Ken Leikem watched as two teams of players race up and down the main gym at Ironwood Ridge High School in an intra-squad scrimmage.
Leikem, who has led the Nighthawks to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons as head coach, has a good feeling about this year’s squad.
“I think we’re definitely better than last year,” Leikem said. “We have a ground that’s full of players that were here last year. We have seven returnees from last year. So, I guess you could say we’re bigger, stronger, more experienced and more mature.”
It’s that teamwide maturity that propelled Leikem’s squad to an 18-10 record a year ago, with two players (Caroline Finster and Bella Hamel) averaging more than 10 points a game for the squad.
Both Finster and Hamel are back this year, giving the Nighthawks unparalleled experience at the guard position.
Hamel, who averaged 11.6 points per game last year, believes the key to success for this year’s team revolves around the squad’s ability to work together on the court.
“The girls game is all about playing as a team and definitely building a strong sisterhood,” Hamel said. “Girls play together when they like each other, and can bond easily and quickly.”
Leikem believes this year’s squad and its collective experience, with seven returning players from last year’s team, can challenge for the 5A Southern region title.
Leikem added that the team’s success of-late stems from his staff’s ability to establish roles for each player, allowing them to focus on doing whatever they excel at on the floor.
“I think we play a team-oriented game,” he said. “We emphasize giving up a good shot for a great shot, we pass the ball around. You know, very unselfish play. And the girls are a very close-knit group. They’re friends on the court and off the court.
The Nighthawks kicks off the season over the Thanksgiving week with a tournament; their first regular season game comes at home against Tucson High School, Nov. 27.
Sophomore guard Keelie George believes this year’s team plays the right style of basketball to succeed in the girls game. She said the girls game is unique from what boys and men’s basketball centers around, thanks to the increased demand for accurate shooting and pressing defense.
“We have more of a fundamentally-developed game, and boys are more up and down the court,” George said. “We have a more fundamentally-built game and we can dribble on the court. We take our best shot and not the first shot.”
It’s that dedication to the intricacies of the game that brought Leikem to Ironwood Ridge after spending time on the junior college circuit at Pima Community College as a coach.
The third-year Nighthwaks coach hopes to see lots of supporters for the team’s opener against the Badgers, with an entertaining, high-scoring offense that should challenge for another region title this season.
“Hopefully, a lot of people come out and watch us,” Leikem said. “It’s a fun time. If you’re not doing anything on our game night, come on out and see the girls and support them in the community.”