Lanier, Swift are ‘Athletes of Year’…what were the odds?


What are the chances of getting selected as one of the two high school ‘Athletes of the Year’ in Arizona?  If you do the math, you might be surprised.

The Arizona Republic and its online sports presence, azcentral sports, announced over the weekend their selection of the Female Athlete of the Year and the Male Athlete of the Year.  Their picks were Khalia Lanier from Xavier College Prep in Phoenix and Jacob Swift from Deer Valley High School in Glendale.

These two athletes had to stand out from well over 100,000 students participating in high school sports in Arizona, scattered among the more than 200 schools that participate as Arizona Interscholastic Association members.

We’ve become accustomed to hearing about those chosen throughout the school year as the best in their sport. But azcentral sports set up a new program this year that honors the best athlete across the board, one from the girls’ sports programs and one representing the boys.

What an awesome task.  It was hard enough getting the picks whittled down to three finalists in each category, presented at the Arizona Sports Awards gala at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Phoenix.  But it had to be really tough to pick those final selections from a field of athletes that put up great individual performances and, in many cases, set state records in the process.

Consider this.  If you take just the four ‘major’ sports – football, basketball, baseball, softball – there are 47,400 participants (2014/15 stats).  If you add in some of the other high-profile programs like wrestling, volleyball, swimming & diving, and track & field, there are another 37,300 athletes filling those teams.

That’s enough to fill the 71,708-seat Sun Devil Stadium (before the current renovation reduces the number of seats) and then have enough left over to just about fill Wells Fargo Arena (16,110 seats).

OK, so those numbers reflect the combined total of boys and girls.  But there are still 54,000 boys and 30,000 girls in those eight programs, which are daunting odds alone for each finalist.  And that’s still not all the sports programs, just those that accommodate the most participants and generally seem to get more publicity.

Keeping that in mind, here are the two top athletes that beat the odds:

Kahlia Lanier could have played basketball.  She had the height and talent, inherited from her father, NBA Hall of Famer Bob Lanier.  But she says she wanted to chart her own course, rather than hitch a ride on her father’s fame.

Fortunately for Xavier College Prep, she picked volleyball – and rode that horse as far as it could take her.  In December, she was named the Gatorade National Volleyball Player of the Year and now she has become the first-ever recipient of the azcentralsports Female Athlete of the Year.

Actually, she won just about every major award offered this year, including Big Schools Volleyball Player of the Year and was ranked as the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2016 by

In her four years at Xavier, Lanier helped the school to a state title and runners-up two of those years.  As a sophomore, she led the Gators in becoming the first Arizona team to win the prestigious Platinum Division of the Nike Tournament of Champions.

She finished her senior year with 496 kills, 324 digs, and a kill percentage of .438.  She’ll play next year for USC.

Jacob Swift, too, excelled all four years while wrestling for Deer Valley High.  Just ask every opponent he faced; none were able to figure out a way to beat him.

Swift wrapped up four seasons with a 179-0 record. And, no matter how much he grew through the years, he just kept winning state titles.  Swift won the title as a freshman in the 126-pound weight class, then did the same thing as a sophomore at 138, as a junior at 152, and this season at 170 pounds.

His toughest opponent this season might well have been the pain he endured after tearing his left labrum in January and his right labrum in the first round of the state tournament.  But he was able to finish out the tourney and claimed his fourth title with a dominating 10-0 win.

Arizona State wooed him, but the University of Nebraska at Kearney won the recruiting battle.