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Alaska’s smallest basketball division features one of state's biggest, best players

  • Author: Stephan Wiebe
  • Updated: March 17, 2017
  • Published March 16, 2017

Austin White of Ninilchik slams home a dunk against Shaktoolik at the Class 1A basketball tournament Thursday. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

Austin White is easy to spot on the basketball court.

At 6-foot-8, the Ninilchik senior stands, literally, head and shoulders above the competition at the Class 1A level.

White's height and athleticism were on display Thursday in the state quarterfinals when he threw down a commanding dunk, registered several traditional 3-point plays and finished with a 16-point, 18-rebound double-double in a 57-54 victory over Shaktoolik at the Alaska Airlines Center.

But the 1A Player of the Year and future UAA hoopster wasn't always good at basketball. White's journey to a becoming the best player from Alaska's smallest division started five years ago when he decided to pursue a sport he had never played competitively.

White said his first step into competitive basketball started at a Ninilchik dentist office, where he met Wolverines coach Nick Finley's wife, Natalie, shortly after his family moved from Idaho to Alaska. Already well over 6-feet tall at age 12, White was an anomaly in Ninilchik, a small Peninsula town of less than 900 people.

"(Natalie) was like, 'Oh my gosh, you're really tall. My husband, he's the basketball coach down here in Ninilchik — you should go talk to him,' " White said.

He decided to give it a shot.

Prior to joining the Wolverines, White's basketball experience consisted of briefly playing in a recreation league as an elementary student. The game didn't come easily at first.

"I started playing ball in 8th grade and that was a rough year for me," White said. "I was 10 thumbs pretty much — could barely run and dribble."

Ninilchik teammates acknowledge Austin White after he converts a free throw during 1A state tournament action against Shaktoolik on Thursday at the Alaska Airlines Center. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

Finley said White spent hours in the gym and weight room trying to improve his game and get stronger. As an eighth-grader, White practiced with the Ninilchik seniors in his spare time.

"He's always wanting to get in the gym," Finley said. "He calls me up daily asking to get in the gym, and he's on his teammates about coming to the gym."

As White improved his game, Finley said, he realized he had the potential to play in college. White has a smooth shot for a big man, and he can defend the perimeter and the paint. And sometimes he takes the ball down the court like a point guard.

During the regular season, White averaged nearly 18 points, 13.5 rebounds and 3.9 blocks game. He garnered a triple-double with 26 points, 16 rebounds and 11 blocks in a Peninsula Conference championship win over rival Nikolaevsk last week.

"I think he still has a lot to learn as far as understanding the game, but athleticism, knowing how to shoot and dribble, it's already there," Finley said. "He's got the foundation. Now it's just learning the game."

White twice participated in the Seawolves' invitation-only "elite" basketball camp, where he showed UAA men's coach Rusty Osborne enough to earn a scholarship offer. He signed his National Letter of Intent with the Seawolves in November.

Alaska School Activities Association executive director Billy Strickland said it's rare for a Class 1A athlete go on to play Division II basketball.

"It's not a lot," he said.

Before White pursues basketball at the next level, he's trying to help the Wolverines win their second straight state championship.

White was the MVP of the 1A tournament last season, the first championship season for the Ninilchik boys. Heading into Friday, the Wolverines are among the four semifinal teams.

"Ultimately, we have a goal," Finley said. "Individually his goal is to play college basketball, but his overall goal is to be here and win another state championship."

Austin White of Ninilchik, right, defends the basket against Everson Paniptchuk of Shaktoolik during 1A action at the 2017 March Madness Alaska state basketball tournament on Thursday at The Alaska Airlines Center. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

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