STATE CHAMPIONSHIP INFORMATION: The 2022 4A girls state championship game will tip off on Monday at 6 p.m. at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in downtown Phoenix. Parking costs $10 per car. Information for advanced ticket purchases can be found by clicking here.
PHOENIX — After falling short in last year’s state championship game, the No. 2 Salpointe Catholic Lancers are set to return to the Big Dance once again.
They’ll be seeking to avenge last year’s gut-wrenching loss, checking off the second-to-last box on their season-long journey on Wednesday when the Lancers eliminated last year’s champions, Seton Catholic, in the semifinals at Lancer Gym.
With some parity to the girls basketball championship scene, the Lancers will face off against the No. 5 Flagstaff Eagles on Monday in Phoenix at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum (6 p.m. tip) as they attempt to check off the final box on their list of goals.
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Both teams played a challenging slate during the season, with a lot of experience gained from tournament play around the holidays. While those games don’t count towards the team’s overall record for state, they certainly helped them fight their way through the playoff brackets to get here. Flagstaff finished the season with a record of 16-2, while Salpointe was undefeated with a perfect record of 17-0.
Those are the records observed by the Arizona Interscholastic Association, which does not factor in-season tournament games in its power ratings. Salpointe is 23-4 overall and Flagstaff is 29-2.
For the Lancers, returning to state has been the driving force behind their high-powered offense and strong defense to get to this point. Meanwhile for the Eagles, they’ve had to consistently fight and overcome a number of odds, such as more long road trips for away games to get back to this point for the first time in nearly 30 years.
While the Lancers have made it to the state championship games previously in 2003 and 2021, they’ve yet to bring home a golden ball for girls hoops. For the Lancers, this is one of their most talented teams to date, with a mix of experience ranging from freshmen to seniors. Led by the top-ranked point guard in the 2022 class, Kylee Callahan, the Lancers will look to leave last year’s heartache behind with a win.
The Eagles have made it to the state championships one other time in the last 30 years, back in 1992, despite making it to the semifinals a number of times only to fall short.
A talented roster of athletes is led by multi-sport all-star Gracelyn Nez. This is her chance to add to her already phenomenal list of accomplishments while bringing a new sense of pride to her community.
When the two teams tip off in Phoenix on Monday, it will be the first meeting between the programs in more than a decade. It certainly sets the stage for excitement stemming from the unknown, as the players haven’t seen each other yet and the coaches are yet to go against each other to see who can come up with the best strategies.
What to expect
The Lancers have had quite a year, steamrolling a number of opponents throughout the year to get to the playoffs.
Challenging themselves in the Nike Tournament of Champions this year, three of the Lancers’ four losses on the year came to out of state teams at the event, with the other coming at a tournament in California. The losses, however, taught the Lancers more than some of the wins, as they adjusted their style of play to become more competitive on the big stage.
While all eyes will be on Callahan, the Lancers have a number of weapons on their roster who all play their own critical role in helping get the win.
Some of the other seniors who will be expected to step up will be Tessa Hastings and Annika Arvayo. Hastings may not be the leading scorer for the Lancers, but she’s one of the most fearless aggressors in pursuit of forcing turnovers and disrupting an offense. Arvayo, who plays in the post, has done a great job of creating second-chance opportunities for the Lancers this year, and her ability to crash the boards on Monday will be key.
Salpointe’s senior class may be loaded, but they’ve got a solid foundation of freshmen to set the foundation for the future.
“It’s an incredible freshman group,” coach Joseph Luevano said. “All of them are talented young women who, again, are just scratching the surface of what they can do.”
Hannah Williams was clutch for the Lancers in the semifinals against perennial powerhouse Seton Catholic, helping to pick up the win to send Salpointe back to state. She’s got company, too, with Taliyah Henderson also stepping up big-time all throughout the season to help Salpointe reach this point.
“Hannah’s always been that person for us,” Luevano said. “She does the little things for us that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet.”
The Lancers are known to play strong defense, pressing from the very beginning and making opponents uncomfortable right out of the gate. They also are great at using their size in the post, making it difficult for opponents to get shots off or box out for rebounds. Expect the Lancers to try to catch Flagstaff offguard to jump out to an early lead.
Flagstaff has been so close to reaching the championship multiple times in recent years, making it to the playoffs for the last 10 consecutive years.
In that time, the Eagles have made three semifinal appearances but have struggled to finally get over the hump until this year.
Despite a slight weather-related setback for the semifinals, the Eagles were finally able to get the job done, defeating Shadow Mountain to make it to the finals.
Flagstaff also played in a number of out-of-state tournaments this year, where the Eagles also gained valuable knowledge to bring with them into this game.
Nez has been one of Flagstaff’s top athletes for the last four years, where she will be looking to cement her legacy into the community by bringing home a championship. Alongside her in the quest is junior Sage Begay, who’s solid contributions in every game show, especially in the stat books.
Flagstaff’s roster is not quite as talented on paper when compared side-by-side with the Lancers, but they’ve shown on multiple occasions they’re not a team to be slept on. The Eagles have a number of girls who can come in off the bench to score on any given night, so even if the Eagles find themselves in foul trouble, they’ll still likely be able to adjust.
The Eagles like to play a fast-pace style of offense, with a lot of ball movement to set up shots. They frequently will use long passes to get the ball down the court or spread the floor and score, but it will be interesting to see if they take a different approach against the Lancers’ defense, which will certainly be looking to force deflections and steals.
Brittany Bowyer is a freelance journalist who started her career as an intern for a small sports website back in 2015. Since then, she’s obtained her master’s degree in Sports Journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU and is in her fourth year of covering various levels of sports across a broad range of platforms in Arizona. You can follow her on twitter @bbowyer07