The Salpointe Catholic Lady Lancers will have the opportunity to solidify themselves as one of the elite basketball programs in the state this season with the addition of the new Open Division.
After winning the program’s first-ever state championship last season by dominating Flagstaff, the girls are looking to be put to more of a test on the court, even if it means it doesn’t result in a championship.
“We’re not really concerning ourselves with the Open Division,” coach Joseph Luevano said. “We’re going to play at a high level. We’re going to compete at a high level. We’ll let the chips land where they fall.”
Salpointe is currently an early favorite by many to make it to the Open Division Final Four, where it woud certainly be put to the test. But before the Lancers can even focus on that, they’ve first got to get through a grueling schedule.
“I tell the kids all the time, ‘I’m not chasing wins. I’m not worried about my record. I’m not worried about what my coaching record ends up being. I’m worried about whether we’re prepared to compete at the highest level,’” Luevano said.
Right out of the gate, the Lancers hit the road to travel to San Diego to play in the La Jolla Country Day tournament, where they’re going to open against Phoenix’s top-ranked Desert Vista.
Before starting region play, the Lancers will take on 6A Tucson High on Dec. 5 at home before battling the 5A reigning champ Millennium at Hoophall West on Dec. 7 at Chaparral. They’ll follow it up with another road game that week on Dec. 8 at the 6A Mesa Jackrabbits, which will prove to be another big test.
The Lancers will also participate in the Nike Tournament of Champions again this year in Mesa at Legacy Sports Complex. The event brings in some of the highest level of competition from across the country, and it’s where Luevano feels his team learned the most last year about themselves.
“We played in two incredibly tough tournaments last season we went 3-4 in,” Luevano said. “Those four losses changed us. After that last loss in San Diego, we never lost again, and the only game that was close to anything like it was the Seton Catholic game in the semifinal. It just made us tougher and different.”
With the addition of Flowing Wells to the 4A Kino region, the competition just got a whole lot tougher.
The Lady Caballeros made it to the 5A championships back-to-back years and return a loaded roster that the Lancers don’t have any experience playing. Sahuaro, Canyon del Oro or Pueblo are also part of the 4A Kino.
“I personally think we are in the toughest division in 4A,” Luevano said. “Sahuaro just got a lot better and they’re going to be strong. Pueblo brought in some new talent and they’re going to be very, very good, too. I think all four of these programs have the potential to be very high ranked in 4A when it’s all said and done and we’re just gonna be beating the heck out of each other.”
Salpointe lost two key players with last year’s senior class, but Luevano said he’s anticipating big things this year from senior Bria Medina. Medina has been a solid contributor on both sides of the ball since her freshman season, and last year she was one of the many selfless contributors who helped bring home the title.
“In a lot of ways, she’s like the engine of what we want to do,” Luevano said. “She’s kind of like our moodsetter. If she’s rolling, we’re rolling. Not to put all this pressure on her and say if she’s struggling, we’re struggling, but things are easier when she’s playing and executing at a high level.”
Luevano also said he believes she’s another player who’s been overlooked in Arizona, and feels she is going to have an absolutely explosive senior season.
“She’s always been gifted athletically and now everything is starting to click even more,” Luevano said. “I think she’s been underrated and underappreciated by a lot of people because athletically, she’s just different. She’s special.”
Medina is one of six players returning. The lone upperclassman returning with her is senior Mia Cazares.
Luevano is expecting the entire sophomore class to really step up to the plate this year. Led by touted prospect Taliyah Henderson, it’s a loaded group with the capability to really catch people by surprise.
“The funny thing is, if you were to ask [Henderson] how her freshman year went, other than winning the State Championship, she would have said she played terrible,” Luevano said. “It’s one of the things I love about her is that she’s never satisfied. She is the hardest worker. I can’t kick her out of the gym.”
Luevano says Henderson has improved her long-range shooting dramatically and her confidence in her own shot is there. He also says she’s become more dominant at the rim and she’s put a ton of work in the weight room to grow bigger and stronger.
Two other sophomores returning this year are Hannah Williams and Allison Even.
“Hannah Williams has also put in an insane amount of work in the gym,” Luevano said. “I don’t recall her missing a single offseason workout, which we offer a lot, so the fact that she didn’t miss any shows a lot about her character.”
Williams has taken on more of a leadership role this season, and Luevano says he hopes to see her expand and put her newfound aggression to work on the court. He noted the amount of positivity she brings with her to practice daily, and how she’s one of the most coachable kids to work with. Knowing her talent and the amount of time they still have to keep working together, Luevano is excited to watch her continue to mature as a player.
Luevano also noted that Even has many of the same attributes as Williams, and anticipates this will be a breakout year for her. She has the ability to handle the ball on the court and makes good decisions.
“I think she’s a sleeper,” Luevano said about Even. “She also has a high IQ in terms of what we’re trying to execute and what we’re trying to do.”
Whenever Even entered the game last year, there was never a dropoff for the Lancers, and Luevano noted how crucial she was in last year’s semifinal game.
“We got in foul trouble,” Luevano said. “She’s a big reason we were fine against Seton Catholic because when we got in foul trouble, she played four or five minutes in the second quarter and carried us through because there was no dropoff.”
Jordan Watts is another player returning from last year’s squad, and Luevano says together, the six of them have really come together to set the expectations for this year’s team. It was initially supposed to be seven, but sophomore Jolee Nelson tore her ACL recently and will miss the entire year.
The rest of the squad is a new, young group who Luevano said he challenged a lot to help prepare for this season. It includes three freshmen, who he says are progressing quickly. Luevano said in the scrimmage, the three of them did some impressive things he wasn’t necessarily expecting from them.
When Salpointe takes the floor this year, things are going to look like a slightly different variation of last year’s team while still encompassing the aggressiveness and execution of last year’s championship team. No matter where the Lancers fall in the final rankings at the end of the year, expect them to keep expanding on their pedigree as one of the top programs in the state.