Throw away the nail cutters. If you're a 5A Fiesta Region basketball fan - boys or girls - you'll be doing your own manicuring on a nightly basis.
Tuesday is the start of region play for most local 5A-I and 5A-II schools. 4A regions, which are larger, began their region warfare before the holidays.
The Fiesta boys and girls are guaranteed to be the most competitive regions top to bottom for the next five to six weeks. Gilbert Highland, Gilbert High, Gilbert Mesquite, Chandler High and Chandler Hamilton will showcase talent tough to match by any other locale.
Last year the Fiesta put four of its five schools in the 5A-I girls semifinals. The ability is there again for a repeat although it may be tougher with improved top teams from a couple other regions (Phoenix St. Mary's, Phoenix Desert Vista and Mesa Mountain View). The Fiesta boys won't be far behind with Highland, Gilbert and Chandler leading the way.
Over in the 5A East Valley, there's not a great deal of difference among Mountain View, Dobson, Mesa and Red Mountain in the boys race. For the girls, the one prohibitive favorite is Mountain View, but if Dobson has everything clicking it might be able to give the Toros a nudge.
5A-I East Valley boys
Favorite: Mountain View. The Toros were middle of the pack last year in the region, but four returning starters and steady play have led the Toros to a 15-1 record to date. Eric Hunt is supplying scoring and rebounding in better quantity than expected, and last year's sixth-man Nathan Murphy is the top offensive threat. Junior Asaad Woods has stepped into the starting lineup giving coach Gary Ernst the potential for balanced scoring.
Darkhorse: Red Mountain. It's like splitting hairs trying to come up with a team that fits this moniker in the region, but the Mountain Lions earn the nod. They have balanced scoring in their lineup (Chris Lewis, Jordan Holt and Paul Newendyke), good depth and scratch and claw for everything they get. With Dobson minus one of its top three players for a few weeks (guard Jerry Harville due to academics), and suddenly a cloud hanging over Mesa High and and the eligibility status of its center Blondy Baruti, Red Mountain may be able to hit the top of the region this year instead of settling for second.
The Mustangs are taking a hit with junior guard Jerry Harville sidelined for the first half of league play or better with academic troubles. But junior center John Bailey and junior guard Jarrett Green are bona fide scorers and the supporting cast (Casey Benford, Mike Buechner, Cole Thurston) should be able to pick up the loss of offense. The Mustangs have been streaky during games producing big runs and giving them up. If they reduce the brief letdowns they can be very tough.
What to watch: Red Mountain is just one of three teams in the region that's a darkhorse candidate. Dobson and Mesa have shown flashes of being able to play with anyone. Two of Red Mountain's five losses are to Highland and a third was to Highland Lone Peak, Utah, arguably the best team in the recently completed Arizona Basketball Challenge. No team in the region has better scoring balance from its starters. Mesa, with only point guard Donte Medder back from last year's region championship team, has stayed competitive with big-man move-in Blondy Baruti and Taylor Junior High freshman Danny Powell giving them added scoring punch and size. A question on whether or not Mesa violated an AIA recruiting bylaw is hanging over the Mesa as region play begins and the school reporting to the AIA on Baruti on Monday. Westwood is the mystery team in the region. The Warriors and coach Paul Wilson sport an 11-7 record. Only one of Westwood's opponents to date is in the top 16 in 5A-I power rankings (Chandler). The Warriors lost that game by 21. Proving they can hang with the quality teams in the region night in and night out will be their challenge.
Favorite: Highland. Bounced from the first round of the playoffs last year, the Hawks return a dynamic backcourt in Matt Carlino and Nick Johnson, but wing Kurtis Toolson has made a much-needed impact.
Darkhorse: Gilbert. They're learning a new style of offense and don't have a dynamic interior presence, but Elliott Clark and Shawn King can score. Defense and rebounding will be paramount for the slightly undersized Tigers.
What to watch: Though the boys side doesn't relatively compare to the strength of girls teams, there are a couple state championship contenders coming out of Gilbert. Four of the Chandler's five losses were by one possession, with the other being a five-point defeat to Mesa Red Mountain. The Wolves have adequate scoring and a big-time threat in perennial double-double forward Devirous Johnson. Chandler Hamilton has faced pretty good competition, and more offensive consistency is needed. Though balanced, the Huskies don't have anyone who averages more than 11 points, five rebounds or four assists per game, but they haven't been able to string more than three consecutive wins together thus far. Gilbert Mesquite has a tough road leading into conference play with Phoenix St. Mary's and Chandler Basha before playing Highland. It'll help the power points but the Wildcats will need a couple other players besides Isaiah Strong to be consistent offensive threats.
Favorite: Phoenix Pinnacle. Point guard Nuno Muandumba leads the charge. He played a complementary role to Taylor Rhode the past two years, but as a senior leads the region in points (20.9), assists (7.3) and steals (2.2) per game. He has a solid supporting cast, as Nathan Murdock, T.J. Becker and Daniez Dziediz are on the end of many Muandumba passes. The Pioneers are battle-tested, finishing 2-2 in the Arizona Basketball Challenge before losing a close one to 5A-II power Phoenix North on Jan. 6.
Darkhorse: Scottsdale Horizon. The Huskies have gotten off to a slow start, but have the talent to challenge for the region crown. Horizon is very young, with sophomore guards Stephen Topercer and Collin Woods leading the team in scoring. The Huskies have a lot of balance, with different players capable of stepping up in any particular game.
What to watch: Pinnacle and Horizon have both shown they are not invincible in non-region play, while Mesa Skyline has jumped out to a region-best 12-5 start. The Coyotes haven't played the hardest schedule, but junior forward Jake Pitcher (12 points, 8.5 rebounds per game) and the rest of the squad has a chance to make a big statement in the region opener at Pinnacle on Tuesday. The Coyotes will put themselevs on the map in a hurry if they can beat the Pioneers on the road. Mesa Desert Ridge has struggled after going 17-11 last season.
5A-I East Valley
Favorite: Mountain View. The Toros won the region last year and are more athletic and possess more weapons offensively this season. Their only two losses to date are to out-of-state teams in two different tournaments. Brittany Conger and Erica Olsen can score inside and a handful of starters and reserves can tally from the perimeter and even 3-point range.
Darkhorse: Dobson. The two seasoned players are guard Andrea Jones and center Kameron Knutson, who are a handful for any team to contain. The rest of the squad is getting used to their roles and starting to find their niche. They are the only team in the region with a shot of knocking off Mountain View.
What to watch: It's really a two-team race with Red Mountain, Mesa and Westwood chasing Mountain View and Dobson. Red Mountain junior Erika Richards, an out-of-state transfer, is the Mountain Lions offensive leader. The Mountain Lions should manage to finish third in the region, but will have to be at their very best to push Mountain View or Dobson. Mesa and Westwood have winning records, but their schedules have few if any above-average foes and no wins over those top-flight programs. Mesa is led by guard Lexi Brown, the Jackrabbits best all-around player; Westwood is paced by Teanna Boxly, the Warriors top scorer. Every East Valley Region team is presently in the top 16 in the 5A-I power rankings - Westwood (6), Mountain View (8), Red Mountain (9), Dobson (10) and Mesa (12). It will be tough for Mesa and Westwood to hang on the rest of the way. Mesa has lost big to Hamilton and Gilbert; Westwood likewise to Chandler and Tolleson, the latter the best team in 5A-II.
Favorite: Highland. The defending state champions have played like a team which can repeat. The Hawks are 18-1 with their only setback being by four points at highly-regarded Phoenix Desert Vista in early December.
Darkhorse: Gilbert. All five schools are contenders, but the Tigers are on a 15-game winning streak since a Thanksgiving loss to Phoenix Pinnacle. They have two dynamic scorers in Whitney Southerland and Justine Johnson, so the team's interior play will tell the tale.
What to watch: Everyone. The Fiesta is a combined 72-11 entering Tuesday's region opener, including 64-5 against Arizona schools. Chandler Hamilton is 13-1, but have yet to be tested by in-state squads. Naturally, that will change beginning this week. All of their difficult games came against teams from California and Colorado in the Nike Tournament of Champions. Same goes for Chandler, which has good scoring and rebounding balance on the roster, but the Wolves will need to improve their shooting (36 percent) down the stretch. Mesquite has losses to Phoenix Xavier, Phoenix St. Mary's and Phoenix Pinnacle, and the Wildcats begin play against Highland and Gilbert at the MLK Tournament at Wells Fargo Arena. Last year's "final four" all came out of this region, and though that feat will be difficult to repeat, there's no reason to suggest it can't.
Favorite: Phoenix Pinnacle. The Pioneers were destined to be the favorite after returning all five starters from last season's squad, and haven't disappointed thus far. Pinnacle's only loss to an Arizona team this season has been to 5A-I Gilbert Highland. Aley Rohde (13.0 points, 8.6 rebounds) leads the way, but the team has multiple players that shine in their roles. The offensive scoring is balanaced, as seven different players average at least five points per game. If Pinnacle doesn't win region, it would be considered a big upset.
Darkhorse: Tempe Marcos de Niza. The Padres have faced a brutal schedule, and head into region play just one game over .500. With Arizona State-bound forward Joy Burke, Marcos de Niza is the team with the best shot at derailing Pinnacle. Marcos de Niza has already seen many of the best 5A-I teams in the state, and hope that experience translates to region play.
What to watch: Jaguars guard Gabby Washington, just a sophomore, averages more than 20 points per game to lead the region, seven more than her closest competitor. Washington is hitting on nearly 50 percent of her two-point field goals and has the ability to single-handedly keep Desert Ridge in games. Region play doesn't get started until next week, but a showdown with Marcos de Niza on Jan. 23 can't be far from the Jaguars' minds. Don't expect many shootouts when Mesa Skyline is on the court. The Coyotes and their opponents have both scored 45 points or fewer in nine of the Coyotes' 14 games this season, including a 25-24 loss to Phoenix Arcadia on Dec. 29.