With the calendar turning to the new year and pretty much the halfway point of the prep basketball season, it's time to identify some of the surprise teams in the area.
Starting with boys, Mesa Red Mountain is one. The Mountain Lions lost their top two scorers and top rebounder to graduation. They returned a few veteran players, but none who was a bona fide scorer. The Mountain Lions sport an average - if not below average team - in terms of height, but they play well together. They've won 11 games at the turn and will be competitive in the 5A East Valley Region. Perhaps more than some thought.
Gilbert High is another. Several nonstarters returned from last year and have melded to form an 11-1 start. Slowed by an ankle injury at the start, one of last year's top players, Elliot Clark, has been an offensive force with Shawn King close behind. The team has owned the fourth quarter of most games, often coming from behind to determine the outcome.
On the girls side, the always-loaded 5A Fiesta Region has played as expected with Gilbert Highland, Gilbert High, Gilbert Mesquite and Chandler following up 5A semifinal appearances last year with the same potential.
The odd team out in the region that also qualified for state last year - Chandler Hamilton - is exceeding expectations with the most changes from last season.
Coach Jeff Kain lost leading scorer and Fiesta Region player of the year Bri Brown to graduation and another starter who transferred. Taking on a new role as sixth man rather than starter this season is senior Pua Resor, who has responded with a pick-me-up style of play, rebounding and scoring in the paint. Transfer Katrina Ottesen has stepped in to take the lead role in scoring, and freshman Lauren Evans is performing at a much higher level on varsity than most freshmen would or should be expected to.
LADY TOROS UNSCATHED
Mesa Mountain View's girls basketball team is 10-2, and its only losses have come in tournaments to out-of-state teams. The Toros' schedule against Arizona foes hasn't been the toughest, and they play only one Fiesta Region team (Gilbert in February). Last year the lack of quality opponents hurt the Toros come state tournament time. With more offensive firepower this year, particularly from the perimeter, they should be able to weather an average to below-average slate of opponents.
TEAM TO WATCH, WITH ALL THEIR PARTS
Mesa Dobson's boys basketball team got off to a slow start, but with three talented juniors clicking offensively, the Mustangs could do some damage this year and certainly next.
Juniors John Bailey, Jerry Harville and Jarrett Green are scoring in double figures and among the top 10 in the region in scoring. Injuries to sophomore reserve guard Cole Thurston (ankle) prior to the Arizona Basketball Challenge and senior Mike Buechner (hamstring) during the tournament slowed the Mustangs. Senior Dallas Wendt has also been nursing an ankle sprain. Harville was not available Tuesday night against Highland with some academic problems.
Coach Rick McConnell decided to bring up some junior varsity players in case the he needs reinforcements. Without all four players the Mustangs would have only six varsity players in uniform. With everyone healthy and eligible, Dobson has the ability to make noise in the East Valley Region along with Mountain View, Red Mountain and Mesa.
A WIN, WIN, WIN, WIN, WIN, WIN SITUATION
All six Mesa district high schools sport winning records in boys basketball as play resumes in the new year. Mountain View is 12-1, Red Mountain 11-5, Dobson 9-5, Mesa 8-5, Westwood 8-7 and Skyline 12-4. Mountain View, Red Mountain, Dobson and Mesa are more battle-tested, so it will be interesting to see how Westwood and Skyline stack up once region play begins in two weeks. Westwood will face the other Mesa schools during that time while Skyline faces off with Pima Region foes Horizon, Pinnacle, Marcos de Niza and Desert Ridge.
Mesa Mountain View forward Brittany Conger already has a letter of intent signed and in her pocket to the University of San Diego, but that hasn't slowed her in keeping her game at a high level.
The Toros' 6-foot-1 senior standout averaged 22.7 points a game and 11.7 rebounds in helping Mountain View to fifth place in the Red Division of the Nike Tournament of Champions II last week. For the year, Conger is averaging 12.8 points per game, 7 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.6 steals.
When will Chandler Valley Christian girls basketball lose a game? It could be a while. The 16-0 Trojans face rival Scottsdale Christian tonight, followed by Phoenix Country Day (1-9 entering tonight's games), Northwest Christian (1-6) and Horizon Honors (4-6). Scott Timmer's squad is led by sophomore Stacey Jones (14.3 points, 7.5 rebounds), but he has terrific balance with Kristen Johanssen, Ashton Wolf, Quinn Robertson and Shanel Smith. And don't say they haven't played anyone: They've beaten 3A schools (Coolidge, Maricopa, Fountain Hills) and a 4A school (Flagstaff).
"Defense is something we're working on. We're trying to get better at it."
Gilbert Highland basketball coach Mark Carlino last week after the Hawks knocked off Mesa Mountain View, 45-35, and limited them to 24 percent shooting from the field on the final day of the Arizona Basketball Challenge.