Nearly nine months after Valley Vista, Millennium, Salpointe Catholic, Alchesay, Pima and Rock Point lifted championship trophies, the new AIA girls high school basketball season in Arizona is nearly upon us. The first games tip-off Wednesday night, with another batch on Thursday. By next week, nearly every team in the state will have begun its 2022-23 campaign.
With that in mind, here are five key questions as the season begins:
What impact will the Open Division have?
The biggest change in girls — and boys — basketball in the state has nothing to do with players leaving or coming. Instead, it’s the playoff format.
Following the path charted by football in 2019, the AIA is implementing an Open Division playoff bracket for basketball this year. The top 24 teams in the state will qualify. Once the field is whittled down to eight, the eliminated teams will drop down to their conference tournaments, while the remaining eight will play for the state’s ultimate crown.
Among coaches, the outlook is mixed.
Some are excited for increased competition. In 6A, Valley Vista has won five of six titles. In 5A, Millennium has won four straight. In 4A, Seton Catholic has won five of seven. The chance to see those types of dynasties face off when it matters most is undoubtedly exciting.
But there are plenty of drawbacks, too. The worst teams in the final eight will have little chance at hardware, despite being better than the best teams in their respective conference tournaments. And teams like Seton Catholic, with an enrollment that’s just a fraction of their 6A opponents, will rarely get to compete for titles against schools their own size.
Most of the coaches who have spoken with The Republic would have preferred a system where the state champions from 3A to 6A play a four-team tournament after conference tournaments wrap up. That system, though, isn’t to be.
Is Desert Vista as good as advertised?
Last year, Desert Vista was one of the most exciting teams to watch in the state. The Thunder went 25-5 and played an enjoyable, fast-paced brand of basketball. At the time, they weren’t quite yet ready to compete for a title, falling to Valley Vista by 25 in the 6A semifinals.
Now, coach Dave Williams’ team has all the makings of a championship favorite. They return all but one key contributor, including sophomore Dylan Swindle, who averaged 16.3 points per game and was an All-Arizona honorable mention as a freshman.
Plus, they’re adding 2024 four-star Shay Ijiwoye. The junior point guard played for AZ Elite Prep the previous two seasons.
There are still questions for Williams to answer, though. Even with another year of experience, his team lacks seniors. And, unlike some of their competitors for the Open Division crown, the Thunder haven’t been in title contention before. Come February, that experience matters.
What’s the pecking order in 6A?
For the last few years, there has been little uncertainty about the state of 6A. The dominance of Jennah Isai, who is now at Oregon, was such that no one had a chance of beating Valley Vista when she was healthy. Even when she was hurt, players like Mikela Cooper and Destiny Lunan could fill the void.
Now, all three are gone. Even if Desert Vista’s talent makes it the best team in the state, how does the rest shake out? Will point guard Olivia Arvallo and legendary coach Rachel Matakas keep Valley Vista relevant? Can Khamil Pierre lead Perry, which was inconsistent in the regular season last year, to another championship game — or further? Will Xavier Prep be able to win without its best player, Sarah Miller?
All of those teams have a chance to be dangerous. But uncertainty abounds for each.
Who is the new best player in the state?
Isai’s graduation not only raises the question of who the best team in the state is, but also who the best player in the state is.
Ijiwoye and Pierre are the two most likely contenders for player of the year. Elli Guiney, who led Millennium to the 5A title by scoring 14.6 points per game as a sophomore, is up there, too. And watch out for Dominque Nesland at Xavier Prep. Nesland — another junior — is a smooth player who will shoulder the Gators’ hopes in Miller’s absence.
Can Seton Catholic reclaim 4A?
Seton Catholic’s 4A dynasty was interrupted last year, with Salpointe Catholic taking home the title. The Sentinels should be better and more experienced this year, with Amelie Cartagena, Caitlyn Benally, Sophia Morales, and Mia DiPuccio leading the way. But Salpointe Catholic is also extremely talented. They’re led by one of the most dominant bigs in the state in Taliyah Henderson.
Of course, the meaning of “reclaiming” a conference is different this year. Both Seton Catholic and Salpointe Catholic could easily reach the Open Eight. From there, who knows what could happen?
Theo Mackie covers Arizona high school sports and the Arizona Diamondbacks. He can be reached by email at email@example.com and on Twitter @theo_mackie.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: 2022-23 Arizona girls high school basketball season preview