The chill of winter means basketball is already underway with a plethora of early-season games and tournaments, and yet the question remains:
Can anyone beat Corona del Sol in Division I?
Most of the Aztecs’ starting lineup from the 2011-2012 championship team was lost before last season, but thanks to Tribune Player of the Year Casey Benson, Cassius Peat and a bunch of unheralded role players (Bryan Siefker and Adam Gleave), the Aztecs withstood a series of wild games and repeatedly made big plays in waning seconds to win a second consecutive state championship.
This year, however, features a bit more continuity, and talent. Connor MacDougall left Westwind Prep Academy during the summer and enrolled at Corona del Sol instead of his “original” school, Desert Vista. He won an appeal with the Arizona Interscholastic Association in early November, and his eligibility means the Aztecs will now have arguably the best point guard in the state (Benson) and one of the best big man in MacDougall.
Add in Dane Kuiper, a skilled, athletic wing whose family transferred from Alaska, plus the return of Peat, Jarrett Givens, Russ Davis and promising freshman Alex Barcello, and the Aztecs could be better than ever.
Integrating everyone into the Aztecs’ team-first concept will take some time, and other perennial contenders continue to remain as such (Pinnacle, Gilbert, Hamilton, etc.), but someone is going to have to beat Corona in the playoffs first.
Gilbert Christian is again poised to make a run despite playing up to Div. II with Sam Jones, Roberto Reyes and Keaton Ranger back from last year’s championship team. But the Tucson are stronger than ever this year, notably Salpointe Catholic. Watch out for Marcos de Niza, which could make a run as well in Div. II after being stuck in Div. I the past few years.
Valley Christian will be a force in Div. III this season with Brandon Haagsma outside and T.J. Widner inside both returning with a bitter taste left behind from a state runner-up finish in 2012-2013.
Division I Rankings
1. Corona del Sol
3. Mountain View
9. Desert Mountain
Division II Rankings
1. Catalina Foothills
2. Gilbert Christian
4. Shadow Mountain
5. Salpointe Catholic
8. Marcos de Niza
9. Paradise Valley
10. South Mountain
Teams to Watch
Corona del Sol: There’s a good chance this is the best of the two-time defending champion title teams under coach Sam Duane Jr. Size, athleticism, shooting, depth, this group has it all, and, led by reigning Player of the Year in point guard Casey Benson (Oregon commit) will buy into the “team” concept quickly.
Gilbert: Forget about the “now.” Every year, it seems, Jay Caserio’s team is one of the final few standing, and this year won’t change that. The Tigers return four starters, including standout guard Anthony Bryant and a wealth of size and depth up front led by 6-foot-8 junior Truman Moore.
Gilbert Christian: Roberto Reyes, Sam Jones and Kaeton Ranger are back to defend the Div. II state championship. Reyes’ quickness and Jones’ size and shooting are difficult to defend.
Hamilton: Off to a good start after winning the Fear the Hop tournament, the Huskies must rely on defense and rebounding to offset the lack of a go-to-scorer.
Mountain View: Payton Dastrup (BYU committ) is back for his seniors year, and Andy Sessions (transfer from Red Mountain) will help boost a supporting cast which struggled more often than not around Dastrup a year ago.
Perry: Jordan Howard was one of the most prolific scorers in the state last year, but is being asked to be more of a point guard and get others involved, namely his younger brother, Markus, who’s already made a splash as a freshman. The Pumas will go as far as the Howard brothers take them, which could be a few places.
Tempe: Longtime coach (formerly at Mesquite) Tom Saltzstein takes over for Paul Long, and an 18-8 team from last year returns a core of juniors Emanuel Gant, Delano Jones and Jashawn Brown.
Valley Christian: An early-season favorite to be Div. III champions, the Trojans have a clutch kid in Brandon Haagsam and a 6-foot-6 T.J. Widner inside. Cory Kasperson is healthy this season and will add Will Carter and Jack Campbell (who sat out last season) into the mix.
Others to Watch: Desert Ridge, Dobson, Highland, McClintock, Mesa, Queen Creek, Red Mountain, Seton Catholic
Players to Watch
Casey Benson, Corona del Sol, Sr., G: Perhaps the best point guard in the state the past two years, he’ll lead a talented Aztecs squad toward a third consecutive championship. As clutch a player as any the past few years who’s headed to Oregon.
Anthony Bryant, Gilbert, Sr., G: While 6-foot-8 junior Truman Moore and the Tigers’ frontcourt will give teams fits, Bryant has quietly emerged as a leader and go-to-scorer and team leader from the perimeter.
Kameron Casey, Chandler, Sr., F: Averaging 14.2 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game to start the season, he’ll be a focal point for the Wolves (and the opposition) inside while battling some of the best big men in Division I from within Section II.
Payton Dastrup, Mountain View, Sr., F: Arguably best big man in the state headed to BYU, but not before he and the Toros take aim at a title run with improved supporting cast.
Jordan Howard, Perry, Sr., G: A leading scorer in the state last season will defer a bit more this year as a point guard to help his future cause, but will score plenty and his distribution/leadership qualities will be pivotal for playoff-hopeful Pumas.
Sam Jones, Gilbert Christian, Sr., F: Size and outside shooting ability a lethal combination, and with Roberto Reyes at point guard, it’ll be “pick your poison” for opposing defenses; headed to University of Pennsylvania next fall.
Kodi Justice, Dobson, Sr., G: Not the junior season he or the Mustangs hoped for, but with Jaron Hopkins’ graduation, sharpshooter and ASU-committ could return to form alongside Ryan Richardson.
Connor MacDougall, Corona del Sol, Sr., F: Another ASU committ, won his AIA appeal to play at Corona after leaving Westwind Prep. Rare size and skill combination makes Aztecs even more difficult to defend.
Jake Toolson, Highland, Sr., F: BYU-committ averaged 19 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists and shot 62 percent from the floor as a junior. His size, relentless and shooting accumen are a nightmare matchup for everyone.
T.J. Widner, Valley Christian, Sr., F: A Div. III version of Toolson with his size, athleticism and effort. He’s the biggest reason (figuratively and literally) the Trojans could make another run at a championship.
Others to Watch
Basha: Tyrone Ayala, Sr., G; Cole Kepler, Jr., G; Nathan Markovich, Sr., G; Campo Verde: Legend Artis, Sr., F; Keaton Harris, Sr., G; Spencer Mauter, Sr., F; Brandon Whittaker, So., F; Chandler: Marco Morales, Sr., G; Zach Manguso, Sr., G; Kevin Vogl, Sr., G; Combs: Sherron Brooks, Sr., G; Carter Aby, Jr., F; Drew Johnson, Jr., G; Corona del Sol: Russ Davis, Sr., F; Jarrett Givens, Sr., G; Dane Kuiper, Jr., F; Cassius Peat, Jr., F; Desert Ridge: Teddy Allen, So., F; Cameron Chatwin, Sr., F; Hunter Thomas, Sr., G; Dean Spitzer, Sr., G; Dobson: Ryan Richardson, Sr., G; Kairee Williams, Sr., G; Gilbert: Wyatt Lowell, So., F; Truman Moore, Jr., F; Eric Mosley, Sr., F; Spencer Nicols, Sr., F; Gilbert Christian: Keaton Ranger, Sr., G; Roberto Reyes, Sr. G; Cameron Satterwhite, So., G; Hamilton: Zach Evans, Sr., G; James Sosinski, Jr., F; Luke McCook, Sr., G; Dylan McCall, Sr., F; Anthony Withers, Sr., G; Highland: Christian Sanchez, Sr., G; Austin Witherill, Sr., G; Chip White, Sr., G; Marcos de Niza: Nate Goudeau, Sr., F; Ty Lazenby, Sr., G; Anthony Varela, Sr., F; Mesa: Isaac Allen, Sr., F; Christian Harris, Sr., G; McClintock: Amiri Chukwuemeka, So., G; Davion Green, So., F; Malique Washington, So., F; Mesquite: Connor David, Sr., G; Zach Green, Sr., F; Jordan Lee, Jr., F; Tre Myles, Sr., F; Mountain View: Austin Denham, Sr., G; Colton Meo, Sr., G; Andy Sessions, Sr., G; Perry: Markus Howard, Fr., G; Jake Mortensen, Sr., F; Luke Siwek, Sr. F; Geoffrey Vredevoogd, Sr., F; Poston Butte: Christian Anderson, Jr., G; Kaeleb Franken, Sr., F; Queen Creek: Parker Anderson, Sr., F; Ty Lemiuex, Sr., G; Tanner Tebbs, Sr., F; Blake Williams, Sr. G; Carter Wilson, Sr., F; Red Mountain: Colton Plourd, Sr., G; Jalen Jenkins, Jr., F; Braxton Robinson, Jr., G; San Tan Foothills: Marenz Bruce, Jr., G; Khalil Lee, Jr., G; Ricky Wilson, Jr., F; Malik Wolf, Jr., F; Seton Catholic: Jake Rueter, So., G; Dominic Smith, Sr., F; Dillon Stanley, Sr., F; Konrad Eze, Jr., G; Skyline: Yanko Kuraica, Sr., G; Dimetres Moore, So., G; Isaiah Self, Sr., G; Charlie Watkin, Jr., F; Tempe: Emanuel Gant, Jr., G; Delano Jones, Jr., F; Jashawn Brown, Jr., F; Valley Christian: Brandon Haagsma, Sr., G; Cory Kasperson, Sr., G; Zach Wolf, Sr., F; Westwood: Josh Brown, Sr., G; Shomari Gilliam, Sr., G; Jerome Robinson, Sr., G; Williams Field: Jeddediah Fagg, Sr., F; Carter Rushton, Sr., G; Brian Dean, Jr., G.
•Alignment: This year’s new two-year block alignment created some super sections in the East Valley (notably Div. I, Section 2 and Div. II, Section 4). It also allowed teams such as Marcos de Niza and McClintock to slide down from Div. I to Div. II which could be a boon to both programs this season and the next couple seasons.
•Coaches: Changes galore happened across the coaching front in the offseason. Mike Grothaus takes over Basha after former coach John Burns returned to Missouri. Michael Wirth is Campo Verde’s new coach replacing Neil McDonald. Mark Nold was widely viewed as a solid hire by Chandler after the departure of Mike Ellsworth. The biggest fanfare might have been Todd Fazio, who ran an uber-successful Desert Mountain program, but was fearful of losing his teaching job in the Scottsdale district, and moved to Red Mountain when the Lions’ let go of longtime coach Greg Sessions. Not far behind is former Mesquite coach Tom Salzstein who took over Tempe High after Paul Long resigned. Joe Galish will try and build up San Tan Foothills after some mighty struggles early in the program’s existence. Matt Johnson takes over at Skyline after Wirth left for Campo Verde and Troy Powell is the new Westwood coach after Hosea Graham went back to his roots at Mountain Pointe.
Dec. 5-7: Christian Cup (at Gilbert Christian H.S.)
Dec. 26-31: VisitMesa.com Basketball Challenge (at Mountain View High School)
Dec. 26-30: McClintock Holiday Shootout (at McClintock High School)
Jan. 20: MLK Basketball Classic (at Wells Fargo Arena)
Feb. 12-15: Sectional tournaments
Feb. 20: State tournaments begin
March 1: State championship games
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.