VHS readies for 2014 basketball season
Season opener at ACS will be broadcast on TV this year
Tony Gorman photo
Sam Swatzell, left, is the new coach for the Buccaneer basketball team, which hit the gym for practice earlier in December.
Last year, Valdez High School made a huge step forward with the boys' basketball team under the guidance of Ron Langseth. The Buccaneers finished runners-up in the Aurora Conference and qualified for the State Tournament. The Buc's return to March Madness was short, but it gave fans hope for the future.
Duplicating or bettering that success won't be easy for the 2014 Buccaneers, which has a completely different look, having graduated four seniors and losing to two veterans to transfers. Another challenge to the team will be the fact that for the second year in a row there is a new head coach.
For new coach Sam Swatzell, it's about this year's team.
"Tell you the truth, we're starting as if I don't know who played last year or the year before," Swatzell said. "We got a great bunch of kids and it's about these kids. They got heart and they're ready to have some fun and play basketball."
Swatzell takes over the Bucs hoops squad with no prior coaching experience. He played high school basketball in Homer. He tried out for two teams in college, but didn't make the cut. Up to 2005, Swatzell was a commercial fisherman and had worked part-time in Prince William Sound in 1996. That was where he was introduced to oil spill response. Today, he's an oil spill response coordinator for the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.
This year's Buccaneer team consists of mostly upperclassmen with little to no experience on the varsity level. Captain Caj Rorher, a senior, and juniors Nathan Kuchin and Andrew Hedman are the only returning players from last year's State Tournament qualifying team. Alex MacDonald, Travis McCain, Jacob Perez, and Jordan Ramos graduated. The Bucs' lone all-conference team member, Levi Auble, transferred to Anchorage Christian School (ACS). Key contributor Sean Duffy transferred to Anchorage West.
The rest of the squad was on the junior varsity team last year. They are seniors Chris Mansfield and Brian Allen, juniors Wyatt Knowles and Patrick Stanton, and sophomore Mickey Radotich. Newcomers include senior Walter Hogarth and freshmen Zach Howard and Seth Auble.
"We got a good core of kids," Swatzell said. "From everything I've seen, they have good attitudes, good drive, and think they want to get out there and play and have fun. That's the key, to have fun."
The conference landscape is similar to last year. Defending 3A State Champions Monroe Catholic will be the favorites to repeat as champs on the conference and state levels. The question remains. Who will fill that second spot?
Swatzell said he feels no pressure to repeat last year's run.
"I don't feel any pressure on me," Swatzell said. "My job is to make sure these kids have fun and that they learn something and become better ball players. More importantly become young adults and nurture that situation. They got to make good decisions and hopefully, they do that throughout the year."
The Bucs kick off the season when they in the ACS Invitational Tournament from January 2-4.
The team's first game against Bethel will be televised on KCFT Channel 35, (GCI Channel 19) Thursday, January 2, at 10:30 a.m.
Qualifying for the State Tournament for any basketball team is no simple task. The Lady Buccaneers managed to accomplish that feat last season, despite losing their coach at the beginning of the year.
The beginning of Doug Fleming's second year as head coach with the team should be less turbulent than his first. Last year, he stepped in after long time coach Barb Lyons abruptly resigned prior to the start of the season. This year there are no resignation and the uphill battle will be in trying to return to the State Tournament with only one senior, a junior who is force under the basket, and five sophomores.
After a few practices, Fleming likes what he sees.
"They're coming together well," Fleming said. "They're gelling well. They're playing like a team. They're fun to watch."
Gone are the firepower of point guard Alex Derifield, who is in her first year with the Fort Lewis College women's basketball team, and the defensive prowess Shilo Nease and Sarah Cox.
The Lady Bucs will rely on three-year starter Marian Wamsley for most of the scoring under the post. The junior made the All-Tournament Team at last year's State Tournament. Rachel MacDonald is the lone senior on this year's squad. Her leadership last year led the State Tournament All-Good Sport Team.
Tony Gorman photo
The Lady Buccaneers at practice in the Valdez High School gym before Christmas vacation began.
Six sophomores make up the rest of the team. Madison Fleming, Veronica Hursh, Katy Merioles, Mesa Rorher, and Zoe Langseth saw significant playing time last season. Madison Attla, who transferred from Jimmy Huntington School in Husila, is the welcome new comer.
The conference seems to have an even playing field. With each of the teams in the conference losing players, Fleming believes the Lady Bucs have a shot at making a second consecutive trip to the tournament.
"Everybody lost a huge part of their team last year and I think we have the best returners in my opinion," he said.
The Lady Bucs kick off their season at the ACS Invitational Tournament in Anchorage, January 2-4.
The Lady Bucs kickoff game against Kotzebue Thursday will be broadcast on KCFT Channel 35, (GCI Channel 19) at 4:00 p.m.