The top of the Division I girls basketball scene will have a familiar look this season, as many of the top six seeds from last year's 5A Division I state tournament have significant talent returning.
Defending state champion St. Mary's welcomes back all its starters.
Mountain View went 25-3 last season and returns its two leading scorers, Arnecia Hawkins and Rene Coggins.
Hamilton lost to the Toros by a point in last year's 5A-I quarterfinals and will be led by reigning Fiesta Region co-Player of the Year Lauren Evans.
Chandler has Simone Westbrook and Dezirae Elias back as one of the state's most dynamic backcourts.
Between the club season and school ball, these players know each other well, and will be keys in keeping their teams in in state title contention once again.
"It's fun," Mountain View coach Henry Bribiescas said. "When they get on the court, they become competitiors. They put their friendship aside for 32 minutes and battle. And then when the game's over, they move on. It's neat to see."
The Knights made the title game two years ago and won it last season, and are the preseason favorites. The usual big-school suspects - Chandler, Hamilton, Mountain View, Highland, Xavier, Dobson - are expected to compete, and the combination of divisions has added to the intrigue.
Tolleson, the three-time defending 5A-II champion, and Pinnacle, a perennially strong program, will both be making the leap to Division I and could challenge the traditionally strong big-school teams.
Seton Catholic won the 4A-II championship last season and should be a contender in Division II this season. Valley Christian won the 2A title and it, along with local private schools Gilbert Christian and Scottsdale Christian, should be competitive in Division III. Tempe Prep should be in the mix in Division IV.
Teams to Watch
St. Mary's: The defending 5A-I champions are favorites to repeat with every starter back, led by Cortnee Walton and Shilpa Tummala.
Chandler: Simone Westbrook, Dezirae Elias lead talented group of returners for 5A-I runners-up
Hamilton: Lauren Evans and Kyndall Adams should have the Huskies in the mix
Mountain View: Arnecia Hawkins and Rene Coggins lead a group with state title aspirations
Highland: Several key departures, but Hawks program is always competitive with Miner Webster at the helm
Pinnacle: Aley Rohde must be replaced, but guard Sydney Wiese one of the top players in the East Valley
Seton Catholic: Theresa Wirth has moved on and team has moved up to Div. II, but premier program will compete
Valley Christian: Must replace Ashton Wolf and Stacey Jones, but Trojans always a power
Dobson: Led by Katherine Hamilton, balanced team will be contenders
Tempe Prep: Sophomore Camille Zimmerman already starring for Knights
Players to Watch
Arnecia Hawkins, Sr., G, Mountain View: ASU commit averaged 15.8 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.3 steals per game last year
Lauren Evans, Sr., F, Hamilton: Fiesta Region co-POY is back to lead Huskies
Sydney Wiese, Jr., G, Pinnacle: With Aley Rohde gone, this is Wiese's team now
Shilpa Tummala, Sr., G, St. Mary's: Long-range shooter just one of several weapons for Knights
Cortnee Walton, Jr., F, St. Mary's: Inside force complements Tummala well
Simone Westbrook, Sr., G, Chandler: A full year in Wolves' system should help talented guard
Jaymee Bruggman, Sr., F, Desert Vista: Averaged 15.7 points, 9.5 rebounds per game last year
Madison Austin, Sr., F, Horizon: Averaged 13.7 points, 7.5 rebounds a year ago
Rene Coggins, Jr., G., Mountain View: Sidekick to Hawkins should help lead Toros deep in state tournament
Julia Barcello, So., F., Seton Catholic: Big shoes to fill with Theresa Wirth moving on
Tana Kemmer, Jr., G., Valley Christian: Averaged 11.7 points per game last year and should be go-to player now
Batabe Zempare, Sr., F., Chaparral: Averaged 14.1 points and 13.6 rebounds per game a season ago
Dezirae Elias, Sr., G, Chandler: Lightning quick guard directs offensive attack
Olivia Lucero, Highland: Looking to become next star in illustrious Highland history
Mariah Willadsen, G, Sr., Red Mountain: Talented guard can score points in bunches
Dec. 5: St. Mary's at Hamilton Highland at Tolleson Nike Tournament of Champions St. Mary's at Chandler MLK Basketball Classic Mountain View at Xavier Hamilton at Chandler Various sectional tournaments First round of Div. IV state tournament First round of Div. I, II and III state tournaments State championship games for all four divisions (Div. I, II, III at Jobing.com Arena; Div. IV at Tim's Toyota Center)
Did You Know?
• Horizon made it to the 5A Division II semifinals a year ago, but fired coach Josiah McDaniel after the season. The Huskies have standout Madison Austin leading the way, and they will be coached by Gerrard Carmichael, who comes over from Shadow Mountain. McDaniel has since landed a job as the girls basketball coach at Anthem Boulder Creek.
• Hamilton has added junior forward Aliyah Dickson, a transfer from St. Mary's. She has several Division I scholarship offers, according to coach Jeff Kain, and should be another weapon alongside Lauren Evans and Kyndall Adams for the Huskies.
• It will be a sister act at Mountain View. Arnecia Hawkins is an Arizona State signee who averaged15.8 points and 3.3 steals a season ago. She is already a Toros' standout, but she will also have little sister, Armani, on the varsity squad. Armani is a 5-foot-8 freshman guard who has the talent to contribute immediately.