By Van Williams
Classic Media Director
January is right around the corner and you know what that means: the Alaska Airlines Classic.
The state’s premier high school basketball tournament tips off in less than a month, with Lower 48 schools Heritage Christian (CA), Higley (AZ) and Ronan (MT) joining the Alaska teams at West Anchorage High School.
The 4-team girls tournament runs Jan. 17-19 and the 8-team boys tournament takes place Jan. 19-21.
New this year will be the adoption of a 35-second shot clock for all 18 games – six girls and 12 boys.
The boys field is stacked with college-ready talent, headlined by a pair of wonderful West Coast teams in Heritage and Higley.
Heritage is an elite squad out of Northridge and was ranked as high as No. 15 in California after starting this season 7-0 before suffering back-to-back losses, including a 64-58 setback to No. 1 Mater Dei.
The Warriors are led by 6-foot-5 leading scorer Seven Bahati, who has had as many as 26 points in a game this season. Bahati alongside 5-9 Giovanni Goree and 6-6 Tae Simmons make up a formidable Big 3. The California team also features 6-6 Dillan Shaw and 7-footer Howie Wu.
Higley is out of Gilbert in Maricopa County and returned 10 players from last season’s 17-8 team, including conference defensive player of the year Yarell Greer. The 6-foot guard leads the Knights in scoring this year at 16.7 points per game. Gavin and Donovan Dabney combine for 18 points.
Ronan is spearheaded by brothers Marlo and Elijah Tonasket, who combined for 23.8 points a game last season. Ronan will bring to the Classic both its boys and girls teams as winners of the ‘Alaskan Nets High School Movie Night’ grand prize sweepstakes.
More than 1,200 schools nationwide participated in the contest. The award-winning movie ‘Alaskan Nets’ focused on two cousins from Metlakatla, which will bring a team in the Classic featuring all-state returners Shayne Anderson and Cameron Gaube.
The Ronan boys will face tournament host West Anchorage in the annual ‘Student Body Game’ in the first round. The game is played at 12:15 p.m. in front of the entire West enrollment of 1,800 students, who pack the historic gymnasium. West is led by a pair of all-conference returners in 5-8 guard Willie Zamora and 6-5 forward Julius Adlawan.
Higley will face East Anchorage in the first round. The T-birds are 90-11 over the last four seasons under head coach Chuck Martin and are led by 6-4 junior Akeen Sulaiman and transfer guard Xyomar Velez.
Anchorage’s two oldest high schools – West and East – have been staples at the Classic and are tied with a tournament record seven appearances in the championship game.
The Classic has a rich history that dates back to 1989 and includes a tradition of amazing talent that is unmatched by any other tournament in Alaska:
- 16 McDonald’s All-Americans
- 8 NBA players
- 7 WNBA players
- 8 NBA G League players
- 2 Harlem Globetrotters
- 3 NFL players
The Classic is a hallmark event for Rage City, where kings of the court are crowned and boys become men.
In 1991, Trajan Langdon put his name on the national map with a larger-than-life performance in the final against seventh-ranked Oak Hill (VA).
In 2010, Devon Bookert put his game into overdrive with a 29-point performance to lead West over Christian Life (TX) in the championship game.
In 2016, Da’Zhon Wyche put his name in the record book with a 49-point explosion against Planet Athlete (AZ) in the semifinals.
In 2020, Daishen Nix and Isaiah Moses put on a show in the championship game as Nix scored 21 points and won the title with Trinity (NV) while Moses bagged 42 and MVP honors for Dimond.
Four teams from Alaska have won the Classic, including two coached by Hall of Famer Chuck White. The last to do it was Colony in 2019 behind Sullivan Menard, Patrick McMahon and coach Tom Berg.
One of the tournament favorites from Alaska includes Grace Christian, which is making its debut in the Classic. The Grizzlies return last season’s Class 3A player of the year Luke Lentfer along with first-team all-state forward Sloan Lentfer.
In 1990, Jeff Lentfer of Service set the tournament record with 39 rebounds in three games. That total ranks fourth today. The 6-8 Lentfer – who went on to play at Weber State – grabbed 20 boards in one game, the second-highest single-game total in Classic history.
Rounding out the boys field is Ketchikan, who is back at the Classic for the first time since 2019, when the Kings lost to St. Rita (IL) in the fourth-place game. Two months later, Ketchikan won the Class 4A state title.
The Classic is where champions are born.
On the girls side, the Cook Inlet Conference champion West Eagles have a pair of all-state returners in Natalie Drussell and Jordan Zackary. Both players were part of the West team that won last year’s Classic title after a girls element was added to the tournament after a long layoff.
Tikigaq of Point Hope is also back, along with its 1-2 all-state punch of Jadyn Lane and Jennifer Nash. Nash last year as a freshman made the all-tournament team and averaged 16 points a game. Tikigaq has an enrollment of about 80 students. Yet the Harponerettes played huge against the big schools, taking South Anchorage and Grace Christian down to the wire.
Metlakatla features first-team all-state standout Ryley Booth in addition to third-team all-state selections Bree Chavez and Kennedy Clark. Rounding out the girls field is Ronan, which returns some key pieces from a playoff team that went 11-6.
The Classic girls tournament was in its heyday between 1992 and 1994 before it disappeared.
In 1992, Teresa Jones of Longview (TX) set scoring records for a game (50) and tournament (100), and flirted with a triple-double against Palmer with 30 points, 15 rebounds and nine blocked shots.
The 1993 tournament featured three top-10 ranked teams and the greatest upset in Classic history when Chugiak became the first Alaska girls team to beat a nationally ranked opponent with a 69-46 victory over No. 12 Phoebus (VA). Brit Jacobson – a Kansas State signee – pumped in 27 points and the Mustangs outscored Phoebus 37-18 in the second half.
In 1994, Nicole Erickson pumped in 38 points to lead fifth-ranked Brea (CA) over Lakeridge (OR) 63-58 for the title. The Ladycats of Brea went on to finish the season 33-0, winning their games by an average score of 81-32.