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Barrow girls basketball team honors late coach at state tournament

Mar. 23—The Barrow Whalers girls basketball team, who claimed second place in the 3A state tournament Saturday, honored their late coach by playing their hearts out.

"Everything's dedicated to him," said senior Kiara Burnell, who'd had Derek Ahgeak as a coach since she was a freshman. "It's really personal this year."

On Thursday, the girls team had topped Mt. Edgecumbe 58-45 in the 3A semifinals. In Saturday's title game, the Whalers faced defending champions Grace Christian of Anchorage and lost, 35-27.

"These girls have a lot of heart. They love the game of basketball, they love each other. This is a family we've built," head coach Nicole Smith said.

The last time the team brought the championship home was in 2022, with Ahgeak as coach. Ahgeak died from cancer in September 2023, but at this year's state tournament, his presence is palpable.

The girls were "playing with a lot of emotion, with a lot of love, and want to do good for him," said Avaiyak Burnell, father of Kiara Burnell, on Thursday. "We know he's watching down. I know the girls are knowing that."

Barrow Whalers fans also joined the tribute: Many of them were wearing shirts with Ahgeak's photo and name — just like the team's players were.

"He had a lot of dedication to the Barrow Whalers and Barrow in general," Whalers fan Kitty Ahvakana said. "It's awesome seeing all his hard work put into bringing the teams to state."

Ahgeak started helping out with coaching about 15 years ago — first for local club teams, then for varsity boys, and, since about 2020, for the girls.

"Coach Derek has always been so supportive on and off the court. He's the reason my confidence improved on the court as he would encourage me to try my best before every game," senior Kimberly Wolgemuth said. "He worked very hard to get us to competitive tournaments out of state. I looked up to him, he was a very wise and genuine person, and I aspire to be like him one day."

Derek Ahgeak was focused on teaching his teams fundamentals: when to shoot, when not to shoot, and what passes to do in specific situations, said his son Makana Ahgeak, who used to be an assistant coach for his father and is now helping coach the boys team.

"He was an old head-type coach," Makana Ahgeak said. "He knew ... the right things to say at the right times."

Having fun during the game was a must for Derek Ahgeak, too. On conditioning days, the team would do a lot of drills, but also "a lot of joking around," Makana Ahgeak said.

"He loved having a good time," he said. "Funny stuff would happen. We'd all be cracking up in the gym. It'd be a great time. ... He was never down. That's what I loved."

For Derek Ahgeak, his involvement in basketball started with the desire to be closer to his family and community.

"He started the sober life while I was, like, in middle school or high school to be more involved with us, and basketball, and the community," Makana Ahgeak said. "He was fully committed to everything."

Besides giving his all to the teams he coached, Derek Ahgeak was also happy to offer help, a piece of advice or a kind word to anyone who needed it, his son said.

"He just genuinely cared," Makana Ahgeak said.

Last year, Derek Ahgeak's cancer progressed, and Makana Ahgeak had to take over the season before the girls got a new coach, Smith.

The change back then was challenging for the girls' team at first, Kiara Burnell said: Ahgeak had coached the team year-round since many of them were freshmen, but also during the summers when they were in middle school.

After Coach Ahgeak died, the girls sang at his service at the Utqiagvik Presbyterian Church.

"When the sad news was announced, it was a huge community loss," Wolgemuth said. "Coach had an impact on so many people's lives."

"Coach Derek put so much of himself into the team, his family, and the community, he had such a giving soul and never wanted anything in return," Burnell said in a Facebook post after his death. "Anyone who stepped foot on the court with him became family and he made sure everyone felt loved."

This year, the Barrow Whalers teams held the first annual Karl Derek Ahgeak Invitational.

The 2024 season brought the girls team to six different championship games, and this weekend's state tournament was the last run, emotionally difficult for many.

"It's hard, it certainly is," Makana Ahgeak said through tears. "But we're all pushing through, we got each other. ... If he was here and everything, he would want us, you know, to just keep moving forward, push forward."

"From the beginning of the season, we dedicated this year to him," Wolgemuth said. "We all know Coach Derek would be so proud of how far all of us girls have come."