While defending 5A champion Ironwood is in the mix as a #3 seed, runner up Millennium is a dangerous young team and Sunrise Mountain is a very tough out, the top of the two big-school divisions looks very different locally thanks to a pair of Peoria teams.
Football powerhouses Centennial and Liberty just finished, arguably, their best ever boys basketball regular seasons to earn big seeds. Both have done it without an obvious superstar rather the Coyotes and Lions played team first, up tempo and unselfish basketball with kids who know each others' games.
Here's a look at both teams heading into tonight's playoff opener:
Tonight: #16 (5A) Yuma Gila Ridge (13-6) vs #1 Centennial (15-1)
Where: Centennial High School, 14388 N. 79th Ave., Peoria
In one year, Randy Lavender's Coyotes skyrocketed from the 14th seed in 5A to the top of the charts. And they did it almost entirely without one of their top players, the coach's son.
Junior guard Trenten Lavender averaged 15.4 points in the first 20 games of the 2019-20 season before tearing a knee ligament. He tried to come back during the Jan. 18 season opener against Sunrise Mountain but the knee still was not right.
“It just wasn’t feeling right for him so we had another procedure. Instead of trying to hang on, it’s a quick season. The good part is, he has another year,” Randy Lavender said. “The adversity started late last year with him being out. Now they’re kind of used to playing without him. After the first game I told the guys, ‘We don’t know what it is. Let’s just play.”
Despite that loss the Coyotes realized how much better they were in first couple games. Centennial beat Sunrise Mountain and #4 seed Gilbert on back to back days to start the season, then pushed the defending champs before losing 71-66 at Ironwood.
“Trent was a big part of what we do, so we had to just develop our own games,” junior guard Jake Lifgren said.
The Coyotes have not lost since. And only a 10-point win Feb. 5 at Sunrise Mountain and a 11-point home victory March 2 at Apollo have even been close.
And this group is still maturing. It starts with junior guard Abe Rangel and Lifgren, plus junior forward Jayson Petty, sophomore wing Emery Young and senior forward Andre Logan.
“We’ve been playing together for a while in the summer and we’ve kind of been planning this moment since our freshman year,” Rangel said. “Our first week, after we beat a couple of good teams, we knew we could compete for No. 1 in the state.”
Centennial did not make many preseason top 10 lists for 5A. Even though their coach had confidence in this group, things came together quicker than even he expected.
“I was surprised because the beginning of the year — are we going to go or not go — and I think it took the air out of some of the kids,” Lavender said. “I didn’t think they would come together that quickly or be that dominant that quick.”
He said it starts with the core of Lifgren, Petty and Rangel. Plus, Lavender said, Young has matured and a pair of big men have helped the bench - on stocky yet athletic (freshman forward Gage Galbreath) one long and thin (sophomore forward Christian Dupre).
That's about as specialized as this group gets. All five startes stand between 6 foot and 6-3 and all can handle the ball to a degree, cranking up a tough-to-stop transition game.
“We’re all the same height, so we knew we would have to group rebound and play together. We have a lot of guys who have developed and don’t have to wait to get up the court. They can just get the rebound and go. That’s helped us a lot,” Lifgren said.
Plus the Coyotes play sticky defense, limiting opponents to 51 points a game. This stood out in a 78-49 victory over Ironwood Feb. 20.
“The kids always wanted to fight for respect. Now you’re then hunted. I try to keep them humble and tell them now each game teams are coming after us,” Lavender said.
But this group also is battle tested. Centennial played in the Northwest Region, the only 5A League with five playoff teams. Fittingly league foe Gila Ridge starts the postseason.
“We know we’ve beat key teams but they’re really good. They’ve helped us get here. We’re in a difficult division, which helped us a lot,” Rangel said.
Tonight: #12 (6A) Phoenix Desert Vista (8-7) vs #5 Liberty (16-2)
Where: Liberty High School, 9621 W. Speckled Gecko Drive, Peoria
While Centennial likes to run, Liberty lives to run. The Lions are averaging 89 points a game this season, second in the nation among team MaxPreps tracks.
And Mar Wood's team also does it with a unified approach to pushing the ball, making the extra pass, shuttling in and out, hitting threes and playing at warp speed.
“Honestly we don’t take the floor and look like we’re out-athleticizing everybody. We don’t take the floor and people say that looks like the fifth seed and the second-leading scoring team in the nation. It’s just their determination and togetherness willing it to happen,” Wood said.
The Lions are fueled by a rarity in today's Arizona high school basketball landscape. Nine seniors who stuck together and worked on their games all four years.
“We’ve seen the benefits of all the hard work of the last three or four years,” senior guard Guliford said.
Guliford was the most known Liberty player entering the season, and averages 13.4 points a night. This year senior wing Brett Chappell shot up the charts to lead the team with 13.9 points a night.
Six other Liberty players score between 5.3 and 10.5 points per night.
Five have made at least 25 three-point shots and the team has 249 threes entering the playoffs. That is borne of an unselfish approach.
“We’ve all been playing together so long that none of us care (who scores). OK he’s got a better shot, I’ll pass it,” Chappell said.
And the Lions have grown up together, a setup rare in today's high school landscape. Players often leave their neighborhoos to form superteams.
Beyond that, local players have the option to transfer to six prep school teams based in the Valley that have national spotlights for college and NBA scouts.
Liberty has barely been touched by this phenomenon.
“I believe that high school is a microcosm of college. We had to determine if we were going to be Kentucky or Duke with one-and-dones or if we’re going to have more of a mid-major approach and develop our kids like a VCU, and we wanted to develop our neighborhood kids. We feel our neighborhood kids are making our community better and are doing it together and it sustains the program. These guys went 12-6 and freshmen and just continued getting better,” Wood said.
Senior forward Jacob Ayars said the work this team put in during offseason weight training class set this groups apart from past teams.
It shows on the glass, where the Lions average 16 offensive rebounds per game, three more than a year ago.
“One big area of improvement has been offensive rebounding. It’s changed the whole dynamic of the team. A missed three means two points because our guys are crashing,” Ayars said.
Players and coaches know all those numbers and unity guaratee nothing in a 16-team playoff field for the incredible deep 6A. The team ranked 17th, Scottsdale Chaparral, knocked off #3 Gilbert Perry for example.
To start tonight the Lions host defending state champ Desert Vista, and Wood said the seeds easily could be reversed.
More than anything, he and the players just want to keep a special year going. For example, Wood said, it took three hours to read heartfelt letters from all 14 other players to each of the nine seniors before their senior night game.
“I am moved beyond words at how grateful I am for this team. I’m grateful God picked me to coach them. They are a special group of kids. They are selfless and embody everything we’re about it. I want them to be the team that wins it because they’re such a good group,” Wood said.