more of the team was not recognized. This will add a little extra motivation come game time Monday. Point Hope had three players represented.
This destination does not need a dream, and no wishes. They’ve been here before and they know what it will take.

Kaitlyn Surdyk dives for a loose ball, and Anna Korsmo boxes out against Point Hope. Cody Jennings

State Quarterfinals
Skagway 45, Tikigaq 42

 The Sullivan Arena was in need of a wake-up call at the start of March Madness Alaska. As players walked onto the court, the sponsor banners were still going up, and a phone man was being called in to fix the Wifi and radio lines. At the start of the 8 a.m. game, the radio announcer was on his cell phone, and this reporter was scribbling on paper instead of blogging on the laptop.
But hand it to the Skagway and Tikigaq (Point Hope) players, they woke everyone up with a terrific game that went down to the final seconds. March Madness had indeed begun.
Jesse Ellis won the tip and then went to the free throw line to give Skagway the first lead of the game, but she also picked up an early foul. Michelle Lane converted for the Harpooners and then Donna Nash scored off a backcourt steal and sank at 3-pointer to put Point Hope up 7-2.
Skagway was coming up short on shots early, but the Panthers regrouped in the final three minutes of the quarter, as Ellis and Kaylie O’Daniel scored on drives and Rori Leaverton hit a trey with 10 seconds left for a 13-12 lead.
The teams traded buckets to start the second quarter, and then Skagway shut down the Harpooners with relentless half-court pressure. Nearly every Point Hope pass was tipped, and Panthers were skidding across the floor after loose balls. Skagway went on an 8-0 run to give the team a 23-16 lead at the half, but it could have been greater if they had made more lay-ups.
The communication lines at the Sully were open for the second half, and the speed of the game picked up as well. Skagway grabbed its biggest lead on another 3-pointer by Leaverton to go up 29-19, but Nash quickly answered with a trey of her own. Ellis picked up her third and fourth fouls, and the Harpooners took advantage inside to climb back and tie the score 32-32 at the end of the period.
Point Hope would grab the lead back early in the final quarter and go up by as many at three points on a trey by Lane with 3:47 left in the game. Ellis was back and Skagway went zone at times to protect both her and O’Daniel, who also had four fouls.
O’Daniel had been beaten down on a couple drives to the basket and dives to the floor, but the skinny senior is a lot tougher than she looks. Sprinting to her favorite spot on the right wing, she nailed two of the biggest shots of the tourney in the final quarter. Both 3-pointers snuffed Harpooner leads – the second one with 52 seconds to play.
Skagway led 43-42 so now it was up to the defense. Skagway’s pressure did not let up, challenging nearly every Point Hope shot, and Anna Korsmo and Surdyk were cleaning up the boards.
If Point Hope had a weakness, it was at the free throw line and it showed in the final quarter, as they made just one-of-five. Caroline Long had a chance to tie the game or put her team ahead with 26 seconds to go, but missed the front end of the one-and-one.
Korsmo grabbed the rebound, and Skagway played keep-away in the backcourt until Leaverton was fouled with 5.9 seconds on the clock. The steady junior sunk both, and now the Panthers just needed to defend against a Harpooner trey. Nash got one off but it wasn’t a good shot, and the Panthers had their morning victory.
“Those were big free throws and Kaylie’s three was definitely a momentum changer,” said Panthers co-coach Mark Jennings. “We thought about fouling there in the last five seconds but we just told the kids to play straight up.”
Skagway had a balanced attack. Ellis was player of the game with 12 points and nine rebounds, while O’Daniel and Leaverton also scored 12 apiece. Korsmo was co-leader on the boards with nine. Nash led all scorers with 15 points.
Skagway made 9-of-13 from the line, while Tikigaq was just 10-of-21.
Jennings said he thought Skagway would outlast the Harpooners but they stayed with the Panthers right to the end.
“That might be the hardest one,” he said.

March 14 Quarterfinals – Skagway 45, Tikigaq 43: SGY- O’Daneil 12, Ellis 12, Leaverton 12, Surdyk 5, Korsmo 4; TIK- Nash 15, Lane 8 Minx 8, Tooyak 6, Long 5. SGY 13-10-9-13=45, TIK 12-4-16-10=42.

Kaylie O'Daniel shows typical Panther intensity on defense, and Jesse Ellis makes a Player of the Year pass against CIA. Cody Jennings

State Semifinals
Skagway 48, Cook Inlet Academy 29

 In the semifinals, Skagway was matched with the same opponent from last year’s semis, Cook Inlet Academy. Most tourney observers said that 46-40 win by Skagway last year was the real championship instead of the blow-out over Ninilchik in the final. Most of the players were the same for both teams, so the Panthers knew they would be in for another battle in 2011.
Defense set the tone early. Skagway doesn’t usually play a lot of zone, but against a bigger team, they went with what works best.
While watching Cook Inlet beat Togiak in the quarterfinals, assistant coach Savannah Ames noted that the Eagles were lacking in perimeter shooting. So Skagway put in a 2-3 zone that would block the lanes for the big forwards Kelsie Leaf and Tiana McGahan, and take away most of the Eagle offense.
“All we played was zone. It worked against them last year, so we talked about it and went with it,” said co-coach Lara Labesky.
Skagway was again slow out of the gate. After Kaylie O’Daniel sank a spot jumper early, the score was 2-2 for about three minutes. McGahan got free for a trey, a free throw, and short jumper to put the Eagles up, but Skagway answered on a pair of drives by Rori Leaverton and Jesse Ellis.
The Panthers then tied the game with a little trickery to end the quarter. Under Skagway’s bucket, Ellis bounced an inbounds pass off the back side of an Eagle player to herself and scored on a reverse lay-up.
Skagway took control of the game in the second quarter with a remarkable 14-2 run. Panther forwards Kaitlyn Surdyk, Anna Korsmo, and Ellis bottled up the lane, frustrating Leaf who picked up her third foul. Jayce Ellis also came of the bench and played great in the middle of the zone, and Polly Brown came in and moved the ball well and played great defense on the wing.
Skagway revved up the offense as well. The quarter opened and closed with treys by O’Daniel and Rori Leaverton.
Up 24-12, the second half was about Skagway protecting the lead. Jesse Ellis continued to score with pretty drop-step moves in the paint, and Leaverton hit another 3-pointer to push the lead out to 31-13 with three minutes into the third quarter. That would match Skagway’s biggest lead of the night.
On the defensive end, Korsmo held court and Surdyk was having a huge night on the boards. Surdyk would end up with 12 rebounds and be named player of the game. Korsmo was right behind her with 9.
Except for a couple three-pointers and drives by CIA guard Megan Baulder, there wasn’t much scoring for the Eagles. Skagway shut down McGahan in the second half, and Leaf would finish with just 3 points. The closest the Eagles got was within 12 points before O’Daniel sank a trey from the left wing.
From then on, patience was the name of the game for Skagway, as the girls ran off about a minute on the clock before the Eagles started fouling. And there were some hard fouls, including a flagrant by Tiffany Smith against O’Daniel, who was wearing bruises from the quarterfinal game. But O’Daniel took care of things at the free throw line, boosting her game-high point total to 18, the same as the final margin of victory.
Jesse Ellis and Leaverton also were in double figures with 13 and 11 points respectively for the Panthers, while McGahan and Baulder finished with 10 each to lead CIA. Skagway out-rebounded the Eagles 48 to 29.
“We did a really good job taking care of the ball at the end of the game, which is really important for tomorrow night’s game,” Labesky said.
The Panthers advanced to its third straight state championship game, and this time it would be against the Yakuat Eagles. Skagway lost to the Eagles in the 2009 region and state championship games, beat them in last year’s region final, and lost to them by one in overtime of this year’s SE championship game. But Skagway had beaten them three times this year – in the Chevak Tourney championship, and twice at home.
Were they wanting Yakutat again? Well, certainly revenge was on the minds of the Panther players after the disappointing loss at regionals, but the coaches were not playing up the rivalry.
“I told Charlie (Russell, Yakutat coach) I really didn’t want to play him a fifth time, and he also said he is sick of playing us,” Labesky said.
But both coaches said an all-Southeast final is always a good thing.
Yakutat had an easy road to the state finals, with two huge wins over Seldovia and Tri-Valley. Would that help them or hurt them against a solid team like Skagway?

Skagway 48, Cook Inlet Academy 29: SGY- O’Daniel 18, Je. Ellis 13, Leaverton 11, Korsmo 4, Ja. Ellis 2; CIA- McGahan 10, Bauder 10, Smith 6, Leaf 3. SGY 10-14-9-15=48, CIA 10-2-8-9=29.

Rori Leaverton eludes Tina Esbenshade for a steal, and the Panther bench starts celebrating. Cody Jennings

State Championship
Skagway 34, Yakutat 23

 This was the team Skagway expected to see in the championship game, and there would be no problem getting motivated to beat a rival who had upset them in the region final 10 days before.
The Lady Panthers are friends with many of the Yakutat players, but the chat stops when a big game is on the line.
On their Facebook pages, the Skagway girls were all about playing for the “love of the game” and “leaving it all out on the floor.” But revenge was also on their minds.
Close to 100 Skagway fans spread out over two sections behind the team. Most were wearing blue and gold, and near the top row of one section a group of boys were shirtless with S-K-A-G-W-A-Y spelled out across their chests. Then they turned around, and on their backs was K-I-C-K-@-$-$. And they were loud.
Defense was the name of the game early and the pace would be much like the region final, but it would take a quick turn that would give Skagway the momentum to carry them to a second straight title.
There was no scoring for about three minutes, and then Yakutat’s Ellen Esbenshade made two shots inside to give the Eagles a 4-0 lead. Jesse Ellis then answered for Skagway on a nice assist from Rori Leaverton, and the next time down the floor Ellis buried a 3-pointer.
Yakutat would not lead again. After a media time out, Ellis sank another trey, and then Leaverton and Anna Korsmo scored on drives to the bucket. Skagway was warming up and having its way inside and outside and led 14-4 after one quarter. The fans were yelling “Panther Power!”
Skagway co-coach Lara Labesky told her team to “know where the ball is” on defense, and they responded by not giving Yakutat anything. The Panthers also threw some zone at the Eagles to mix things up. After all, it had worked against the Cook Inlet Eagles, so why not the Yakutat Eagles.
“We just locked them down on D,” said co-coach Mark Jennings after the game. “We switched into the 2-3 zone more than we wanted to, but the kids felt more comfortable in it, so we went with it.”
The second quarter opened with a sweet bounce pass from Leaverton to a breaking Kaylie O’Daniel for a lay-up, and then Ellis and Korsmo hit shots inside. Yakutat would not score again until 3:30 was left in the half. By then, Skagway was up 20-4.
“That 20-0 run in the first half, that really sealed the deal,” said Jennings.
But the Eagles were not going away. Tina Esbenshade scored on a fast break lay-up, Nadine Fraker hit a jumper, and Ellen Esbenshade converted a three-point-play to cut the Skagway lead to 10 at the half.
They were the only three Eagles to score all night. Missing from the team for violating team rules was Jocelyn Jensen, the player who beat Skagway at the end of overtime in the region final. After the game, Eagles coach Charles Russell said he was proud of his players, especially Amanda Israelson, for stepping into the starting line-up. They had rolled over Seldovia and Tri-Valley to get to the final, but he said Skagway was just too tough this night and deserved to be state champs.
Skagway’s Jesse Ellis said they knew they would be in for a battle against a great ball club, but her team was focused on defending their title.
Yakutat made a little run to start the second half, as Skagway cooled off and got just one bucket to fall in the third quarter. But the closest the Eagles could get was six points.
The zone worked wonders in the fourth quarter, and Skagway picked up the scoring to put the game away.
O’Daniel did not have a big offensive game, but she controlled the ball and made two great assists to Ellis and Leaverton. A trey by Fraker gave Yakuat its only points of the quarter until the final seconds.
The clincher for Skagway came at the 2:30 mark. All night, Skagway had worked the inside-outside game to perfection. This final play involved the two girls who had anchored the inside defense. Skagway had been told to delay on offense the rest of the way, but Kaitlyn Surdyk found herself with the ball on the left wing and dumped the ball into Korsmo. She then kicked it back out to Surdyk, who was wide open.
“I just felt it,” Surdyk said later. “It was one of those last minute things, I just had to go for it.”
She drained the trey for the final points of her high school career, and a 34-21 lead. That was all Skagway needed as Yakutat tried to foul to stop the clock, but it took four fouls before the Panthers were in the bonus. By then there were just seconds left and the crowd was on its feet yelling “SHS, back-to-back!”
After a final Yakutat bucket, Skagway ran out the last 12 seconds. Ellis led all scorers with 14 and Skagway player of the game Leaverton added 10. Ellen Esbenshade was the only Eagle in double figures with 11.

Skagway 34, Yakutat 23: SGY- Ellis 14, Leaverton 10, Surdyk 4, Korsmo 4, K. O’Daniel 2; YAK- E. Esbenshade 11, Fraker 7, T. Esbenshade 5. SGY 14-9-2-9=34, YAK 4-9-5-5=23.

The Panther team and nearly 100 screaming Skagway blue and gold-clad fans rejoice at the final score over Yakutat at the end of the championship game. Jeff Brady

Post-Game
Gratification

This year’s celebration was different than last year’s. There was no singing, and there weren’t nearly as many tears. This one was all about acknowledging that you are the best.
“It’s great for these seniors, they deserve it,” Jennings said.
After the high fives and bumps, the team joined seniors Jesse Ellis, Kaylie O’Daniel and Kaitlyn Surdyk at the center circle one last time, and then Labesky walked off arm-in-arm with the starting five.
Labesky said the loss at regionals was “incredibly motivating and humbling.” By not beating Yakutat and a great Russell-coached team an eighth straight time, “it took some of the pressure off that they were putting on themselves to continue winning. So this was like square one. It would be like just going out and playing our game and win it. And that’s what they did. They played their game and didn’t play Yakutat’s game and won.”
Russell said 25 percent of their games had been against Skagway this year, and four of their team’s five losses were against the Panthers. He said Yakutat had an easy bracket to get to the final, but playing in a tough SE region prepared them for tough games.
But he said the outcome was expected.
“Your three seniors are outstanding ball players and great sports,” he said. “I think the unsung hero would be that Kaitlyn Surdyk. She’s a role player, she knows what to do, and we adjust our game around her. I tell my girls, when you rebound the ball, you better hold onto it. As a coach you see that, and you are impressed by her tenacity and her will to get the ball back, even when her man doesn’t have the ball.”
He said the friendship and respect the Yakutat and Skagway players have for each other makes for great basketball games.
“When they get out on the floor, they just see the numbers,” he said. “They are friends after and before but when they get out there they want to play basketball and it’s great to see.”
For the Skagway players, it was all about the team. “Good Sports” Polly Brown and Jayce Ellis were the only bench players to see action at State, but the rest of the players – Jade Cook, Hannah O’Daniel, Cora Jacobi and Lisa Buschmann were on their feet cheering. After the game, they passed out roses.
“I’m very happy we won and I love my teammates,” Kaylie O’Daniel said.
She then ran over to hug her grandparents, Mike and Sylvia O’Daniel. “You worked so hard,” her granddad said.
“I’m thinking that revenge is sweet and it tastes like candy,” said Leaverton, who joined the three seniors on the All-Tournament team.
Skagway had the most of any division, boys or girls, with four players. It was gratifying for a group of players who, aside from 2A Player of the Year Jesse Ellis, had been snubbed from the pre-tourney All-State team.
After each of her teammates had a snip of the net, Jesse Ellis reflected on the moment.
“It means everything,” she said. “I’m just so grateful for such a great team, great coaches, a great fan base. It was awesome.”
There would be no parade this year. But this spring a new state championship banner will hang in the gym. And there’s talk about something new to further stamp this team’s legacy: a mark on the gym floor that will say Alaska 2A Girls State Champions 2010 and 2011.

Senior network: Kaitlyn Surdyk, Jesse Ellis and Kaylie O'Daniel enjoy the moment. Jeff Brady

Link to more State Tourney photos, our courtside blog and more on the SHS 2010-11 Basketball Page