For the Pusch Ridge Christian Academy girls’ basketball team, the 2008 season is “a historic type of thing,” according to head coach Lonnie Tvrdy.
In the annals of Arizona sports history, only one team has won five girls’ state championships in a row. After hoisting the crown for four straight seasons, the 2008-’09 Lions have a chance to push their way into the record books.
Despite the lofty heights, Tvrdy says that winning, while a good thing, is not the main thing.
“(Those) are not the ultimate goals if we do a good job and enjoy the journey,” said Tvrdy.
“We have won state championships,” he added. “The next morning no one is knocking on your door to watch film with you, so it’s more important to savor the ride.”
The journey begins before each practice, when the team spends 15-30 minutes doing “devotions,” where team issues are aired and players get to voice their thoughts. Tvrdy said this is his, and the team’s, favorite part of the experience.
“(The coaches) try to get them to know how we’re feeling,” he said.
These sessions are where the coach believes much of the Lions’ success begins.
“I don’t think I’m necessarily great at X’s and O’s,” Tvrdy said. “I think we’re good at getting people to be like-minded and really care about teammates.”
Reliance on other members of the squad is something the coach emphasizes.
“Basketball is one of the team-iest sports there is, players have to rely on each other,” he said. “When it’s just yourself, you break.”
Pusch Ridge has done very little breaking this season.
After losing their first game of the season to Chandler Valley Christian, the Lions have reeled off 12 straight victories, including two victories over traditional rival Desert Christian by a combined score of 87-33.
All this success has earned Pusch Ridge a #4 state ranking, and the top spot in the 2A South division.
Tvrdy is excited at the points the offense has put on the board, but said the defense is an area where the Lions are getting closer to a goal set at the beginning of the season.
“We wanted to be playing the best defense of any team in 2A,” said Tvrdy.
In 13 games, Pusch Ridge is allowing 27 points per game, 11 fewer than the 38 allowed by current Arizona #1 Valley Christian.
Add stingy defense to an offense that is averaging nearly 50 points per game, and the recipe for the Lions’ gaudy record seems obvious.
Also obvious to Tvrdy -- his senior guard / forward Hannah McLeod, is “the best player in the city.”
“She’s averaging (points per game) in the 20s, and on defense she’s covering the best player on other team,” said Tvrdy.
The rest of the team has also shown incredible dedication and talent, according to the coach.
“Jessica Villerius, our senior guard, is just so physically and mentally tough,” said Tvrdy.
Senior guard / forward Morgan Van Stelle, along with Villerius and McLeod, makes up the rest of a core of seniors that Tvrdy compares to the “big three” of the Boston Celtics.
“They all play great defense, and they’re all fearless,” he said.
Younger players have also made an impact, the coach said.
“Cheyenne Link, our junior center, has become more assertive on both offense and defense,” said Tvrdy.
“Really stepping it up” in the other starting slot have been freshmen Abby Maas and Caroline Roessler, he added.
The Lions’ bench has also been a great source of fresh energy and made an impact on the season, according to Tvrdy.
Haley Akin, Vanessa Cook, Haley Christensen, Caitlin Kirschner, Jaclyn Spinelli and Kelsey Andres are all players who rotate in for Pusch Ridge, and have helped Tvrdy “bring old and new together and create a really unified defensive front.”
The Lions road to history will have its bumps. Pusch Ridge will face strong division rivals San Carlos and San Manuel, both ranked in the top 15 in 2A, twice more apiece.
Tvrdy said the team won’t be lulled by regular-season success.
“You constantly have to check yourself,” he said.
The main point of that journey remains clear to Tvrdy.
“There are lots of processes to building character,” said the coach. “And the girls in this program have done something really special.”
Other teams to watch:
Canyon Del Oro
The 2007 CDO girls finished with a record of 17-12, a winning percentage of 57 percent. The numbers in 2008 look a little different. The Dorados are 10-1, a winning percentage of 91 percent, and currently are riding high at the top of the 4A Sonoran division. Led by senior Nadi Carey, a transfer from Flowing Wells, CDO has won convincingly in most of its games, outscoring opponents 588-363. Carey, slated to play college ball at Eastern Washington University next season, has spearheaded the charge offensively, scoring when the Dorados need it most. Against powerhouse Arizona #4 Phoenix Shadow Mountain on Dec. 2, Carey scored 17 points to give #6 CDO the boost it needed to defeat the Matadors 52-42. Sarah Batterton, Charde Mayne and Nicole Ruiz have also been tough for teams to contain, each scoring in double digits on multiple occasions.
The rest of the Dorados’ schedule includes late-season games against division rival #7 Catalina Foothills and surging #11 Marana.
The Nighthawks have had limited opportunities to prove themselves, playing only four games before heading to the Surf N’ Slam invitational in California.
In those four games, Ironwood Ridge outscored opponents by the tightest of margins, 148-147. The Nighthawks are 2-2, however, good enough for first place in a 5A-II Southern division that has not one team with a winning record. The 2007 Nighthawks faced a similar situation, finishing 11-13 and squeaking into the playoffs in a weak division before losing in the first round. Leading scorers Amber Sanford and Micayla Gilbert hope to change that trend this season.
Can you say dynasty? The 2007 Marana girls, went 23-5, and made it all the way to Jobing.com Arena in Glendale for the 4A-I state championship game last season, losing the title to Flowing Wells, 56-24. The 2008 Tigers look like more of the same, currently 5-2 and ranked #11. Marana graduated some talent from last year’s squad, but new coach Amanda Jones has found a solid group of young talent to replenish the Tigers.
Freshman Jamee Swan has been virtually unstoppable, leading the 4A Sonoran division in scoring with 12.7 points per game. Swan, not only an offensive force, has been dominant on defense, currently tops in the division in blocks and rebounds. Junior Lindsay Honea, averaging 10.7 points per game for second in the division, is another offensive threat for the Tigers, and on defense, aptly-named senior Danielle Crook has been rock solid, averaging four steals a game. The bad news for the Tigers: the 4A Sonoran division is one of the toughest in Tucson, with both Canyon Del Oro and Catalina Foothills ranked in the top 10 statewide. Some good news for Marana: in a rematch of last season’s championship game, the Tigers beat Flowing Wells 35-28.
Maybe there is a reason for the Mountain View girls to hope. After starting out 0-10, the boys’ team pulled itself together to rattle off four straight wins. The girls team is 0-9 and might be hoping to catch some of that magic. The Mountain Lions have been outscored 492-254, and have had trouble staying competitive over the course of a whole game. Despite the tough road, bright spots have come from seniors Chelsea Beringson and Sam Charlton, both of whom have been able to provide some offensive firepower.