When Bea Klaich says she has a young team, she's not just another basketball coach tempering expectations or delving into hyperbole.
Six of the 10 players on Klaich's Nikolaevsk girls team, which is playing in the Class 2A state tournament this week at Sullivan Arena, are mere eighth-graders.
Yep, that's correct -- those kids aren't even in high school yet, but they're playing high school hoops.
Under a waiver system that's been in play for three seasons now, the Alaska School Activities Association, which governs high school sports, allows schools with tiny enrollments to use eighth-graders to fill out basketball or volleyball teams.
And that's how Nikolaevsk ended up with eighth-graders Kayla Stafford and Serafima Kalugin in the starting lineup.
Kalugin is just 13, but loving the experience she's having and excited about the prospect of playing high school hoops for five seasons.
"Not many kids get to do it,'' Kalugin said. "Most people I tell say, 'I wish I could be you.' It's an honor to do it.''
Of course, that means Kalugin sometimes plays against opponents who are 17 or 18.
"It's kind of intimidating at first, but you figure out you're no different,'' Kalugin said. "It's just a game. They don't expect any less from you.''
Because there are only 16 students enrolled at Nikolaevsk in grades 9-12, the Warriors use eighth-graders. Bea Klaich and her husband, Steve, who coaches the boys team, have groomed most of their players since elementary school because they also coach junior high and elementary school squads at the Peninsula school.
And, hey, with such a young team, none of the troops are jaded.
"The neat thing is they're excited every day,'' Bea Klaich said. "It doesn't get old for them.''
ASAA executive director Gary Matthews said any school that has 20 or fewer students in grades 9-12, or fewer than 10 boys or girls in those grades, can have their superintendent ask for a waiver. Gaining the waiver can provide continuity for Class 1A basketball or volleyball teams, he said, keeping them stocked enough to have a team each season. Nikolaevsk meets Class 1A enrollment requirements -- 50 or fewer students -- but plays up in Class 2A because there aren't 1A schools on the Peninsula.
"It's worked out great -- no complaints,'' Matthews said. "It's all positive.''
Matthews said about 20 schools in the state use eighth-graders in sports. Besides the Nikolaevsk girls, three teams in the Class 1A state tournament have eighth-graders on the roster. The Fort Yukon boys have four of them, the Golovin boys have two and the Shishmaref girls have two.
Previously, there was a "cooperative rule,'' Matthews said. That allowed schools with two few students to fill a team to combine with a school close by to put together a co-op team, but that wasn't tenable because so many remote Alaska schools are so far from another school.
The Nikolaevsk girls team, which lost its semifinal, 57-26, to Point Hope on Tuesday and plays in the third-place game Wednesday, features six eighth-graders, one freshman and three sophomores.
Try finding a younger team than that.
"The girls are doing really great,'' Bea Klaich said. "I'm so proud of them. We just try to focus on the fundamentals. Knowing I'm going to have them two more years, I'm excited.''
And even though her team's state tournament experience ends Wednesday, she'll quickly be back coaching.
"When I get back, starting Friday, I've got elementary-school basketball,'' she said.
New goal for Newhalen
The Newhalen girls started the basketball season with one goal: make it to the state tournament.
Once they qualified, they needed a new benchmark to pursue.
"So we made another goal -- to win state,'' said sophomore Kelsea Wassillie.
So far, so good. The Class 1A Malamutes used Tuesday's 49-36 semifinal victory over previously undefeated Fort Yukon to advance to Wednesday's championship game against Chefornak.
Trailing 15-13 at halftime, the Malamutes shot 54.2 percent from the field in the second half and made all six of their fourth-quarter free throws. Time and again the Malamutes scored on lay-ups, even after made baskets by Fort Yukon.
"We just tried to tire them down so we could get lay-ups,'' said, Wasillie, who had 13 points, 15 rebounds, three assists and two steals.
Newhalen used a box-and-one defense to control Fort Yukon's Kandace Carroll, the two-time Player of the Year, who in previous state touraments dropped 47 and 45 points, respectively, on opponents.
Carroll finished with 18 points and 13 rebounds.
The Class 1A girls championship game Wednesday pits Newhalen, which seized the 1998 title in its other previous championship-game appearance, against Cherfornak, which has never advanced to the ultimate game at state.
The Newhalen boys will face Golovin in the Class 1A final, giving Newhalen a chance to become the first school to sweep the 1A titles since Noorvik seized both crowns in 2000. Golovin is making its first championship-game appearance. The Newhalen boys were runners-up at state in 2011, 2009, 2005 and 1998
In girls Class 2A championship game, Point Hope, the 1998 and 1994 state champ, as well as a four-time runner-up, takes on Cook Inlet, which will makes its first championship-game appearance.
In the boys 2A championship game, Noorvik, which won the 2007 title after moving up a class following 1A state titles in 2005 and 2006, will face Scammon Bay. Scammon Bay is in the championship game for the first time.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.