St. Mary’s re-entered its name in the 5A girls basketball world in the 2002-03 season with a group of freshman players led by guards Dymond Simon and Nicole Neals. The next year the Lady Knights were perfect.
Last year they were four minutes from winning back-to-back titles when Highland intervened and surprisingly snatched the title from their grasp.
That bit of recent history couldn’t be better for coach Frank Denogean for motivations as the Knights try to finish off a four-year run that has seen the first three seasons produce a 93-8 record and no worse than a semifinal finish at state.
‘‘This is the best set of athletes and best overall depth we’ve had in 22 years of coaching,’’ Denogean said. ‘‘We’re heading into the season with a renewed interest. We understand there are still good teams out there. This team and the seven seniors we have, they want to have a good season. I think we have great focus and respect heading into this season.’’
Last year, the opportunity to catch the Knights was there from several fronts — Highland, Corona del Sol and Mesquite were loaded with top returnees. This year the Knight return all five starters and are deep with a mix of seniors, freshmen, sophomores and one junior among its top 10 players. The other contenders aren’t nearly as deep and likely not as talented. That’s why it would be truly shocking to see any team other than St. Mary’s take the 5A Division I crown.
In 5A-II, look for several non-East Valley schools to wage war on the title. Among them Glendale Deer Valley, Tolleson, Peoria Sunrise Mountain, Phoenix South Mountain, Tucson Flowing Wells and Peoria Centennial. All made state tournament appearances in 2004-05, Centennial in 4A where it fell to eventual state runner-up Page in the early rounds by one point. Deer Valley reached the quarterfinals, where it took Desert Vista to the final minutes before losing.
In 4A, Phoenix Thunderbird is again the team to beat and will try to defend its title in 4A-I. Area teams with the best chance to stop Thunderbird from repeating are Chaparral and Saguaro. The 4A-II race is wide open, meaning a veteran Cactus Shadows team could be around in the end.
TOP 5 PLAYERS
Dymond Simon: The quickest player in the state, who will remain in Arizona for her college career at ASU, is probably two or three games away from eclipsing 2,000 points in her career. St. Mary’s gets a lot of points off layups due to their quickness, but Simon can light it up from outside, where she shot 40 percent from 3-point range. She averaged 22 points a game last season.
Kayla Pedersen: Pedersen figures to have more support offensively around her at Red Mountain this season, but even without that last year she was an offensive force. She is currently one of the top recruits among juniors in the country with just about everybody who is anybody showing interest. She averaged 22 points a game and 12 rebounds per contest last season.
Della Rhodes: A Saguaro senior forward, Rhodes can do it all. She can score both inside and out and handle the ball. She also plays good defense, utilizing her quickness to make steals. Another asset is her leadership ability.
Nicole Neals: Combining with Simon as arguably the best 1-2 guard punch in St. Mary’s history, Neals, who is on her way to Nebraska next fall, should also pass the 2,000-point mark in career scoring this season.
Marisa Stotler: Dobson’s four-year post player averaged 21 points and 11.5 rebounds per games last season. Has been a double-double performer the past three seasons.
OTHER PLAYERS TO WATCH
Kayli Murphy, St. Mary’s, 6-2, C, Sr.; Taylor Schneider, St. Mary’s, 5-10, G-F, Sr.; Ashley Moore, Dobson, 5-5, G, Sr.; Bonnie Barbee, Red Mountain, G, Jr.; Antoinette Reed, Horizon, 5-10, F, Sr.; Sidney Parsons, Hamilton, G; Amanda Vennard, Highland, G, Sr.; Donielle Cooper, Gilbert, G-F, Jr.; Lisa Helmers, Corona del Sol, 5-10, G, Sr.; Brooke Jackson, Mtn. View, 5-8, G, Jr.; Stacy Waite, Mtn. View, 5-6, G, Sr.; Katrina Graham, Desert Mountain, 5-9, G, Jr.; Brittany Foster, Mesquite, 6-0, F, Sr.; Ashlee Brown, Chandler, 5-11, F, Jr.
Jez Wells, Apache Junction, 5-7, G, Jr.; Lara Kilgore, Cactus Shadows, 6-1, C, Sr.; Sara Pages, Cactus Shadows, 5-9, G, Jr.; Kelly Foley, Cactus Shadows, 5-11, F, Jr.; Aria Krumwiede, Chaparral, 5-3, G., So.; Sam Russell, Chaparral, 6-0, F, Sr.; Alex Russell, Chaparral, 6-0, F, Sr.; Natalie Slake, Higley, 5-10, F, Jr.; Katie Riley, Higley, 5-4, G, So.; Brittnee Terez, McClintock, 5-8, F, Jr.; Amanda Blunt, Notre Dame, 6-0, C, Sr.; Tamara Lemalu, Queen Creek, 5-10, C, Sr.; Kari Hardt, Queen Creek, 5-0, G, Sr.; Molly Crossman, Saguaro, 5-4, G, Sr.; Megan Haugo, Saguaro, 5-11, C, Jr.; Amanda Flynn, Saguaro, 5-8, F, Sr.; Amber Price, Tempe, 5-9, F, Sr.; Lindsay Warburton, Seton Catholic, 5-9, F, Sr.; Jenny Churosh, Seton Catholic, 5-5, G, Sr.; Shamesha Smith, Valley Christian, 5-9, F, Jr.; Keandra Glass, Coolidge, C, Sr.; Gabby Smith, Florence, G, Sr.
5A DIVISION I TOP 5
1. St. Mary’s: The Lady Knights’ entire lineup returns with four Division I signees as part of that package. With mostly seniors and lots of depth, they are hungry.
2. Red Mountain: The Mountain Lions have a centerpiece in junior standout Kayla Pedersen. The addition of a trio of transfers make them the team to beat in the East Valley Region and the top contender next to St. Mary’s.
3. Salpointe: The Lancers will go guard-oriented but figure to be the class of the Southern Region.
4. Dobson: Washington State-bound Marisa Stotler is back for her fourth varsity campaign and continues to improve her game. The Mustangs will be pesky once some preseason injuries heal.
5. Chandler: The Wolves advanced to the quarterfinals at state last season and have more returning players than any team in the Fiesta Region. It would be a good time to jump on that advantage.
5A DIVISION II TOP 5
1. Deer Valley: The Skyhawks gave Desert Vista all it wanted in the quarterfinals last year and return quality talent with 5A now split.
2. Tolleson: The Wolverines also distinguished themselves with some good efforts in the postseason last year. Co-Desert West Region player of the year Markisha Patterson leads a strong, guard-rich squad.
3. Flowing Wells: The Caballeros are always tough in the Southern Region and it will be no different this year with Salpointe out of the picture in 5A-I.
4. South Mountain: Another up-tempo team that should be the best out of the Metro Region.
5. Sunrise Mountain: Reached the 5A tournament battling with Tolleson last season and should be able to stay up with the elite in the new conference split.
3 The five regions in 4A Division I and the five in 4A-II each will send three teams to the state tournament
4 Teams Miner Webster has coached at Gilbert and Highland high schools since 1987 that have won 5A titles.
18 Straight 3A state championships won by northern Arizona teams. Since 1987, Window Rock has six titles, Winslow five, Tuba City three, Snowflake two and Monument Valley and Round Valley one each.
4A DIVISION I TOP 5
1. Thunderbird: Defending state champion has plenty left to make another title run.
2. Cactus: The Cobras will wage their annual battle with Thunderbird for the top spot.
3. Saguaro: Della Rhodes could lead the Sabercats to the promised land.
4. Chaparral: Three key players return for the Firebirds from last season’s state semifinalist team.
5. Agua Fria: Looking to take the next step after making it to the state semifinals last season.
4A DIVISION II TOP 5
1. Washington: A team full of good athletes, it may be hard to keep up with the Rams.
2. Sinagua: A state title contender a year ago, Sinagua has enough back to be even better.
3. Page: A year ago, Page made it to the championship game in 4A when the conference was not split into divisions. Now in Division II, Page could make the next step.
4. Cactus Shadows: Three key players return for the Falcons, who have depth to be in the state title game.
5. Flagstaff: Good coaching and solid players should keep Flagstaff in the state title mix.
Dec. 19-22: Nike Classic in Chandler
Jan. 16, 2006: St. Mary’s and Red Mountain square off in a 5A non-region game, one of the featured Martin Luther King Day games at Wells Fargo Arena.
Feb. 21-March 4: 5A state tournament finishing at Glendale Arena
5A coaching changes: Eight local schools have new coaches, although about half played musical chairs, moving from one school to another — Desert Mountain (Dick Donahue), Desert Ridge (Tara Wakefield), Desert Vista (Adrian Boyarsky), Dobson (Tyler Dumas), Gilbert (Tom Bunger), Mountain Pointe (Wendy Stalder), Mountain View (Henry Bribiescas) and Skyline (Patrick Dunn).
Power points: For the first time, the 4A Conference will use power-point rankings. They will be used in two ways — for seeding the 16-team state tournament in both 4A-I and 4A-II and to pick the 16th playoff team. The other 15 will qualify through region tournaments.