Starting a basketball program with two sisters capable of averaging more than 16 points per game accelerates a growth curve.
Joy Christian’s girls team is already a 1A state title contender, despite having zero seniors on its roster and competing in only its second varsity season. The Kempf sisters, Alana (who averages 16.4 points, 9.5 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 5.4 steals per game) and Mariah (16.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 4.3 steals per game), give the Eagles a 5A-caliber backcourt playing in Arizona’s smallest classification.
“They are my rock,” coach Bill Gollihare said. “I’m a lucky coach. I don’t have to say too much to those two girls.”
The sisters — along with 2010 graduate Amy Marek — led the school’s first varsity team to a 20-6 season and a first-round victory in the 1A playoffs. This season, the sisters are better and so are the Eagles, who sport a 14-2 record.
Alana is the elder sister and one of only three juniors on the squad. She gained a measure of fame last season, setting the 1A single-game and single-season records for the number of free throws made. Early in the 2009-10 season, she was named MaxPreps’ girls basketball player of the week.
This season, she’s looked to score a bit less, while dramatically improving her rebounding, passing and defensive pressure.
Gollihare said the revelation this season has been Mariah, a sophomore. She’s added more than five points per game to her scoring and made equal leaps in her rebounding and defense.
“It’s real fun. Playing with this group of girls is a great experience for all of us,” AlanA Kempf said. “It’s been a learning experience, too — when to score, when to drive, when to pass.”
It’s hard to have a better foundation, Gollihare said, and he knows his way around the local basketball scene. After spending 24 seasons at Peoria and eight at Deer Valley, Gollihare was just looking to help out a new program, serving as a mentor to coach John Clayton last year.
Then Clayton left for another program and Gollihare was handed the keys to a contender. His coaching background is telling, as freshmen Victoria Morin and Kennedie Henige have stepped up to lend the Kempf sisters support.
Henige, out in recent weeks with a foot injury, is the Eagles’ post presence. She leads the 1A West 2 with 10.3 rebounds per game. Morin alternates point guard duties with Alana Kempf, averaging 8.2 points and 2.2 assists per contest.
“It’s always nice to walk into a situation like this. Coach Clayton did not leave the cupboards bare,” Gollihare said. “We are, at this time, one of the top four teams in 1A.”
Joy Christian has played beyond its years so far, with its season-opening 54-53 loss to Valley Lutheran the only blemish against a 1A school. The Eagles other defeat came at the hands of 5A-II Marana Mountain View in the finals of the Wickenburg Tournament.
Otherwise, it’s been relatively smooth sailing. Two standout wins came against fellow title contenders Salome (52-50) and Fort Thomas (48-43).
Other potential obstacles in the playoffs include Valley Union, Valley Lutheran and Seligman, the team that knocked out Joy Christian in the quarterfinals last year. Defending champion Salt River is returning to form.
But it’s another young Christian school that should provide the toughest roadblock for Joy Christian and everybody else.
“Gilbert Christian, I believe right now is the No. 1 team in state. I think whoever is in their bracket is going to have a difficult time beating them,” Gollihare said. “The youth on our squad and the lack of experience playing big region and state games — to counter that we need to maintain our intensity and tenacity. We’re growing step by step.”
Amidst the title talk, it’s easy to forget how young the program is. There aren’t any lower level teams, though Gollihare hopes there’s enough interest to start a JV next year. Some of the girls on the varsity are playing competitive basketball for the first time.
But there’s something special about this young, tight-knit group.
“Starting a program and representing our school is always the best thing,” Kempf said. “I’m happy with our coaching staff and all the players. We play nice as a team. We make each other better. Building a family atmosphere has been really important.”