Few teams were hit as hard by graduation as defending 5A champion Highland this past offseason. Yet, despite the loss of nine players from last year’s team, the Hawks are heading back to the girls state semifinals for the 10th time in 11 years.
Even veteran coach Miner Webster is starting to wonder if there’s a certain aura that comes from Highland teams at playoff time.
"If someone would have told me at the beginning of the year that we’d have gotten this far, I’d have been tickled pink," Webster said, after his Hawks topped Corona del Sol 49-37 at Mountain Pointe High School. Highland will next face top-seeded Phoenix St. Mary’s for the third time this season Thursday night at America West Arena.
The fifth-seeded Hawks (29-5) scored the game’s first 11 points behind a suffocating defense in the lane and effective perimeter passing that provided open shots and a 6-of-9 shooting spree at the outset.
Tarina Nixon’s 19 points led all scorers, Sarah Hays added 16 and L.B. Lieneman had 10 for the Hawks.
Amy Rosenkrantz paced fourth-seeded Corona (25-9) with 13 points, and Lisa Helmers scored 8.
Highland was able to keep its early cushion most of the game, thanks to 15-of-33 shooting, compared to the Aztecs’ 15-of-48. The Hawks also hit 5-of-12 3-pointers while Corona was 1-of-9.
Corona had defeated Highland during the Highland Thanksgiving Classic earlier this season, but according to Corona coach Pat Reed, the strategy for the game that derived from that earlier win backfired, at least in part.
"Our focus was on (Amanda Vernard) and (Lieneman) to make sure that they didn’t shoot the 3s, and they had three points in the first half," Reed said. "Unfortunately, we let (Nixon) open and (Hays) got some inside shots."
Highland raced to leads of 11-2 after one quarter and 22-11 at the half.
"The defense set the tone early," Webster said. "It kind of stayed that distance the rest of the game. That was the key, right there."
Hays, who played sparingly last year, thinks there might be something special about Highland basketball and the playoffs.
"Everyone doubted us and now we know what we can do," Hays said. "So, it’s not over yet."
St. Mary’s narrowly defeated Highland during the Thanksgiving tourney and fell convincingly during the Martin Luther King Tournament without Nixon, who was injured.
After years of success, Webster wants more.
"I’m not satisfied," he said. "I want to play St. Mary’s again."