With the new computer-driven schedules (mostly) based on geography, the creation of sections within a reduced number of divisions and new criteria for reaching postseason play, setting girls basketball schedules became uber-subjective:
Schedule to challenge kids? Or schedule to pile up power points?
The top eight schools in each section (based on power points) automatically advance to their respective sectional tournament within each division. Four automatic bids from each of the three section tournament will be awarded spots in the 24-school state tournaments.
That's 12 automatic spots, with the remaining 12 at-large berths based on power points accumulated through the regular season and any single-elimination sectional tournament games.
Hindsight, of course, is 20-20. But many coaches said they didn't know which way to go in that gray area between better competition and more-easily padding their win total simply to gain power points.
Top Division I schools such as St. Mary's and Chandler chose competition at all costs, but because the Knights and Wolves both returned nearly intact from last year's 5A Division I championship game (won by St. Mary's), it was a struggle to find schools willing to play them. No. 1 St. Mary's (10-0 in PP games) wound up playing Windward (Los Angeles) in the MLK Classic and a team from Australia, neither of which count for power points.
But it's worked for St. Mary's, as Xavier, Hamilton, Pinnacle and Chandler as "freedom" games are all among the best in the state, and the Knights have beaten everyone they've faced so far.
"We wanted to play the best teams we could find, Los Angeles, East Valley, whatever we could do to play the best," Knights coach Curtis Ekmark said. "These help so much for the state tournament."
Zon Thompson's Wolves went with the same approach in playing St. Mary's, Xavier and Desert Vista. But while Chandler has big wins against Mountain View and Dobson in the past week, the Wolves were No. 5 in the difficult-Section 2 on Tuesday, and still have to play Hamilton twice and D.V. Another loss or two and the Wolves could be back on the edge.
A couple of Mesa's top teams, Red Mountain and Mountain View, each have successfully navigated its respectively difficult schedule, while
Skyline has a reasonable chance of finishing with a similar record to its Mesa brethren, but its struggles against top teams and slightly weaker schedule could put the Coyotes on the fence in finishing among the top 8 in Section 2.
Choices are equally dicey at the lower levels. Two-time defending-champion Seton Catholic (4A-II) moved up to Division II for this two-year block, but a roster full of youth and inexperience compared to the past couple years didn't sway scheduling top Div. II schools in Notre Dame, Tucson Salpointe Catholic, Arcadia and Cactus Shadows.
"We wanted to see as many of the good teams as we could," Seton coach Karen Self said. "We felt we needed to play the best possible schedule we could because we had no idea what the computer schedule would be."
Dobson chose a slightly different route. Despite falling to Chandler in Monday's MLK Classic tournament, the Mustangs (7-2) are essentially a lock for the Section 2 and state tournaments. Tyler Dumas scheduled top teams (based on win-loss record) from other sections within Division I: Phoenix Alhambra (7-3 in power point games), Yuma Cibola (9-1), Sierra Vista Buena (6-5) and Tucson High (9-1).
"They have been high seeds in recent (state tournaments) and I thought they'd both win games and be good games for us (to gain opponents victory points)," Dumas said.
In Division II, Section 3, Williams Field has four freshman playing varsity competition and only one player who saw significant minutes from last year returned.
So Jessica Melvin's squad played in the Nike Tournament of Champions and Phoenix Moon Valley tournament for the sake of top competition.
But the computer put Division I schools Desert Ridge (0-10) and Gilbert (3-7) on the schedule instead of nearby Div. II schools Perry and Combs. Those, plus Gilbert Christian (Divison III), Arcadia and Casa Grande were among her open dates.
Williams Field was 5-5 and No. 12 in Section 3 entering Tuesday's game against Queen Creek (6-3) with Seton Catholic (11-1) next in line in a string of six consecutive games in two weeks against Division II or III (Gilbert Christian again) with winning records. The Black Hawks begin this stretch No. 10 in Section 3.
"I don't know how many coaches will be honest about it, but the tournaments were higher-notch teams, so we couldn't afford to lose any of those games outside of the section," Melvin said.
"... We got a whole bunch of calls from Div. I schools to play us, but we didn't want to do it. If we did, all of our non-section freedom games would have been against higher-division schools, and, because we're rebuilding, that schedule would have been real rough."
The philosophies have been as varied as the results across all divisions, and while coaches agree there's no right way to balance between getting ample competition before state tournaments, and winning games to earn enough power points to get there in the first place,
"We tried to guess what was good last year and play the most competitive schedule," Self said. "If I beat a team and get 90 points but they'll only get three wins, I don't get much else. If I play a team that wins 15 games, I'll get a ton from their wins;
"If we beat them."
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.