Truth be told, even Glendale Prep was a little surprised to be tipping off a semifinal against 5A power Ironwood Dec. 28 at Greenway High School.
The Griffins were off to a hot start in 2A play, entering the Judy Dixon Classic with a 6-0 record in regular season games. But against larger schools in the season-opening Sunnyslope tourney the squad finished 0-4 and was not competitive.
Just after Christmas, Glendale Prep (8-6) showed how much it has grown, loading up its slingshot and knocking off Scottsdale Saguaro 74-66 in the first round and host Greenway 74-72 in the second. Those performances trace back to why second-year coach Steve Silvernail signed the Griffins up for the tournament starting last year.
"There's two main benefits. No. 1, I want our players to feel like every time they step on the court, they can play with anybody. They have to have that attitude," Silvernail said. "The second thing is, if we're playing against bigger schools and probably better athletes, then we're well prepared physically and mentally to play many - not all - of the teams we play in 2A."
While both 4A foes are struggling early in the season, Glendale Prep made a leap simply by being competitive. The Sunnyslope tourney losses were by at least 30 points each.
The Griffins silenced Saguaro with a barrage of first-half threes. Glendale Pre hit only one three in second half but held on with team defense.
"I think it reinforced our confidence. We did some things defensively that we had struggled with. It kind of clicked. Because we were playing better defense, we got some really good opportunities on offense. We had 11 threes in the first half against Saguaro. We can do that against almost anyone we play," Silvernail said.
Greenway was one of those teams that dismissed the Griffins earlier in the season, so taking down the Demons in their own tourney was a milepost for Silvernail.
"We're always going to be the spoiler, even in 2A. We played Greenway earlier in the year in the Sunnyslope tournament. It was a really good measuring stick for us. We were incohesive in that first game. This time against Greenway we were a lot more connected, made some shots and played pretty good defense," Silvernail said.
5A title contender Ironwood is a different animal and the Griffins were left in their wake like Phoenix Washington and Oro Valley Ironwood Ridge in the first two rounds.
But Glendale Prep bounced back by pushing another 4A squad, Moon Valley, before losing the third-place game 73-71.
After splitting with eventual region champ Camp Verde last season, the Griffins have their sights set on the Cowboys again. Three days at Greenway ensure Silvernail's team will be over-prepared for most 2A squads.
Senior forward Matt Hawkins made the all tournament team but Glendale Prep's play reinforced the type of team effort it will take on both ends to keep winning.
"We've had six different guys lead us in scoring. We're really kind of a positionless basketball team in the sense that we don't have a dominating post player. We have a lot of guys that can handle the ball but we have to see each game, who has a good matchup and go with that," Silvernail said.
While Glendale Prep's run ended with a near-miss against Moon Valley, Willow Canyon had to rebound from a late collapse against the Rockets in the first round.
The Wildcats built their lead to 67-55 in the fourth quarter but could not overcome the Moon Valley press. The Rockets picked up two steals that led to the final five points in the final 30 seconds of a 73-72 Rockets win.
Willow Canyon (5-9) rebounded to win three straight and claim the consolation championship. The Wildcats beat Phoenix Alhambra 53-42, Flagstaff 73-60 and Mesa Dobson 76-58.
"We preach that every single person in the program is a leader," said Willow Canyon coach Joseph Colletti - who did not coach the team in the tournament. "From our coaching staff stepping up to players stepping up, I thought they all grew in their leadership."
The Wildcats played a brutal early schedule, losing to 5A powers Cactus Shadows, Ironwood, Paradise Valley, Sunnyslope and Sunrise Mountain.
With four sophomores and a junior in their regular rotation, the team is being thrown into the fire. Playing four games in three days caused all 12 varsity players to realize they could contribute something.
Winning three of those games allowed the players to enjoy some rewards of buying in.
"The one thing that's a benefit is that they realize they have to be present," Colletti said. "When they see the success come they understand their value better."