With no seniors and only one junior, the Grace Christian girls basketball team’s roster on paper looks more like a JV team than a state title contender.
But while the team is short on experience, it’s long on talent.
That talent shined on Saturday as the Grizzlies defeated Mt. Edgecumbe 49-38 to win the Alaska 3A state basketball championship.
“These girls have high basketball IQs,” Grace Christian head coach Pete Johnson said. “We’ve got four coach’s daughters who are gym rats. These girls have been playing together since they were in fourth or fifth grade, so the chemistry is good. So it’s just getting them to buy in to our philosophy.”
The title is the first girls basketball championship in Grace Christian School history.
Mt. Edgecumbe held an early lead, but as the first quarter continued, Grace Christian built a lead and had a 20-12 advantage after the first quarter. Despite moving through the bracket with relative ease — the Grizzlies won every game by double figures — Johnson said the team was pushed in both the semis and finals.
“Against Barrow (in the semis) and today against Mt. Edgecumbe, those programs are both well-coached teams and solid programs,” he said. “That’s what a state tournament ought to be like. We had to come back against Barrow and we trailed early (Saturday).”
Freshman MJ Van der Horst had a strong first half, scoring 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting. And while neither team was able to connect much on 3-pointers in the first half, Grizzlies sophomore guard Ella Boerger was the exception. She hit 3 of 6 in the first half and said despite the youth of the team, they managed to find a winning formula.
“We’re just doing our thing,” Boerger said. “We’ve grown up playing the sport and a lot of us have played together. There are definitely points where you can tell, ‘Oh hey they’re kind of young,’ but we play with a lot of maturity for the most part. It’s just been really fun with this group of girls.”
Grace Christian led 29-21 at the half and maintained a lead for the entire second half. The Braves had a nice run in the third quarter to close the gap, but Boerger and sophomore Sophie Lentfer scored baskets late in the quarter. Grace led 39-29 entering the fourth quarter.
“(We try to) slow it down and let’s work it to find our shot,” Johnson said. “Don’t be forced to take a shot we don’t want. We worked a lot on that in practice and that’s just a lot of maturity and growth over the season.”
Again in the fourth, Mt. Edgecumbe closed the gap. Carliese O’Brien picked up a loose ball midway through the fourth quarter and scored to cut the lead to 41-36 after converting a free throw for a 3-point play. Van der Horst was whistled on the play, and headed to the bench with her fifth foul.
Van der Horst led all scorers with 18, but even with her on the bench, Grace Christian continued to push its lead back out.
“We all play as a team and trust each other,” Van der Horst said.
Boerger added 16 and Lentfer scored eight of her 12 in the second half. For Mt. Edgecumbe, O’Brien and Tessa Anderson reached scored 11.
With no graduating seniors, Grace Christian is expected to be a state favorite next year with the exact same roster.
“I think just to grow and mature together,” Boerger said. “I think our junior and senior years will be good.”
State 3A Tournament results
Grace Christian 56, Bethel 27
Barrow 47, Sitka 45
Monroe Catholic 53, Kenai Central 27
Mt. Edgecumbe 49, Valdez 34
Sitka 54, Bethel 29
Kenai 39, Valdez 28
Mt. Edgecumbe 40, Monroe Catholic 35
Grace Christian 61, Barrow 50
Kenai 29, Sitka 28
Monroe Catholic 38, Barrow 29
Grace Christian 49, Mt. Edgecumbe 38
3A Girls All-Tournament Team
Miranda Wilkerson, Monroe Catholic; MJ Van der Horst, Grace Christian; Kiara Burnell, Barrow; Emma Beck, Kenai; Carliese O’Brien, Mt. Edgecumbe; Sophie Lentfer, Grace Christian; Naia Nelson, Sitka; Tessa Anderson, Mt. Edgecumbe; Ella Boerger, Grace Christian; Shannel Kovalsky, Monroe Catholic.
(Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the Grace Christian team as the Lions. The school’s mascot is the Grizzlies. Also MJ Van der Horst was incorrectly identified as a sophmore. She is a freshman.)