PHXFan: High School & College Sports in Phoenix Tue, 07 Jul 2020 17:56:22 +0000 en-US hourly 1 PHXFan: High School & College Sports in Phoenix 32 32 11214659 MCCCD presidents urge dropping JUCO sports for 2020-21 Tue, 07 Jul 2020 17:41:09 +0000 Read More]]> Any consideration of eliminating, or even suspending, college sports is always met with strong opposition.  Arizona is now faced with its second skirmish in as many years.

Just two years ago, the Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD) decided to eliminate football from the sports offerings at some of its member schools, a result of an inability to continue to financially support football, which makes up 20 percent of the athletic budgets.

Just four football programs were initially targeted for elimination, but they were some of the oldest, most successful (including national championships) programs in the state.  The tradition of football at Phoenix College, for example, goes back almost 100 years ago.

Once that announcement was made in early February of 2018, immediate opposition to the idea began to take shape.

Within a month, the Grand Canyon State Gridiron Club prepared a proposal for the MCCCD, outlining a plan to secure private funding for the football programs in jeopardy.  Ten months later, a small group of players filed a federal lawsuit against the district, claiming the plan to eliminate the program presented a case for racial prejudice.  It was an 11th-hour effort since the season ended two months before and the colleges were already moving on.

As it turned out, the other community colleges around the state  with football programs followed suit since the loss of the four Phoenix-area programs left the remaining teams in Yuma, Tucson, and Thatcher without enough opponents for the coming seasons.

And now comes the latest threat to JUCO sports in Arizona.  This time, the threat is supposed to be temporary — but the opposition is just as vocal and determined.

The presidents of the 10 colleges in the MCCCD have sent a recommendation to chancellor Steven Gonzales that all sports be cancelled for the upcoming school year.  The decision to pass over the ’20-21 season is a response to the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in Arizona.

If the recommendation is approved, it would have a significant impact on the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference, which includes the MCCCD schools.  Seven of the 16 members of the conference would be sidelined.

The opposition this time is in the form of an online petition that would prevent the cancellation of the sports season.  As of Friday, there were 16,000 online signatures at

Today and tomorrow, the MCCCD will be taking input from the general public in an attempt to answer questions about the decision to shutter the programs, and address their concerns over the issue.

And then a final decision will be made about the immediate future of more than a thousand student athletes that will be affected by this sudden blindside.

If the season is, in fact, cancelled, there will need to be a plan prepared to address the needs of the athletes who are left hanging as they have to decide whether to look for a transfer, or ride out a season of inactivity.

The primary question: Will those that stay lose their eligibility for the upcoming season?


ASU football: the Jekyll & Hyde of the 2020 season Fri, 03 Jul 2020 18:34:05 +0000 Read More]]> Arizona State football will either win the Pac-12 South division…or struggle to get more than six wins.  So, which Sun Devil team should you expect to show up for the 2020 season?

Guess that depends on who you listen to.

While the Sun Devils have been generally receiving encouraging reviews from the sports sites that evaluate the college programs, a more recent projection puts the ASU program among the less-promising teams in the Pac-12.  And another has them winning their division.

CBS Sports and College Football News envision a mediocre outcome for ASU in the coming season, with CBS predicting seven wins and CFN giving them eight.  Athlon predicted a runner-up finish in the South.

The Sun Devils finished 8-5 (4-5 Pac-12) last season and 7-6 (5-4) in 2018, the two years under new head coach, Herm Edwards.

A  couple of other sites take their projections to opposite ends of the spectrum.

Earlier in the summer, ESPN issued its annual Power Index projections and didn’t offer up much hope for ASU’s chances for a break-out season.  The folks at ESPN limited expectations for 2020 to just six wins and gave the Devils less than a 3 percent chance of winning their division.

But more recently, 247Sports came to ASU’s defense, giving the Sun Devils the love they couldn’t get from the other sites.  One of its prognosticators, Brandon Marcello, sees a Pac-12 South crown in the Devils’ immediate future.  He is basing his forecast, in large part, on the fact that ASU has arguably the best coaching staff in the conference —  from former NFL head coach Edwards to the new offensive coordinator, Zak Hill from Boise State, and NFL veterans Marvin Lewis and Antonio Pierce as co-defensive coordinators.

There are definitely reasons for optimism among the faithful in Tempe.

The Sun Devils will have a quarterback/receiver tandem that is as good, or better than, any in the Pac-12.  Sophomore QB Jayden Daniels threw for nearly 3,000 yards and 17 touchdowns last season and is currently being included in the pre-season Heisman Trophy discussion.  His primary target will likely be redshirt senior Frank Darby (in photo above), a true deep threat  who led the team receiving corps last year with eight touchdowns and was runner-up with 616 receiving yards.  “Big Play Frank” averaged 20 yards a catch last season, giving the Sun Devil offense some explosiveness.

And Daniels will be operating with the protection of an offensive line that includes three returners and probably a couple of experienced transfers mixed in.

On the other side of the ball, Lewis and Pierce will be working with a defense that features one of the better defensive fronts in the conference.  ASU has the talent to make it very uncomfortable for opposing quarterbacks.

The biggest downside going into the season is the need to find a running back to replace Eno Benjamin, who left a year early to enter the NFL draft.  Benjamin, the school’s single-season rushing leader, was given the ball for more than 2/3 of the carries over the past two seasons, rushing for a combined 2,725 yards and 26 touchdowns.

Edwards may have to depend on one of the incoming freshmen to step into Benjamin’s over-sized cleats since there is little experience waiting in the wings.  Two running backs will return, A.J. Carter and Demetrious Flowers, but together they have just 34 carries and no touchdowns.

ASU could easily have been a 10-win team last season.  Only one of their five losses was by more than 10 points.

The bottom line: ASU could be one of the most intriguing stories of the 2020 season.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)

Noennig transfers; UA women’s track gets ‘gift’ from rival ASU Wed, 01 Jul 2020 21:55:16 +0000 Read More]]> As the 2020 indoor track & field season was about to wrap up, the Arizona State track teams were getting ready to compete in the NCAA Indoor Championships in New Mexico, and Samantha Noennig was looking forward to defending her title in the shot put.

The national meet was scheduled to begin on March 13.  On March 12, the COVID-19 threat shut down college sports.  It meant no NCAA Indoor Championships, and marked the end of the outdoor season before it even began.

Noennig will get at least one more chance to compete at the NCAA Championships.  But she won’t be doing it in the maroon-and-gold uniform of the ASU Sun Devils.

The four-time All-American from Wisconsin will finish her college career at Pac-12 rival, University of Arizona, following a transfer to the Wildcat program after the cancellation of the outdoor season.

Noennig, who entered the 2020 campaign as the defending shot put champion in both the NCAA Indoor and Outdoor Championships, will be a most welcome addition to the UofA women’s team that finished fourth last season at the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Conference Championships to close out the indoor season.

She picked up her undergraduate degree from ASU in May, so she will be competing for the Cats as a grad transfer while working on a masters degree in public health.

The Cats went into the MPSF championships short-handed, since an injury kept Alexa Porpaczy from competing.  The sophomore from Canada had been contributing team points throughout the indoor season and won the MPSF high jump to qualify for the NCAA Indoor Championships.

With Porpaczy healthy again for next season, and Noennig coming over from ASU, the UofA women’s team could be headed for a big season.  Noennig won the Pac-12 shot put title and finished second in the discus during the 2019 outdoor season, providing a team-high 18 points to the Sun Devils’ team total.

There’s no reason to think she won’t do the same next season.  But she’ll be wearing red and blue.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)

Year 3 will be must-win season for UA football coach Sumlin Mon, 29 Jun 2020 16:58:23 +0000 Read More]]> As Kevin Sumlin looks ahead to the 2020 football season, he might be experiencing a sense of deja vu.

It was just about this time three years ago when a member of the Texas A&M board of regents put up a facebook post calling for Sumlin’s firing as head coach of the Aggies.   And the school’s athletic director, Scott Woodward, said at the time that his coach “knows he needs to win, and win this year.”

He won seven games that 2017 season, which wasn’t enough to keep his job.  He was fired the day after the final game.

Fast forward to this summer.  Sumlin, now head coach of the football program at the University of Arizona, is once again painfully aware of the need to win big to save his job.  This time, however, his athletic director is standing behind him.  At least for now.

“Coach Sumlin’s our head coach,” AD Dave Heeke told the media immediately after the Cats’ 24-14 loss to rival Arizona State to close the 2019 schedule.  “This is not where we wanted to be at this point (in Sumlin’s tenure), but we’re committed…to moving into Year Three.”

However, the college sports analysts aren’t showing the love.  Athlon Sports put out its offseason rankings a couple of weeks ago and Sumlin was rated the 11th-best coach in the Pac-12.  The other ranking services have also dropped him well down in position since a year ago.

Sumlin is well aware of his tenuous position on the coaching hot seat following a couple of losing seasons (5-7, 4-8).  His team’s defense has gone from bad to worse, going from allowing 32.5 points a game in 2018 to 35.7 last season.  Ranked 118th in the nation in total team defense in 2019, there were just 12 teams in the entire country with a worse defense.

So he’s revamping his defense, adding a new defensive line coach and new outside linebackers coach to help stabilize a coaching staff that was upended last season with a rash of departures.  Three assistants were let go before the season was even over — including the defensive coordinator who was fired with four games yet to play in the 2019 season.  That’s how bad it was.

The Cats lost their final seven games of the 2019 season, including a second straight loss to ASU.  At that point, Sumlin’s seat went from uncomfortably warm to bunsen-burner hot.

Sumlin got off to a great start at Texas A&M, beginning his tenure with an 11-2 finish to his first season when his offense was run by Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Manziel.  But he couldn’t duplicate that effort through the remainder of his six years at College Station, never winning more than nine games in a season and never getting over the  .500 hump in SEC games.

So far at Arizona, he’s posted a 9-15 record overall and 6-12 in conference play.  Last seasons’s 2-7 conference mark dropped his Wildcats to last place in the Pac-12 South.

Sumlin’s answer to his critics is to have patience.  He is the first to admit that he and his coaching staff are just as frustrated as the fans.  But he has a process in place, he explains, and is asking Wildcat Nation to trust the process.

That process includes altering the composition of the coaching staff and ramping up the recruiting to bring in the kind of talent it will take to see significant improvement.

Sumlin reminds those who are still skeptical that, prior to taking the Arizona job, he had just one losing season in 10 seasons as a college head coach (Houston and Texas A&M).  So the last two losing seasons with the Wildcats must just be a temporary aberration, right?

According to his contract, it would have cost Arizona a $10 million buyout to dismiss him before the coming season, a good reason to give him a little more time.  This will be the third year of a five-year contract.

And it will, indeed, be a pivotal year.  He needs to ignite the interest and enthusiasm of a fan base that is waning, apparent by the number of empty seats that have begun appearing at home games.

The antidote for dwindling attendance, of course, is winning games.

And it will likely take at least eight of those wins next season to save Sumlin’s job.  Contract or no contract.

Clean sweep: Top 10 AZ prep football players leaving the state Thu, 25 Jun 2020 16:06:41 +0000 Read More]]> Out-of-state colleges just ran the table on Arizona’s Pac-12 football programs.

With Quintin Somerville‘s commitment over the weekend to accept Michigan’s offer to play defensive end for the Wolverines, the top 10 college prospects in Arizona have all opted to leave the state to begin their college careers.  Saguaro High‘s Somerville was the last of the group to make his decision, which he announced Saturday.

Oregon scored big, pulling in three of the  top four commitments from that elite group, while California pilfered two more from their neighboring state.

But none are heading to Tempe or Tucson — despite the insistence by both Arizona State and University of Arizona coaches that they are dedicated to rounding up the talent in their own backyard.

Yes, both schools have added local players to their rosters.  But they’re missing out on the cream of the crop.

Somerville’s commitment to Michigan kept Oregon from making a clean sweep of the top four prospects.  The 6’1″, 230-pound strongside defensive end, a 4-star recruit ranked the nation’s No. 18 at that position by 247Sports, is the UofM’s 18th commitment in the 2021 class — a class ranked in the top five nationally.

Oregon did snag the No. 1-ranked player in The Arizona Republic‘s Big 150 list of the state’s top prospects, Ty Thompson from Mesquite High School in Gilbert.  The 6’4″ quarterback piled up more than 4,000 yards passing and threw 45 touchdown passes to lead Mesquite to the 2019 4A state championship.

The Ducks also added a couple of top offensive linemen with No. 2. Bram Walden and No. 4 Jonah Miller.  Miller, from Sahuaro High School in Tucson, is the only top-10 player from outside the metro Phoenix area.  Walden plays for Saguaro in Scottsdale, where he was a key part of the Sabercats’ run to the 2019 state title game.

The remainder of the top 10 prospects include: Denzel Burke, a wide receiver/cornerback from Saguaro who committed to Ohio State; Steven Ortiz, Jr., a defensive back at Desert Edge HS who committed to Minnesota; Trey Reynolds, a Queen Creek HS linebacker headed to Utah; Hunter Barth, a safety at Queen Creek committed to California; Kai Millner, a quarterback from Higley HS who will be joining his former teammate, Spencer Brasch, also at California; and Noa Pola-Gates, a defensive back at Williams Field HS committed to Nebraska.

So what are these programs doing differently than the Sun Devils and the Wildcats?  There are a lot of different reasons that draw athletes to one school or another.  For Somerville, for example, it was the academics at Michigan, as well as the offensive system he would be playing in.  For Milner, he was excited about getting to re-unite with his former teammate at California.  Pola-Gates just wanted to get out of his comfort zone and “spread his wings” beyond the Arizona borders.  Reynolds fell in love with the coaching staff at Utah.  And Ortiz felt Minnesota was a program on the rise and saw an opportunity to be a part of that resurgence.

But Oregon’s biggest edge, from what local coaches are saying, appears to boil down to the Ducks’ coaching staff being able to establish a good relationship with the kids that was constant, and frequent, throughout the recruiting process.

To the contrary, some of the local prep coaches feel that ASU and UofA have been more focused on mining talent-rich California than beating the bushes in their home state.

As Mesquite coach, Scott Hare, offered in a recent interview in The Republic, the Arizona schools “are not showing them (the kids) the love that schools like Oregon are showing them.”  Hare noted that, despite being right there in ASU’s neighborhood, head coach Herm Edwards never inquired about Mesquite’s top-ranked prospect, Ty Thompson.

And that only made Oregon’s recruiting job that much easier.

Sierra Thrun, Alyssa Brown split girls’ Player of Year awards Tue, 23 Jun 2020 16:53:40 +0000 Read More]]> This time, both sides of the state will get to claim rights to the best high school girl athlete of the 2019-20 season.

Sierra Thrun, a wrestler at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe, was just named the azcentral Sports Award Girls Athlete of the Year.  And three weeks ago, a similar award was handed out to one of the southern Arizona athletes when MaxPreps named Sahuaro High School (Tucson) basketball player Alyssa Brown its top female athlete.

Both of the athletes, who will be seniors when the new school year starts, also earned Player of the Year honors for their individual sports.  And Brown (photo above) holds the added distinction of being the 2020 Gatorade Player of the Year.

Understandably, Thrun is receiving the lion’s share of publicity since her achievements come in a male-dominated sport.  In addition to her participation on the girls’ wrestling team at Corona, she also competed on the boys’ team in the 113 lb. weight class.  She wrestles at 110 on the girls’ team.

Her dual record last season was 13-0, marking her second consecutive undefeated season on the girls’ team  She was so dominant that her opponents last season managed just a single offensive point against her through all her matches.

Thrun picked up her interest in wrestling before entering high school, encouraged by her older sister, Coree, who was already into the sport during her middle school years.  Sierra had been competing as the only girl on the boys’ team at Corona; the Arizona Interscholastic Association only recently added girls’ wrestling as a varsity sport.

The Corona girls’ team includes just three wrestlers, but is expected to grow in numbers as Sierra continues to break new ground in promoting the sport.

Brown displayed her talents in a more traditional sport for girls.  A 6’1″ forward on the Sahuaro basketball team, she averaged 31.4 points last season to lead the Cougars to a 28-2 record and a berth in the 4A state championship game against Seton Catholic HS, which won its fourth state title in the last five years.  Sahuaro, seeded third in the state tourney, knocked off No. 2 Shadow Mountain HS to earn a shot at top-seeded Seton.

In addition to her 31-point average, Brown contributed 9.7 rebounds and 3.9 steals a game.  Her season total of 932 points set a new Arizona single-season scoring record and brought Brown’s prep career total to 2,094 points.

She has more than a dozen D-I offers, including several from Power 5 programs.

(Photo: MaxPreps)

Notre Dame Prep hires 4th hoops coach in 13-yr rebuilding effort Fri, 19 Jun 2020 19:03:13 +0000 Read More]]> It would be hard to find a high school in Arizona that has experienced a steeper drop-off in its boys’ basketball program than Scottsdale’s Notre Dame Prep.  Over the last 13 seasons, the Saints have gone from state champions to a long string of losing seasons.

The school is hoping that its new head coach will have better success than the last three.

Luke DallaRiva, a former D-I college coach, was hired last month as the fifth boys’ head basketball coach at Notre Dame Prep since the school opened in 2004.

Notre Dame holds a special interest for me.  I remember sitting in the stands at Arena in Glendale, watching Matt Harris lead his 2007 Saints team to the 4A state title.  I was the girls’ coach that year, so Matt’s success meant even more to me since we worked closely together coordinating our programs.

An excited, enthusiastic crowd of supporters, including most of the student body, teachers, and coaches from the other sports, were kept on the edge of their seats as Harris guided his squad through a game that was close throughout and ultimately came down to the final minute of play before securing the 61-56 win over Tucson’s Santa Rita HS.

The Saints won 27 games that season (27-5), setting a school record for single-season victories that still stands today.  But the next year, the euphoria evaporated and hasn’t returned since.  That season, the one after the boys’ state title win, my girls’ team won more games than the boys — and the girls had a sub-.500 season.

As any coach at any level will tell you, it all comes down to talent.  No matter how skilled the coach, he/she needs at least a couple of players with a skill level that can carry a team to a winning season, and maybe even the ultimate trophy.  Harris had that talent — for one season.

Harris was able to rebound from a seven-win season to post a 16-12 record before leaving to take a job as an assistant coach at Arizona Christian University.   Those 16 wins by Harris in 2009 were more than any team has posted since then, with one exception, a 17-11 record in 2013 under Harris’ successor, Chris Clark, who stayed at NDP for five years.

NDP teams have averaged just 10 wins a season since Harris’ departure 11 years ago.

Now, the new guy gets to take a shot at returning the program to the glory of  those days past.  DallaRiva comes to the program with some experience coaching at the college level, the last two years as an assistant at South Dakota.  Before that, he spent four years at Grand Canyon University as Director of Basketball Operations on Dan Majerle’s staff.

He got his start as a graduate assistant at Kent State after beginning in coaching as an assistant at St. Augustine High School in San Diego, Calif.

DellaRiva has his work cut out for himself.  He inherits a team that won just three out of its final 12 games last season.

And a program that has been stuck in a rut for more than a decade.

Cautious but hopeful…UA football begins phased re-entry Wed, 17 Jun 2020 16:31:04 +0000 Read More]]> Looking in from the outside, it’s not readily apparent the effort and cost that it is going to take to resume college sports that have been shut down since mid-March to guard against the spread of COVID-19.

The numbers are staggering.

In his Sunday Notebook column, long-time Arizona sports writer Greg Hansen cited an example of the cost involved that came from University of Texas football coach, Tom Herman.  The Longhorns’ head coach told reporters that “the testing alone for players and staff is upwards of $250,000.”  By the time upkeep, continual sanitization, screening, and other necessities are figured in, the cost, he says, is likely to be “upwards of $1 million.”

And that’s just one school.  Let that sink in.

Hansen was writing about the re-entry program at University of Arizona and how that school is handling it.  He points out that UofA has about 250 people employed in the athletic department, and they will all be effected by the school’s ability to get the sports programs back up and running.  That’s a weighty responsibility.

As Hansen also points out, UofA operates with debt service payments of “close to $7.5 million per year.”  That doesn’t just go away because the revenue stream dries up.

On Monday, the UofA re-entry plan took its first step by allowing voluntary physical activities for the football players in on-campus facilities, following guidelines provided by the NCAA and Pac-12 Conference.

Now, Director of Athletics Dave Heeke and his staff will have about four weeks to determine whether the plan they’ve adopted will accomplish the desired results: confirm that the 2020 football season will be able to start on time.  That would be Aug. 29,  when the Wildcats are scheduled to host Hawaii in the season opener.

The long road to get to this beginning phase has been challenging.  For the last couple of months, the university has been implementing a Campus Re-entry Plan that established a task force that has been surveying ideas gleaned from around the nation and around the world.  These ideas were used to help prepare guidelines and a template for a collection of four teams that worked collaboratively on planning a safe re-entry for all campus operations, including athletics.

The Core Team has been “articulating guiding principals and key public health domains” for re-opening the campuses, while the Implementation Planning Team is organized into seven working groups that collaborate on preparing guidelines.

The Test, Trace and Treat Team has been developing operations plans for key areas such as testing, contact tracing, isolation, and medical care.  And the Return to the University Workplace Team has developed guidance for essential workers currently on campus and those returning before the fall semester.

But why stop there?  Ad hoc groups would also spring up during the process to address special issues and concerns.  They had all the bases covered.

It’s been a huge undertaking, but one that needed to be done to protect the Wildcat community, workers, and players.  The re-entry of the football program should be a good test to see if that can, indeed, be done safely.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)

Collector’s tip: scoop up a Spencer Torkelson rookie card Sun, 14 Jun 2020 19:44:17 +0000 Read More]]> The business of collecting baseball cards isn’t what it once was.  In today’s digital age, the baseball card industry isn’t booming like it was decades ago; it’s more of a niche market.

But the smart collectors are still the ones who are able to figure out which incoming players are going to be the stars of tomorrow.  And then scoop up the rookie cards for those players.

So, here’s a tip:  Watch for the Spencer Torkelson rookie card.

The parallels to one of baseball’s best-ever hitters come to mind when considering the future potential of the Arizona State first baseman.   Mickey Mantle was signed right out of high school in 1951 to a minor league contract with the New York Yankees.  Seldom had there been more praise heaped on a youngster just getting ready to begin his professional baseball career.  Expectations for Torkelson’s success, too, are off the chart.

‘The Mick’ signed for $150 a month and proved to be one of the best investments the Yankees ever made as he went on to be generally regarded as the best switch hitter to play the game and one of the most popular players to don a Yankee uniform.   He retired with 536 home runs, third-most in MLB history at the time.

Today, Mantle’s rookie card is a valuable addition to any collection.  Years from now, it could be a Torkelson card.

Torkelson, an ASU junior, was just selected by the Detroit Tigers as the No. 1 pick in the Major League Baseball draft, giving the Sun Devil coaches something to brag about while on the recruiting trail.

ASU, which has won five national titles, has a tradition-rich program that began in 1907 and boasts a parade of All-Americans, like Torkelson who is a two-time unanimous All-America selection.  The Sun Devils have guided 152 players into the MLB draft, more than any other college in the country, and 22 of those have gone in the first round — second-most in NCAA history.

And with Torkelson’s selection Wednesday, the ASU program now lays claim to four No. 1 picks.  That’s twice as many as any other college program (Vanderbilt has two).

But it’s been a long dry spell.  ASU’s last No. 1 pick was 42 years ago.

It was no surprise this time around that the graduate of Casa Grande High School (Calif.) was the first one off the draft board.  After leaving Casa Grande with a .430 career batting average and rating as the No. 9 third baseman in the country, he was considered a crown jewel in ASU’s 2017 recruiting class that was ranked 11th-best in the nation.

The right-handed hitter made an immediate impact as a freshman, leading the nation with 25 home runs, two more than any other player.  It was that explosive freshman season when the Tigers took notice and started following his college career.

One of the most productive hitters in the history of the college game, Torkelson played two full seasons at ASU, and 17 games last season, before the coronavirus threat ended the season.  Before the shut-down, he collected 54 home runs.

Had Torkelson been able to finish his college career with a full season (there were 39 games left to play), he should have easily bettered the school record of 56 homers that was set by the No. 1 pick in the 1978 draft, Bob Horner.  ASU’s other two top draft picks were Rick Monday in 1965 and Floyd Bannister in 1976.

Playing for the USA Collegiate National Baseball  team the last two summers has also helped prepare the youngster for the tougher competition ahead.  There wasn’t a whole lot more he could accomplish in college.

He owned the pitchers he faced in his final season, leading the nation with 31 walks, 10 more than any other player in the country.  And 15 of those were intentional.  Despite that, he reached base in all 17 games, batted .337, and posted a .780 slugging percentage.  His .729 career slugging percentage is just shy of the program record .731.

Torkelson is the first player in the Pac-12 to be crowned home-run champion for three consecutive seasons.

Like Mantle, who was a first baseman who changed position and skyrocketed to stardom in center field, Torkelson, also a first baseman at ASU, is expected to play at third for the Tigers, the position he played in high school.

“I pride myself as a baseball player; you’re not stuck in any one position,” he said in an ESPN interview following his draft selection.  “I pride myself on winning and getting the job done.

“If it’s third base, I’ll do my best over there and make it happen.”

(Photo: ASU Athletics)

ASU, UA at forefront of schools hiring black fb head coaches Thu, 11 Jun 2020 18:15:17 +0000 Read More]]> A new report on diversity points out that only 7.3 percent of Division I head football coaches in the nation are African-American — despite the fact that 45 percent of the players are African-American.

Arizona can take some pride in knowing that neither of its two Pac-12 football programs were included in that disappointing statistic.

According to a recently-released report from the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, there are 234 head football coaches at D-I programs.   According to 2018-19 statistics, only 17 of those are African-American (13 at FBS programs) — which earned D-I programs an ‘F’ grade from the institute.

The Grand Canyon State contributes two coaches to that meager total — the only state in the Pac-12 that can lay claim to that distinction.  The Pac-12 has five black head coaches.

Arizona State University hired Herm Edwards in December of 2017 and University of Arizona followed a month later when the Wildcats named Kevin Sumlin to become the program’s first-ever African-American head coach.

They join David Shaw at Stanford as the established black coaches, while Colorado just hired Karl Dorrell and Washington added Jimmy Lake in the offseason.

By virtue of their positions at Power 5 programs at major universities, as well as being minority hires, Edwards and Sumlin have been given a platform for addressing issues that effect the African-American community, both locally and nationally.

Edwards, who spent 10 seasons in the NFL as a cornerback and another eight as an NFL head coach, was the first graduate of the league’s Minority Coaching Fellowship.  He is often asked for his thoughts on the continuing controversy over Colin Kaepernick, the African-American quarterback who was released from the 49ers in 2016 when he decided to kneel during the pre-game national anthem to  make a high-profile protest against his considered oppression against minorities.

In Edwards’ opinion, Kaepernick’s message was “hijacked” and twisted in its meaning.  He commended the quarterback, who has not been picked up by any other NFL team, for his effort, and has had discussions with his teams about his viewpoint on Kaepernick’s actions.

“As we know, when you think about social injustice, for some, they’ve never been involved in that,” he explained in a  roundtable discussion during last week’s NFL Total Access.  “But for people of color, that is kind of the norm, and that is something that has to be talked about.”

Sumlin, who was the head coach at Houston for four years, followed by six seasons at Texas A&M before taking the Arizona job, is often singled out for his views at the college level since he was not only the first African-American head coach at Arizona, but also the first black head coach to be hired at the University of Houston and, most recently, at Texas A&M.  He brings a unique perspective to the conversation.

His view on race relations comes from personal experience that spans a lifetime.  He was born in Brewton, Alabama, during a time when there was still deep segregation issues in the south.

Sumlin offered his take on the current nation-wide social unrest following the death of George Floyd, an African American, during Floyd’s arrest by a white Minneapolis police officer, joining his team in a Zoom meeting to discuss the incident before issuing a statement on the tragedy.

“You see a lot of young people who are just frustrated and angry,” he explained.  “Right now, we have an opportunity to help people.  What do you do with that?  It’s up to us (coaches) to help young people know, to give them a path to do something with those feelings and create real, legitimate change, instead of just anger and frustration.”

It’s safe to assume that Sumlin was speaking for Edwards and other coaches when he pointed out how sports comes into play in situations like this.  “There is probably not a better example of what you can do than a football team,” Sumlin pointed out.  “We’re dependent on different races, different cultures, different countries to make a first down.

“There’s no better melting pot than that.”

(Photo: ASU Athletics)

Brave new world…how COVID-19 is changing AZ prep sports Thu, 04 Jun 2020 19:06:22 +0000 Read More]]> We still don’t know when high school sports in Arizona will resume, but when they do, there will be a lot of changes that players and coaches will have to deal with.

It will be a whole new experience, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic that closed the schools in mid-March.

But, at least now there is a blueprint for re-opening activities, thanks to a 10-page list of guidelines issued last week by the Sport Medical Advisory Committee (SMAC) of the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA), the governing body for high school sports in the state.

Just days after its release, the AIA Executive Board called a special meeting to review the recommendations, and quickly announced its support of the suggested procedures included in the document.  As a “living document,” it can be modified as future circumstances dictate.

We’re just getting ready to begin Phase I of the step-by-step re-opening process, as high school athletic directors and coaches continue to await word from their district administrators as to when fall sports teams can take the field to begin season preparations.

Up to this time, training has been limited mostly to Zoom sessions for the team and home workouts for the individuals.  But that can’t substitute for the physical conditioning that is critical to the players’ preparation — or the hands-on instruction from the coaching staff.

When the time arrives, parents and friends won’t be able to watch practices and scrimmages.  Players will have to drive themselves or be dropped off at the site and go directly to the field since locker rooms will be closed.  They will need to arrive in their practice gear, have their own water bottles (and towels) since drinking fountains won’t be operating, and probably have to wear face masks since the SMAC report “strongly recommends” it.

And when they do get the team together again, players can forget about expressing their emotions with hugs, high-fives, or even fist bumps.  The SMAC says that will be a no-no.

Of course, there will be the customary six-foot distancing and temperature checks, and each player will be required to bring his/her own ball and any additional equipment.  No sharing.  And all equipment will need to be disinfected before and after training sessions.

Players must leave immediately after practice and, once home, will need a shower as soon as arriving.  There should be a designated place in the home for the player’s clothes that will need to be washed, so there is no contact with clothing of other family members.

During Phase I, the SMAC recommends limiting group activities to no more than 10 people.  Phase II will increase that to 50 players, but public facilities (including gyms) will be closed for both phases.  Phase III will allow the opening of facilities, with ‘regular’ group size and the resumption of ‘usual activity.’  Social distancing will not be required, but is still recommended in the report.

When Phase IV of this slow, phased approach finally arrives, teams will be able to resume games and tournaments.

Throughout the 10 pages, guidelines have also been included for school administrators and facilities management, as well as the athletes and coaches, to assure that healthy operations and environments are maintained.

AIA Executive Director David Hines took a cautionary approach in a press release accompanying the SMAC recommendations.  “We are not guaranteed to have a fall (sports) season,” he said.  “We are preparing to be ready on time, but it will all depend on how this situation develops as the summer goes on.

“We just ask that schools, coaches, players, and parents consider and utilize the guidelines until we get back to normal.”

Unfortunately, no one knows when ‘normal’ will finally arrive.  There are 11 weeks until the first football games on the 2020 schedule.

Historic: Former ASU hoops star Amukamara to play in 2021 Olympics Mon, 01 Jun 2020 19:41:21 +0000 Read More]]> No one can say that Promise Amukamara hasn’t lived up to her name.

She’s well into a lengthy and successful sports career, but shows promise of even greater achievements to come.

The former basketball star at Apollo High School and Arizona State University will soon become the first ASU women’s basketball player to take part in the Olympics.  And that follows a successful professional career playing overseas.

Amukamara comes from a sports family that has made significant contributions to organized sports in Arizona.  It began with her older brother, Prince, who was one of the best running backs to attend Apollo HS in Glendale, selected as the Arizona Republic Big Schools Player of the Year in 2006.  .

He went on to play at Nebraska, where he was converted to cornerback and won a Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year award, and then went 19th overall in the 2011 NFL draft.  His NFL career spanned 10 years.

But he was just the beginning of a parade of athletes turned out by Romanus and Christy Amukamara, who left New Jersey in the mid-90s to raise their family in Arizona.

Promise, who was also a star track athlete at Apollo, was one of just five daughters, all with unique names that make their sports exploits all the more memorable.  The list: Princess, Promise, Peace, Precious, and Passionate.

It should be pointed out that the children come from royal bloodlines in Nigeria, where their grandfather was the king of Awo-Omamma, an oil-rich town in the Imo State.   Romanus emigrated to America in search of an education.  And the names he and  Christy gave to their children were a reflection of that African culture.

Peace, a 5’7″ guard from Millennium High School, followed her sister to ASU after putting in a couple of seasons at Mesa Community College.  In 2014, she helped lead MCC to a NJCAA DII national title -the school’s first – in her sophomore year by scoring a team-high 28 points in the title game.

Rather than follow her older sisters to ASU, Passionate decided to blaze her own trail at Northern Arizona University following her graduation from Millennium (three-time Defensive Player of the Year), and played two seasons for the Lumberjacks before transferring to Texas A&M, where she stayed for one season.  She finished her playing career in 2019 at Florida College.

Precious, the oldest athlete among the girls, was the sister that found more interest in running than dribbling.  She enrolled at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, where she competed in the sprints for the GCU track team, wrapping up her college career in 2012.

But, back to Promise…

The 5’9″ athlete earned her reputation at ASU as one of the program’s best defenders, twice named to the All-Pac-12 defensive team.  She left the program in sixth place on the school’s all-time steals list (209) and third in career steals  in NCAA Tournament games (10).

But there was more to Promise’s game.  She came to ASU as a scorer out of high school, averaging 22 points a game as a senior at Apollo.  She played in all 131 games at ASU from 2012 to 2015, scoring in double figures 21 times in her final season and earned a couple of Pac-12 Player of the Week awards.  Her play that year was a major factor in the Sun Devils being able to advance to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament.

Promise was drafted by the Phoenix Mercury with their final pick in the 2015 draft, but got waived before she could contribute to the program.  Instead, she took her talents overseas, where she has played for teams in Spain, Germany, Romania, and France.

She has also been playing for the Nigerian national team and will represent Nigeria in the Tokyo Olympics, which is now scheduled for summer 2021.  But she won’t be the first from the family to participate in the Olympics.  Her mother, Christy, was a sprinter on the Nigerian track team in the 1984 Olympics.

But Promise doesn’t see her basketball career ending there.  She will be 27 years old later this month and still holds out hope of getting another shot at the WNBA.

It would be nice to see her in a Phoenix Mercury uniform.  There are still plenty of people in the Valley who would like to revisit those years when she was one of the best high school and college ballers to come out of this state.

(Photo: State Press)

Leo Daschbach’s sub-4 mile caps legendary prep career Fri, 29 May 2020 19:42:31 +0000 Read More]]> Leo Daschbach couldn’t have scripted a better senior season to close out one of the most honored high school cross country careers in Arizona history.

And he used Memorial Day weekend to add an exclamation mark to his remarkable legacy.

The Gilbert Highland High School graduate got off to a strong start to the 2019 cross country season by winning the Nike Desert Twilight cross country invitational, not only winning the race that draws runners from all across the nation, but setting a new  event record.  His time of 14:14.26 over the 5K course at the Grande World Sports Complex in Casa Grande was also good enough to place second nationally at that distance.

Had a recruiting trip to Colorado the previous week not kept him from competing in the Doug Conley Invitational, the other major event to open the prep season, Daschbach would have been favored to win that event as well.  Instead, it gave his Highland teammate, Caden Resendez, the opportunity to bring home the Conley title for the school’s trophy case.

Daschbach’s final race of the cross country season, in the competition at state, propelled Highland to a landmark team victory as the Hawks broke a five-year championship reign by the Desert Vista HS boys’ teams.

Still recovering from a hamstring injury that kept him out of the sectional meet, Daschbach blew away the field in the state final, clocking a winning time of 15:27, which was just 24 second off the course record.  It was just the second boys’ state title for Highland, the first coming eight years ago.

Led by Daschbach, who had also won an individual title as a sophomore, the Hawks posted a team total of 39 points, well ahead of Desert Vista, which finished runner-up with 65 points.

The icing on the cake came last Saturday in El Dorado Hills, Calif.  That was where Daschbach wrapped up his storied prep career by winning the Quarantine Clasico at Oak Ridge High School — and reaching the Promised Land  of all distance runners.  He broke the four-minute mark with a time of 3:59.54.

That earned the youngster entry to a very exclusive club.  Only 11 high school distance runners have cracked the 4-minute ceiling, and only four of those accomplished the feat in a high school-only event.

Daschbach now will head to Seattle where he will begin his college career at the University of Washington as one of the most elite high school distance runners in the country.

And arguably the best miler in the history of Arizona track.

(Photo: P. Corsinita/CA MileSplit)

NAU assistant coach Ojanen has key role in hoops turnaround Wed, 27 May 2020 20:04:40 +0000 Read More]]> The most important recruit Shane Burcor added to the Northern Arizona University men’s basketball program when he took it over last year might not have been a player.  A good argument could be made that that distinction should belong to Tyler Ojanen, an assistant coach.

Ojanen (pictured above) has been included on the list of the nation’s 50 Impactful Low-Major Assistant Coaches.  Only those who have not been a head coach are considered for the list, which was prepared by Silver Waves Media (SWM).

But, as anyone can tell you, without a staff of top assistants, head coaches don’t last long.  The SWM list serves to shine a spotlight on their value.

Burcor, who just completed his first season running the program, is quick to point out that, “Coach Ojanen is a huge part of our success.”  Burcor calls the one-time Arizona high school coach a “grinder” and says Ojanen “has a great eye for identifying winners who will help NAU Basketball contend for championships in the Big Sky Conference.”

Burcor stepped up from his assistant-coach role to take over the team for last season on an interim basis.  When his predecessor, Jack Murphy, announced he was leaving Flagstaff to return to the University of Arizona program as its associate head coach, Burcor was named interim head coach on June 2 of last summer.

It took him just two weeks to convince Ojanen to leave his position as assistant athletic director for men’s basketball at St. Mary’s College (Calif.) to join him at NAU.

Together, they led the Lumberjacks to a 16-14 overall record and a 10-10 finish in the Big Sky Conference.  The 16 wins were more than the combined total from the previous two seasons.

Burcor and Ojanen both have a background in local sports.  Ojanen played two years at Phoenix College and was a JV coach at Cortez High School in Phoenix, while Burcor was a head coach at Mesa High School, where he led the Jackrabbits to the 6-A state title in 2016.

They will be joined on the bench by Gaellan Bewernick, a two-year team captain when he played for NAU, who was elevated prior to the 2019-20 season from his role as graduate assistant to a full-time assistant.

Burcor’s performance during his season auditioning for the head-coaching role was good enough to earn the title.  The ‘interim’ tag was dropped in late March, and Burcor and his trusted sidekick began looking ahead to the 2020-21 season.

The good news: They will have their top scorer, junior guard Cameron Shelton, back in the fold.  His 14.8 points per game helped the ‘Jacks to a scoring average of 71 points a game last season.

The bad news:  Shelton is the only one out of the top five scorers returning.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)

Hoops curse returns: Coronado girls into 2nd long losing streak Mon, 25 May 2020 17:25:18 +0000 Read More]]> The clouds had begun to lift and a little sunshine was poking through the gloom that has hovered over the Coronado High School girls’ basketball team for way too many years.

Then, suddenly, the skies went dark again.   And the Dons are back to being the Dons.

The Scottsdale school went through the 2019-20 season without a single win; their average losing margin per game was 27 points.

And now they’re looking again for a new coach, which will make it six coaching changes over the last seven seasons.  It’s difficult to keep  a good coach at a program that’s been down for so long.  The start of Coronado’s woes stretches back a couple of decades.

The Coronado girls’ basketball teams were a dominant force in the 1990’s when they won three state championships.  But the program went downhill following the departure of Coach Jim Ferrando, who had built the Dons into a powerhouse program.

Rick Sharp ran the program during the first decade of the 2000s, but his nine wins during the 2006-07 season marked his best effort.   Sharp had to deal with the encroachment of new high schools that were springing up in the area, depleting the talent pool that was available to more established programs like Coronado.  Add to that a diminishing lack of interest in a losing program.

And the problem has only gotten worse over the years since he left in 2012 after posting a 2-21 record.

Coronado is now riding a 29-game losing streak that stretches back to Dec. 13, 2018, when they won their last game in a 45-32 victory over Bourgade Catholic.  But this latest dry spell pales by comparison to the 81-game losing streak they rode from 2011-2015.  Yep, 81 games.

A tournament win over Apache Junction HS  in the third game of the 2015-16 season brought that  drought to an end, and that team went on to post 11 wins — a major accomplishment since the two previous seasons didn’t include a single win.

The head coach that year, Isaac Jackson, couldn’t keep up the momentum as his 2016-17 squad finished with just five wins, and the Dons were back to square one.   The next year the program was turned over to Jamie Fellows, who led the team to a 13-9 record and won the Black Canyon Region title, which qualified the team for the 4A state tournament — a feat that was given near-miracle status.

It looked like the Dons were finally making some progress.  But Fellows left after one season.

Dexter Brown took over for the 2018-19 season and managed just four wins.  Last year, it was Samantha Weeman‘s turn to try to right the listing ship.   She had to work with a roster that included just nine players, not even enough to run a practice scrimmage.  And only one of those players was over 5’7″.  The result was another winless record.

And then Weeman took her cue from those before her and exited stage left.

Once again, the search is on for a new coach at Coronado.  Someone who wants a real challenge.

Winkworth’s job rebuilding ASU soccer suffers major setback Thu, 21 May 2020 16:40:14 +0000 Read More]]> This is going to be a pivotal season for Graham Winkworth.  But the Arizona State women’s soccer coach doesn’t know if he’s even going to have time to prepare for it.

Winkworth’s Pac-12 program is coming off a very disappointing season, one that has basically sidetracked his efforts to breathe new life into a moribund program.  The Sun Devils finished the 2019 season with an overall record of 6-11-3.

But the worst part of the losing record was the team’s performance against Pac-12 teams.  The Sun Devils spent the entire conference schedule unsuccessfully hunting for a single win, eventually ending up 0-9-2.

Winkworth has just a dozen weeks to get ready for the first game on the 2020 schedule in late August, but he has no idea when the NCAA will allow teams to begin practicing again, following the mid-March shutdown that resulted from the COVID 19 threat.

This will be the fourth season since the native of New England was hired in December of 2016 to rebuild a sagging program that had posted two losing seasons over the final three years of Kevin Boyd‘s tenure as head coach.

Boyd led the program for 10 years, but took his teams to just four NCAA Tournament appearances.

Winkworth’s six wins last season mirrored the six wins Boyd managed to collect in his last season.  That’s not what ASU administrators were expecting when they hired Winkworth away from University of South Alabama.

Actually, his teams over his three years at ASU have averaged just seven wins a season, although they did appear to be on the upswing in 2018 when the Devils went 10-7-1.  That optimism quickly faded, however, as the 2019 schedule unfolded.

The Devils got off to a hot start that began with a season-opening 4-1 rout of Cal State Fullerton and back-to-back wins with identical 7-1 scores.  That pair of games with seven goals  each matched a program high for goals in a single game, and marked the first time since 2012 that an ASU team posted seven goals.

They went on to start the season with five straight wins, only the second time that has happened in program history.  There were high hopes and high-fives all around.

But the celebration ended there as the Devils suffered back-to-back losses and were able to collect just one more win the rest of the way, ending the season with six straight losses.

Winkworth’s success at rebuilding the South Alabama program certainly gave him the inside track for the ASU job.  He took over a Jaguar program that had posted two losing seasons in the last three years (sound familiar?) and one season above .500 in the previous five.  He took that program to three straight regular-season conference titles, four conference tournament titles, and advanced to the NCAA Tourney each of his four years directing the program.

And that’s what the ASU bosses were expecting him to do in Tempe.

Success in recruiting in the international marketplace may be the panacea Winkworth will need to cure his ills.  Four of those joining the program for 2020 are international players: Vildan Kardesler (Germany), Tahlia Herman-Watt (New Zealand), Jazmine Wilkinson (Canada), and Pia Bozic (Slovenia).

Kardesler, who Winkworth tried to recruit at South Alabama but lost to University of Pittsburgh, and Herman-Watt are outside backs; Wilkinson will add depth at center midfield; and Pozic is a goalie who will back up last year’s freshman starter, Giulia Cascapera.

ASU will also have three of its top four scorers returning from a 2019 team that ranked No. 95 in the nation in scoring:  Nicole Douglas, who led the team in scoring with 20 points, will be joined by Eva Van Deursen (12 pts.) and Dai Williams (12 pts.)

So Winkworth might have the horses he needs to get back on track next season.  He just needs the NCAA to tell him when he can let them out of the stable and back onto the field.

A growing talent drain in AZ high school basketball…Part II Tue, 19 May 2020 20:40:51 +0000 Read More]]> (This is a continuation of yesterday’s Part I post…)

When Hillcrest Prep debuted its national basketball program during the 2015-16 season, it was the only boys’ program of its kind in Arizona.  Now there are enough similar programs around the state to cobble together their own little tournament.

Commonly referred to as a “basketball factory,”  organizers say that a program like the one at Hillcrest is created to further develop those high school basketball players with exceptional talent and provide them a better opportunity for exposure to college recruiters by playing similar programs on a national tour.

The most glaring problem with this approach, as we outlined in Part I of this article, is the talent drain it causes among those ‘traditional’ high school programs, the schools that are members of the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA), which enables them to play a normal in-state schedule.  National programs like Hillcrest aren’t allowed AIA membership.

At first, there was little thought given to the talent drain that would occur as these basketball academies began to open.  But since Hillcrest opened five years ago, four more have been added, resulting in a slow exodus of high school coaches that these academies need to run their national programs.

The latest is Eduprize, a Gilbert charter school that will field a national team and a varsity team this coming season, with the varsity team participating in the Canyon Athletic Association.  Eduprize follows the establishment of similar programs at Hillcrest, Dream City, AZ Compass Prep, Bella Vista, and PHH Prep.

And now the players are beginning to follow their coaches to the national teams in increasing numbers.  That transfer activity has begun reaching new heights in just the last couple of weeks, as more than a dozen players have reportedly switched to the academies.

AZ Compass just announced that the guard tandem of Kam’Ren Rhodes and Kamryn Doty will be transferring from Tucson’s Sabino High School to join their head coach, Jamaal Rhodes, who led Sabino to last year’s 3A state title and will now be taking over the AZ Compass girls’ team.  Rhodes was Sabino’s top rebounder and Doty was second-highest scorer.

A couple of top Chandler teams also have reportedly lost key players to AZ Compass.  LeeLee Willis is said to be transferring from Seton Catholic, the reigning 4A state champion, where the sophomore was that team’s No. 2 scorer and top rebounder.  Junior Samara Curry is expected to leave the Hamilton High team that was state runner-up last season; she was the team’s top rebounder.

The drain on the boys’ game has been even more significant.  According to an article just days ago in The Arizona Republic, PHH Prep director John Ortega announced the addition of 10 players, scattered among eight different high schools.

Mountain Pointe High School and Desert Vista High School, both Ahwatukee-area schools, are each losing two players: Micah Pierce and Qbon Sullivan from the Pointe and Andrew King and Will Coates from DV.   Sullivan is the only senior-to-be out of the group, the rest will be juniors.

Rounding out the group are seniors Riley Fornerette (Dysart HS) and J.T. Elder (Cienega HS), and juniors Logan Pohl (Paradise Honors HS), Sidney Wooten (Sunnyslope HS), Dominic Capriotti (Skyline HS), and Kemp Van Es (Arcadia HS).  PHH Prep got a ‘two-fer’ with Capriotti since his father, James Capriotti, is also joining the program as a coach after five years as the Skyline head coach.

The AIA is definitely taking notice of all the movement, and the subsequent resentment from its member schools.  “There’s always going to be some friction because, traditionally, in the sports of football, basketball, volleyball, baseball, and softball, kids typically play for their high school team,” said AIA Executive Director David Hines in a recent media interview.

“The rub really is coming more (because) they’re kicking them out of their school setting.  So that’s a concern for schools and high school coaches.”

Some of the national teams affiliate with academic programs, usually charter schools, while players at the others continue taking classes at their regular high schools and travel to team practices.

As the list of some of the top prep stars in Arizona leaving AIA programs continues to grow, it’s beginning to look like our high schools are turning into feeder programs for national academies.

And that’s a very disturbing trend.


Traditional HS hoops programs being hurt by ‘talent drain’ Mon, 18 May 2020 15:56:10 +0000 Read More]]> (This is Part I of a two-part article)

We’ve all been watching the talent drain that has been taking its toll on college basketball, as an increasing number of the sport’s best players continue to leave after one season to pursue a professional basketball career.

But the problem is no longer confined just to the college game.  High schools right here in Arizona are beginning to experience a similar threat to their ability to compete.

This talent drain among the prep programs is a direct result of the proliferation of what are commonly referred to as “basketball factories,” those school-affiliated programs that are established for the sole purpose of giving high school students the opportunity to join “elite” teams that compete against other similar specialized programs around the country.

How do these basketball academies fill their rosters?  By skimming the cream of the talent off the teams that play a regular high school season as members of the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA), the state’s official governing body for high school sports.

Their pitch to the kids: play for a national prep program and have a greater opportunity to improve their game by playing better competition than traditional high school sports offers, while getting greater exposure to college scouts who follow the national schedules — and, hopefully, scholarship offers will follow.

However, the result is a watered-down game experience for high school sports fans.  Sure, the majority of those attending high school basketball games, in addition to the students, are parents or other family members related to the players.  But they’re also showing up for a chance to watch some really good basketball – which means they want to see the best players the state has to offer.

But many of those top players have dropped out of the regular prep  programs, opting instead to play for a national team.

So much for school pride, student bonding, and pep rallies.

The idea behind these basketball ‘academies’ is to give the really talented players a better chance of getting recruited to a top college program.  College scouts follow the players as they move around the country, knowing they won’t be wasting their time since a lot of talent is assembled in a single game.

But that also means there will be fewer of those scouts checking out the regular high school season.  Normally, they would show up to watch a particular star player and would, at the same time, get a look at some of the kids that otherwise would be overlooked.  So who gets shortchanged when those college recruiters stop showing up?

The situation really started to gain some attention three years ago when Marvin Bagley III, the No. 1 prospect in his recruiting class, left Corona del Sol High School after his sophomore year to play at newly-founded Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix, where he stayed for just one season before moving to California.  He went on to play a season at Duke and is now playing in the NBA.

But that was just the tip of the iceberg.  Since Bagley left behind his high school teammates to concentrate on elevating his game, others have followed suit.

Now it seems that the stream of talent flowing from the AIA schools to the ‘factories’ has the earmarks of turning into a raging river.  And it’s becoming a concern of both the AIA and the coaches at its member schools across the state.

(Tomorrow: Part II)

UA’s Rubio marks 29th year with #7 volleyball recruiting class Wed, 13 May 2020 18:01:18 +0000 Read More]]> College recruiting is hard work… long hours, lots of travel, and a humbling dose of rejection.  It can become a major contributing factor to the burnout that some head coaches experience as their careers stretch out over many years.

But don’t include Dave Rubio in that scenario.  The head coach for the University of Arizona women’s volleyball program is going into his 29th season running the Wildcat program, and 33rd in his collegiate coaching career — but shows no signs of slowing down on the recruiting trail.

Case in point:  His 2020 recruiting class is ranked No. 7 in the nation.  No burnout here.

Nor is he having any trouble continuing to string together successful seasons.  His teams have reached the postseason in eight of the last 11 seasons.

It hasn’t been an easy job building the UofA program into a national contender, but that’s just what he’s done.  He took over a program that was winless in conference play and developed teams that have made 20 NCAA Tournament appearances, advancing to the Sweet 16 eight times, four trips to the Elite Eight, and a Final Four appearance.

Rubio will go into the 2020 season with a squad that is the top-rated recruiting class in the Pac-12 Conference, the first time that’s happened since 2002.  Arizona’s recruiting class is the only one in the country to have four players listed on Prep Volleyball’s Top 100 Senior Aces: Jaelyn Hodge, Lauren Ware, Emery Herman, and China Crouch. 

Hodge, who is a local recruit from Basha High School, was named the 2019 Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year after leading Basha to the 6A state championship   She  is ranked No. 20 in the country by Prep Volleyball, which makes her the highest-rated Arizona recruit since Whitney Dosty came into the program 14 years ago  with a No. 4 ranking.

Ware and Crouch will give the Cats some enviable height in the middle.  Ware, the No. 50 recruit in the nation, is a 6’5″ middle blocker.  Crouch, the No. 73 recruit, is 6’6″ and can play both middle and on the pins.

(Coach Barnes has already scooped up Ware, a two-sport athlete, for her UA basketball team.)

The Arizona recruiters also picked up a high school All-American, Emery Herman from Texas, to replace graduated setter, Julia Patterson, who was the team’s starting setter for the last three seasons and one of the top-ranked in the Pac-12.

Rubio even added a little international flavor to the roster, signing Sofia Maldonado from Guadalajara, Mexico.    The 17-year-old outside hitter played on the U18 and U20 Mexican National teams and would undoubtedly have been ranked as one of the top recruits in the country if she had been playing in the USA.

The man who has been at the helm of the Wildcat program for almost three decades is 60 years old, but doesn’t look it.  Maybe recruiting agrees with him.  Or maybe he’s just driven by the success good recruiting brings.

If that’s the case, Arizona should continue to be a national contender for years to come.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)

Loree Payne has NAU women poised for run at Big Sky hoops title Mon, 11 May 2020 19:40:37 +0000 Read More]]> Loree Payne may have found the formula that will enable the Northern Arizona University women’s basketball program to finally overcome its history of under-achieving mediocrity.

The formula?  Slow and steady improvement, one season at a time.

The NAU head  coach was hired away from the University of Puget Sound, a small D-III program in Washington state, in April in 2017.  She spent seven years at Puget Sound and led that program to its first-ever regular-season Northwest Conference championship, earning conference Coach of the Year honors twice.

Now she’s trying to work her magic at a school that is a daunting step up from D-III play.

And this coming season may be the best opportunity she will ever have to climb the conference ladder and have a legitimate shot at a Big Sky title.   She just filled the final spot on the 2020-21 roster a week ago, and the talent and depth she will be taking into next season is cause for optimism.

The program has steadily progressed from an 11th-place conference finish in her first year, to eighth the second season, and a fourth-place finish last season.   She should have the horses now to keep on climbing.

It’s been a slow progression, but each year has seen improvement.  Payne posted seven wins in her first season, 13 wins the next year, and the 16-15 overall record this past season marks the first winning season for the NAU program in more than a decade, while the 12 conference victories (12-8) also reached a new plateau.  A 9-9 conference record during the 2014-15 season is the closest those teams during that decade came to a winning record.

That’s how bad things have been for the floundering Lumberjack program.

But the program’s struggles to earn some kind of legitimacy go back much further.  There have been 10 head coaches prior to Payne over a span of 40 years and only two of them have posted at least one 20-win season.  In fact, there have been just three 20-win marks during the entire 40 seasons.

Meg Sanders did it during the 1997-98 season and Laurie Kelly won 22 in 2005-06 and 20 the next year.  But Kelly flamed out, unable to win more than 11 games in any one season for the final four years of her nine-year run.

The former NAU coach with the highest profile is Charli Turner Thorne, who spent three seasons as the Jacks’ head coach and parlayed that into a job as the Arizona State head coach, where she’s been for the past 24 seasons.  But even Charli couldn’t notch 20 wins in that Flagstaff outpost, where she finished with a .500 career (40-40) record; 14 wins was her best single-season mark.

Here’s why Payne has a chance to become the next coach to win 20 games with the Lumberjacks, and earn a crack at the Big Sky title at the same time…

The ‘Jacks will return the top six scorers from last season, including senior forward Khiarica Rasheed, who led the Big Sky in scoring with 18.9 points per game.  There will be an extraordinary sense of chemistry and continuity on the floor since Payne started the same five players for every game of the 2019-20 season.

And, to give next season’s squad some depth and additional experience, Payne has added a couple of transfers who were teammates for their one season at the University of Nevada.   In addition to getting experience at the D-I level with the Wolfpack, both were standout junior college players.

JJ Nakai, a 5’7″ guard who is actually a native of Flagstaff and was added in mid April, set school records at Pima Community College with 1,397 points and 442 assists and also finished her sophomore year ranked third nationally in scoring (24.1 pts.) and assists.

Miki’ala Maio played at Salt Lake Community College in Nevada, where the 5’9″ guard led the team to back-to-back region championships and was named a Region 18 MVP.  She filled the final roster slot, signing on a week ago.

So Payne has the tools to make a big splash next season.  But she needs to make the most of it because the window of opportunity is closing.

Except for forward Nina Radford, who will be a junior next year, all of the returning starters will be seniors playing their final season at NAU.  And both of the transfers have just one more season of eligibility.

So it’s safe to assume that there will be a sense of urgency about the 2020-21 season.

But it will be tempered with a large dose of optimism.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)