The Chevak Comets girls high school basketball team flew out to their state tournament a week early. The weather looked dicey, and they didn’t want to risk not making it there. KYUK caught up with them during a practice session in an Anchorage gym.
The Chevak Comets are squeezing in one final practice before their state tournament starts. And they need that practice; Chevak’s season has only been a few weeks long.
“We were in a lockdown until March 1. So prior to our regionals, we only had two weeks of practice. And before state, this is the third week of practice,” explained assistant coach Mary Ulroan.
Ulroan used to be the head coach, but switched with Coach Priscillia Matchian earlier this year after she adopted a baby. The two coaches have been working together for nearly a decade. They joke that Ulroan, who’s Yup’ik from Mountain Village, is the English coach, while Priscilla is the Cup’ik coach.
Ulroan said that this tournament will test a strategy that was set in place years ago. They have been training the girls to be aggressive since they were elementary students, to go in for the steal instead of just waving their arms to block the ball.
“They're very aggressive. We did a fundraiser and got everybody knee pads. We encourage them to dive for the ball and really go for the ball,” said Ulroan.
The knee pads are on during the Comets’ practice, and all those years of coaching appear to be paying off. Close to half of this team are graduating seniors now, and they won their regional tournament this month for the first time in 11 years. This will be the coaches’ first time at the state tournament in their decade of coaching.
“It's a really big deal for us. We were getting a lot of criticisms at home for losing, but we saw potential in these girls and we knew that they could do it. They’ve really proven themselves to be the team that we've always hoped to have,” said Ulroan.
Some of the seniors went to boarding school for part of high school but are now back on the team, basically reuniting a version of the team that has been playing together since a winning season back in middle school.
“Our seventh grade year we were undefeated for a while with kind of the team we have right now. Fourteen and zero,” said senior Haley Ulroan.
She and her teammate, senior Anya Pingayak, shouted out to Chevak during their interview with KYUK.
“We wouldn't have been here if it weren't for the community. They put out a petition for the community to vote to have a season or not. And, like, everyone voted yes. We convinced our principal let us have ball season and it was tough, but like, we fought for it.” said Haley.
“And it's a good thing we did because we're region champs!” added Pingayak.
“Yeah, we got so lucky,” said Haley.
The girls said that the season has been a bright spot in their pandemic year, a year that has struck Chevak particularly hard. The village has weathered high COVID-19 case rates. A third of the community tested positive for the virus, and the school superintendent died from complications with the disease. A recent fire destroyed the community's old school and cut off running water and sewer to about 20 homes, including Coach Ulroan’s. There’s a search currently on pause for two men who went missing the same day as the fire.
Senior Ashley Ulroan said that their team making it to state helped. “It brightened our town,” she said.
Ashley had rolled her ankle earlier on the court, but was feeling better after Matchian stepped in with a traditional Cup’ik healing method at the bench. She was pressing on the bottom of her foot, looking for and curing the spots that revealed injury.
“It's like I'm their nurse in a Cup’ik way,” laughed Matchian.
Matchian also said that she teaches the girls traditional Cup’ik life skills, known as cuuyaraq, when they’re away at tournaments. She pauses occasionally in her speech to encourage the scrimmaging girls on the court.
“I also counsel them while we're on the trips. We do life skills too. She does the English one and I do the traditional one. I love these girls,” said Matchian.
The coaches and the girls all think they have a shot at winning the 2A section of the tournament, which represents Alaska’s bigger villages. Ulroan said that their biggest rival is Point Hope, who has had a longer season of practice but is on the other side of the bracket. If they face them, it will only be during the championship game. The Chevak Comets’ first game in the tournament starts April 1 at 3 p.m. against Tok. To stream the game and to find out more information about tournament schedules, head to the Alaska School Activities Association’s website, or read the program.
If the Comets had waited one more day to leave, they would have been out of the tournament. Chevak announced two more cases of COVID-19 after months of no new cases and locked the village back down, preventing travel outside of the community. Sports will likely be canceled for the rest of the season.