Rural Alaska

Whalers, Nanooks boys are on their game

Nome Nanooks boys basketball
Nome-Beltz Junior/Senior High School photo
Many rural basketball fans are hoping to see either Mason Evans and the Nome Nanooks or the Barrow Whalers take the 3A high school title.

Two high school teams from remote communities are carrying more than the next win on their minds. On them rests the pride of rural Alaska -- full of hope that after nearly three decades, Western Alaska's hoopsters have a real shot at a state title. An excited buzz is building that this could be the year to upset years of domination by teams from Fairbanks and Anchorage.

Call it a sportsmanlike spin on the urban-rural divide.

Western Conference teams have made it to the final game only five times since the 1983-1984 season. Nome took second place last year and in 1997 to teams from Fairbanks. Barrow took second in 2004 and 2005, losing to teams from Anchorage and Valdez. And in 1990, Kotzebue lost the first place title to a team from Houston. Nome did win in 1983, claiming victory over Noorvik as a small school state champion, but that was before 1A, 2A, 3A, and 4A classifications, based on school size, were adopted by the Alaska School Activities Association.

While Western Alaska has made it to the final game just five times in 26 years, teams from the Southcentral and Aurora Conferences -- schools from Anchorage and Fairbanks -- have vied for state championships 35 times.

The 3A Western Conference encompasses a vast region: Look at a state map. Find Barrow and follow the coast west and south, passing from the Arctic Ocean into the Bering Sea and on to Bristol Bay and the Aleutian Chain. Check out the more than 1,200-mile distance between Barrow -- Alaskan's northernmost point -- and Unalaska, near the state's southwestern tip, and you've covered the home turf of the seven teams that make up the conference.

Staying competitive means traveling to tournaments, and this week Nome and Barrow are once again on the road, in Valdez for a three-day competition, which is where we caught up with Barrow's coach.

"This is probably the best team that we've had in five years or more," said coach Jeremy Arnhart, reached by cell phone as he and the team were seated at the Halibut House in Valdez for dinner.


His team has a deep bench, a lot of talent and good experience. A lot of his hoopsters have played together for years, honing their skills along the way.

But while dreams of a big victory are delighting Whalers fans, Arnhart is working to keep his best advice for his players in very simple, short-term goals.

"Teams are not going to roll over just because you're Barrow and you think you're good. You gotta go out and win every victory, every time, no matter who the team is," he said.

The threat of tough competition isn't just a coach's caution. It can be heard in the rallying cries of fans loyal to a home team more than 500 miles away.

"Who are we? We are the Nanooks! Mighty, mighty Nanooks!" several Nome Nanook supporters posted to the team's Facebook page after learning Nome pulled off a win against Barrow with a 12-point lead last week.

Depending on the outcome of the Valdez Elks tournament, it's possible another faceoff is in the cards this weekend.

"I think people in both towns are both pretty excited," said Nome coach Patrick Callahan as he prepared to head to Valdez earlier this week.

Like Barrow, the Nanook playing field has years of experience. Six of the players are seniors, and even without one of their lead scorers, who at 6'5" is the tallest guy on the team by four inches and is benched with a broken ankle, continue to win games.

"Our biggest obstacles may be overconfidence," Callahan said. Like coach Arnhart, Callahan believes his team needs to -- and can -- play better for a shot at the coveted state title.

Both coaches listed strategies that currently include better practices, better games, and pushing their teams to keep improving so they peak at the right time.

While the Barrow-Nome rivalry is intense, both coaches said if their own teams aren't in the fight to the finish, it'd be great to see a team from the west best the historically dominant Anchorage-Fairbanks teams.

Still, they can't help but admit the fierceness the Nanooks and the Whalers bring to the court against each other is a sight to behold.

"If you're not up for those kinds of games, there's something wrong with you. Those kinds of games is what basketball is all about," Arnhart said.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)

Jill Burke

Jill Burke is a former writer and columnist for Alaska Dispatch News.