The Nikolaevsk girls basketball team won the sportsmanship award at last year's state basketball tournament, and seeing them play Tuesday at Sullivan Arena, it was easy to see why. The Warriors lead the tournament in smiles.
Sophia Kalugin absorbs a hit to draw a charge, and she smiles. Serafima Kalugin hustles on defense to force a jump ball, and she smiles -- even though her team doesn't get the ball. The referees show up late for the second half, arriving while both teams await at center court, and the Warriors smile sweetly and applaud.
The Warriors are more than good sports though. They are a good basketball team, and they cruised into the Class 1A girls championship game by crushing Aniak 60-29 in a semifinal game at Sullivan Arena.
Now they face a familiar foe -- region rival Cook Inlet Academy of Soldotna, which rolled past defending champion Newhalen 44-27 in the other semifinal.
Wednesday's 2 p.m. title game will mark the fourth time this season the Warriors and Eagles have played. In the most recent meeting, Nikolaevsk eked out a 28-27 win in the region championship game.
"We're 1-2 against Nikolaevsk this year," CIA coach Rustin Hitchcock said. "We know they beat us twice, but ..."
"... But we're looking forward to it," junior Nicole Moffis said, finishing her coach's thought.
Until this season, CIA had the upper hand in the rivalry. The more dominant program over the years, the Eagles beat Nikolaevsk by more than 20 points in last year's conference finals and made it to last year's Class 2A state championship game last year, losing to Point Hope.
Nikolaevsk, meanwhile, made it to state last year for the first time since 1991, and came into this season wanting more. When it met CIA in this season's second game, it lost by just nine points. It it met CIA for the second time, it won by seven points.
"The first time we played, we didn't have the confidence," junior Sophie Kalugin said. "The first time we beat them, we knew it could happen and from then on we knew we didn't need to be afraid."
When the teams met for a third time for the conference championship, Nikolaevsk won 28-27 and earned the conference's top seed at the state tournament. As the second seed, CIA had to face top-ranked Klawock in Monday's first round -- and the Eagles prevailed 46-37.
Tuesday, CIA had to face the defending champion Newhalen Malemutes. The Eagles didn't let Newhalen score a field goal until the 6:36 mark of the second quarter and led 15-9 at the half.
Moffis scored eight of her game-high 21 points in the third quarter to help CIA pad the lead
The Eagles benefited from ice-cold shooting by Newhalen, which was 11 of 56 from the field. CIA ran its offense well and seldom took poor shots, but it was cold too, making 11 of 45 shots.
Moffis was her team's only double-figure scorer but six others also supplied points.
Alya Rickteroff led Newhalen with 15 points.
In the other game, Nikolaevsk used its size to dominate Aniak, grabbing a 55-28 rebounding edge. The Warriors had multiple shots on nearly every possession, thanks to 28 offensive rebounds.
A pair of junior posts turned in double-doubles for the Warriors -- Sophia Kalugin, a 5-foot-7 junior, scored 16 points and hauled down 14 rebounds, and Nianiella Dorvall, a 6-1 junior, scored 18 points and collected 10 rebounds.
Raven Phillips scored 12 points for Aniak before fouling out.
Nikolaevsk took control early and led 20-7 after one quarter and 40-16 at the half, hitting 18 of 33 shots for a 54.5 shooting percentage.
The Warriors came out for the second half as if the game was tied. That's because they almost squandered a big lead against Alak in Monday's first round, holding on to win 53-50.
"I told them before the game and at halftime, 'Remember what happened yesterday,' '' Nikolaevsk coach Bea Klaitch said.
The Warriors remembered, and now they face CIA again.
"There's no secrets between us," said Klaitch, who said she often talks strategy with Hitchcock, the CIA coach. "We get along great. At the conference tournament when we beat them by one, we shook hands with Rustin and said, 'How about a rematch in the state championship?' "
By BETH BRAGG