The West Valley boys basketball team has plenty of bitter memories from the first round of the 2022 Alaska 4A boys state basketball tournament.
After going the entire regular season and regional tourney with a 24-0 record, West Valley experienced the sting of defeat for the first time in a stunning 52-42 loss to Colony.
Just like that, the Wolfpack found themselves 24-1 and their hopes of capping off a perfect season with the second state title in program history and the first since 1990 were dashed.
However, the loss sparked a drive to run it back and finish the job.
“Last year we went undefeated, so that’s our goal this year -- to keep going undefeated,” said Stewart Erhart, a senior and Alaska’s 2022 Gatorade Player of the Year. “We came up short at state, so each game is like our last game every time.”
The Wolfpack are currently 12-0 and coming off a dominant showing at the 2023 O’Brady Invitational at South High, where they beat their three opponents by an average of 28 points per game while averaging 67.6 points per contest.
On the season, the team averages 68.5 points per game with an average victory margin of more than 33 points per game.
West Valley head coach Colten Growden said their gut-wrenching loss to the Knights served as the driving force and biggest source of motivation for the team all offseason.
“We had a lot of kids get up about 20,000 shots over the summer,” he said. “They’re hungry. It’s hard to go undefeated and then lose the first game in the tournament and know that you don’t have an opportunity to win state even though you’ve only lost one game.”
While it was a mental hurdle that they had to clear to move on, Growden believes that its helped inspire another undefeated start this year.
“It was like a blessing in disguise, because right when we lost, that’s when the season started for me,” Erhart said. “I started working out, staying in Anchorage (to train), and waking up early.”
He woke up at 6 a.m. to work out throughout the offseason and carried that practice over into the school year.
“I prepare for the game every day,” Erhart said.
After only graduating a trio of seniors from last year’s team, the continuity has shown in their results on the court.
“We’re senior-heavy this year,” Growden said. “We had a lot of carryover, so it’s a process that they all got to feel the loss so now they know what it feels like and don’t want to experience that again, especially in the first game.”
In addition to having one of the best players in the state in Erhart, a significant contributor to their tremendous success has been the team’s emphasis on defense.
“That’s what really makes our team go, is our defense and our pressure,” Erhart said. “That’s our identity as a team.”
Despite being the reigning Gatorade Player of the Year and among the favorites to receive the honor for a second year in a row, Erhart doesn’t feel a target on his back when he steps on the court.
“I don’t feel any pressure, because I know the work I put in and I slow the game down in my head,” he said. “I’m just in my own world out here.”
His drive to refine his game has been an infectious character trait that has spread to the rest of the team.
“He’s got a motor and a work ethic that’s unmatchable,” Growden said. “Between film, workouts, extra shots, he just does everything he can do to be as successful as possible, which goes right over to leadership of our team and making the other kids find that drive to put in the extra time to find their own work outside of team practice.”
Although there has been a lot of turnover across the Last Frontier’s top 4A programs, Erhart believes the top contenders for the title will include 2022 4A state runner-up Bettye Davis East, Dimond and West.
“Those are the teams I’m looking forward to playing this year,” he said.
The Wolfpack will get their first crack at the Lynx ahead of state this Friday in the Denali State Bank Ice Jam and will face Colony on Feb. 23 in a nonconference matchup on the road.