The 2021-22 school year is over and all that’s left are memories. Some good, some bad, some thrilling, some tragic, some magic.
And mostly triumphant. It goes fast.
Soon, it will be back to the grind of trying to win championships for high school sports teams. Or does that grind ever stop for coaches and kids?
Let’s look back at these storylines that defined Arizona high school sports over the last nine months.
1. Open and shut
Scottsdale Saguaro’s rise to the top of the Arizona high school football world showed what a school with a 4A-size enrollment can do. The Sabercats rode the slogan, “Burn the Boats,” all the way to their first Open Division state championship, beating the two biggest heavyweights — Chandler Hamilton and Chandler— on the way to the gold ball.
Saguaro has become a magnet for talent and it doesn’t matter the size of the enrollment. The program has been attracting some of the best talent in the Valley and coach Jason Mohns knows how to mold them into winners.
“We just took down the blue bloods of Arizona in back-to-back weeks, and I’m pretty damn proud,” Mohns said in Sun Devil Stadium after his Sabercats ended Chandler’s five-year championship reign with a 20-15 win that December night.
2. Shot heard ’round the country
Phoenix St. Mary’s dug and clawed and climbed its way back and was ready to celebrate inside its packed gymnasium a 4A semifinal boys basketball win, leading 73-71 with 2.3 seconds left and inbounding the ball under Gilbert Mesquite’s basket.
Then, Mesquite senior guard Nate Calmese made the play of the year, the moment of the year, maybe the play and moment of the decade, if not the century, or ever, in Arizona high school sports history.
It wound up the No. 1 play of the day on ESPN’s SportsCenter.
He deflected Styles Phipps’ long pass down court. The ball bounced back to him, and beyond midcourt, Calmese heaved it. Time ticks off. Buzzer. Swish. Game over, Mesquite wins 74-73. Riding that emotional tidal wave, Calmese capped his career with 34 points and 10 rebounds in the program’s first state title, a 64-58 win over top-seeded Tucson Salpointe Catholic.
“St. Mary’s was a great game, that was a crazy shot,” Calmese said afterwards. “But we weren’t satisfied at all. We were celebrating for a little bit and then we got over it. We just locked in and got prepared for Salpointe.”
3. Head of the class
Scottsdale Horizon’s 5A girls volleyball championship in November capped a remarkable year for not just a great program but a great coach, Valorie McKenzie, who showed that she only gets better with age.
She opened the school some 40 years ago and won her fourth state title with the Huskies defeating Goodyear Millennium in straight sets. There were tears of joy from players.
They made an argument for being the state’s top indoor girls volleyball team in any conference with Taylor Johnson and Kendal Murphy leading the way.
McKenzie notched her 1,000 career win in the first round of the tournament, but, to McKenzie, “It’s just another milestone.”
4. Changes are coming
The Arizona Interscholastic Association took two major steps that many coaches for some time have been clamoring to see:
• Moving forward with the shot clock for boys and girls basketball starting the 2022-23 season. The National Federation of High Schools, to which the AIA belongs, finally opened the door to the shot clock, which allowed the AIA to invite the schools for their input. The majority wanted it.
• Starting the Open Division for boys and girls state playoffs next school year. The Arizona Basketball Coaches Association spearheaded the blueprint for what it could look like, and by the time the AIA Executive Board gets back together in August, it could be a done deal. A 32-team Open Division tournament for the big conferences (4A, 5A and 6A) with a few twists that most coaches excited to see.
These moves have most looking forward to the new era of AIA basketball that is doing things to try to keep the elite of the elite from leaving their AIA teams to play at prep academies and to keep the games exciting.
5. Shaking it up
How many coaches keep coming through the revolving door in all sports. But mostly it’s football and basketball, two of the bigger sports, that get the notoriety. Especially when a legend is given his walking papers.
Gary Ernst, who has won more boys basketball games than any coach in Arizona high school history, was told he won’t be back next season by first-year Principal Mike Oliver.
Wanting to shake things up, Oliver went into the Las Vegas to find Ernst’s replacement, former Findlay Prep coach Andy Johnson, a top recruiter in that prep academy that led to national championships.
Will Mountain View now become the magnet in basketball the way Saguaro is for football?
Ernst took pride in coaching the neighborhood kids. He was the best at it, winning eight state championships in his career. But these days that’s not enough, especially if it’s been more than a decade since the Toros last won a state championship.
Schools want to win now. And, for some, it’s changed the mindset of how to approach high school athletics for kids figuring out their lives between 14 and 18 years of age.
6. Baseball bruised
All was relatively quiet this spring, until we got deep in the state baseball playoffs. Then, everything got crazy.
There was the pitch count controversy that led to Queen Creek forfeiting its 2-1 6A quarterfinal win that would have eliminated nationally ranked Chandler Hamilton from the double-elimination tournament.
Hamilton ended up winning the state title in a five-inning, run-rule win over Chandler.
Then, there was the punch in the handshake line by a Benson player after his team lost to Scottsdale Christian 6-5 in the 2A final.
Both made people wonder if the AIA needs to make changes. Do you eliminate handshake lines? Do you find a qualified, objective person working for the AIA in state playoff games to keep track of pitch counts and letting every coach know where their pitchers stand before having them pitch when to make sure they’re eligible?
They could be under debate and on the table in August, when the AIA board reconvenes.
7. Lost too soon
• In early February, Alexa Cruz, 17, a volleyball player at Laveen Cesar Chavez, was killed in a car crash on an icy road in Texas as she was traveling to Austin to be part of the Goodyear-based Venom Volleyball Club that was trying to qualify for a national tournament.
Because flights were canceled due to severe weather, three families rented an SUV to drive from the Valley to Austin, Texas, so their daughters could play in the tournament. They hit a patch of black ice and swerved out of control and struck a semi-truck head-on. Cruz died in the crash two others were critically injured.
The Venom family raised more than $200,000 to support Cruz’s family and others injured in the crash. Volleyball programs from Arizona and other states came together to help. Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh videotaped a message of love and support to the Venom volleyball program and Cruz’s family.
“We use volleyball as a tool to develop future leaders,” club owner and director Jimmy Gonzalez told The Republic in February. “That’s our main objective. Not volleyball.”
• Earlier this month, the Lakeside-Pinetop area lost a big part of the community with the death of beloved coach and former Blue Ridge football player and wrestler Frank Girardi. Girardi had just gotten a new motorcycle and crashed and died while testing it around his neighborhood.
Girardi, who was 46, won three state wrestling titles in the 1990s and was a big part of a 19 state football championship team under Paul Moro as a running back and linebacker. He was an assistant football and track and field coach at his alma mater.
To suggest human-interest story ideas and other news, reach Obert at email@example.com or 602-316-8827. Follow him on Twitter @azc_obert.
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