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High School Sports

Rookies: The making of an Aleutian powerhouse

This article is from Bristol Bay Times

When the 2020 season came to an abrupt halt in early March, not only did it end the athletic careers of many Alaska players, it brought the curtain down on one of the most dominating teams in the state’s history — the King Cove Rookies.

After winning a state’s best 55 straight games, including the 2019 state championship, the Rookies will send their own version of the “Big 3” into the collegiate ranks, and their head coach into an extended vacation to Texas.

“We can only imagine how awesome it would have been to have seen them perform in the game that they know best and have played together since the first grade,” said Lamar.

Lamar said the emergence of the Rookies as one of the state’s superpowers was a culmination of several things that happened in the Aleutians, beginning more than a decade ago when the city’s Elders began opening the city gym to younger athletes at 7 p.m. every evening. Among the young players that turned out every evening was a core group that included Elaina Mack, Jalaya Duarte, Sadie Newton, Leilonnie Brandell and Madeline Newman.

“They showed up to play the game they love more than almost anything, basketball,” said Lamar. “Through their love of the game they developed a chemistry that can only be made through time spent on the floor with the same teammates. They all knew when and where each were going to be on the floor. They never needed to look and see where the others were when they passed the ball. That’s where the magic is in this whole thing.”

With the chemistry being created, Lamar said he stepped into a golden opportunity.

One of Alaska’s most successful coaches before arriving in King Cove, Lamar helped transform the Rookies’ talent into a team that averaged well over 60 points per game every night en route to winning four straight conference titles.

How good was King Cove? Consider this:

The Rookies had a unique season. The team faced a schedule in which they played almost all of their games against Class 3A and Class 4A programs. Midway through the season, they beat the No. 2-ranked Class 3A team in the state.

“Granted, they played junior varsity 4A teams, but some of those JVs moved down varsity players to play them,” said Lamar, who led the Point Hope Harpooners to the 8-man football championship prior to coming to King Cove. “All this while going undefeated for the second year in a row. That is almost unheard of in any state, especially with their schedule.”

During the season, the Rookies finished most of their games via the mercy rule — a running clock once a team attains a 40-point lead.

Two seasons ago, they finished every game at the Alaska State Tournament via the mercy rule.

Lamar said the talent on the King Cove squad was second to none, regardless of classification.

“While Elaina Mack was this year’s 1A MVP, and arguably the best player in the state, she was surrounded by a group of all-state players that made her even more dangerous.

Mack, who is headed to the University of Alaska Anchorage on a basketball scholarship, averaged over 40 points per game this season. The sharpshooter made 127 3-point shots in just 25 games.

Duarte, who will be enrolling at the University of Alaska Fairbanks as a pre-med student, was among the state’s top rebounders with over 14 rebounds per game as she dominated the boards. She averaged a double-double for the season. She averaged more than 12 points per game.

Sadie Newton also played a big role for the Rookies.

“Every time a team decided they wanted to double up on Elaina, all she did was pass the ball to Sadie and she lit the scoreboard up like a Christmas tree,” Lamar said of the team’s third all-state selection this year.

Newton will be attending the University of Alaska Southeast for early education.

Rounding out the team were several other stars, including one of the state’s top ball stealers in Leilonnie Brandell and one of the quicker defenders anywhere in Madeline Newman.

“You could say we were loaded for bear,” said Lamar, who has amassed more than 1,100 career coach in wins in football, basketball and volleyball. In his career, he coached 10 teams in Alaska and has gone to state with all 10 teams — winning state with six.

Other than being able to play for a second state title, Lamar said he wished for only one thing — a chance to face off with the state’s best “all-star” squad, Anchorage Christian.

“It would have been fun to have played ACS as they seem to have the best players from all over Anchorage and a few from the villages,” he said. “All of our players have had the same zip code since kindergarten. They have many players that three years ago had different zip codes. It would have been a battle.”

Lamar, who was among a handful of shooters contending for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team prior to becoming a coach, said he felt blessed to have had coached the Rookies through their successful run, and hopes that the King Cove girls’ program continues to extend its win streak.

“I thank God for all the talent these young ladies have and for the opportunity to have been able to coach them,” said Lamar, , who announced earlier this month he would be stepping down as head coach/principal at King Cove at the end of the school year to “take a break for a year.”

“I think I’ll be back,” he said. “I just want to take a year off and do something a little different.”

1A Girls Basketball 2020

Player of the Year

Elaina Mack, King Cove

Coach of the Year

Gary Lamar, King Cove

First All Tourney Team

Elaina Mack, King Cove; Jalaya Duarte, King Cove; Elizabeth Fefelov, Nikolaevsk; Sonja Ningulook, Shishmaref; Markiana Yakunin, Nikolaevsk

Second All Tourney Team

Sophia Klaich, Nikolaevsk; Haley Sielak, Alak; Tanya Marvin-Looney, Klawock; Johnna Nanalook, Newhalen; Sadie Newman, King Cove

2020 1A/2A Basketball Good Sport Recipients

Madeline Newman and Raiett Kuzakin