Tuesday night was a big night for basketball players in Flagstaff as the two schools, Flagstaff High and Coconino High, played their respective games and both came out on top.
It was the first game in their tournaments that will take them a step closer to winning state — something that means a lot to the players during the unusual 2020-2021 season.
Flagstaff High squared off against American Leadership Academy and came away winning 71 to 39 in the first game of the 2021 AIA 4A Girls Basketball State Championships.
American Leadership was able to score the first point and held the lead for the first four minutes of the game. Then the two teams tied briefly before the Eagles pulled away and keep pressing. Although they held the advantage, head girls coach Tyrone Johnson said he didn’t want his girls to be overconfident.
“They (American Leadership) played hard, they played tough defensively and they didn’t quit,” Johnson said. “They kept pushing, they kept coming at us, so just that perseverance is tough to face regardless of the team.”
Melinda Calnimptewa, a senior player for Flagstaff and who scored many points for Flagstaff felt it was a good start to the championships.
“I think it went very well,” Calnimptewa said. “I like how every girl contributed even if they didn’t score, they were able to find an open path and I think we played together as a team.”
American Leadership put on the speed and hardened its defense, but the Eagles were able to break through with three-pointer scores and cohesive teamwork.
“I think Melinda Calnimptewa stepped up,” Johnson said. “She had like four three-pointers tonight, 16 points and has some great energy on the defensive end, rebounded the ball well, and really helped us control the pace.
“When we had a big run, she initiated a lot of it so I thought she played really well. Gracelyn Nez had some solid minutes, Breonna Curtis, she defensively was solid (and) took a nice charge at an opportune time, and then Sage Begay, she always plays pretty good, but the last person I think really stood up was Morningrain Honani, she’s a freshman and I thought she had some real good moments in the game as well.”
As for Calnimptewa, she was proud of how her team did that night.
“I think every player should be mentioned,” Calnimptewa said. “We had a lot of good passes; I think a couple of times they got down the floor without touching the ground and I think that means we were able to see each other a lot more and although it did get intercepted sometimes, I’m just glad we’re able to see one another.”
Meanwhile across town, the game’s outcome wasn’t as telling.
Coconino High topped their opponent Estrella Foothills with 52 to 49 by the end of the 4A conference game.
Coconino’s head girls’ coach Cassie Schrader said it was a close call as they went up against a team that was taller than them.
“They’re just a lot bigger than us,” Schrader said. “… We had a little bit of trouble on the boards for sure, we had a problem here and there getting bodies on somebody just boxing us out. They definitely out-rebounded us because of their size. I wished that we had crushed the boards a little more on offensive, but every single time we got a defensive board we pushed the ball and that’s exactly what I wanted them to do ….”
It was a tough game for the Panthers as they went toe-to-toe with Estrella. Their opponents were able to block the team’s advances and made it difficult for Coconino to make their shots. But when the roles were switched and Coconino was on defense, they were able to level the playing field with their speed and teamwork. They stopped Estrella from making three-pointers, focused on the ball and made a strong perimeter defense. It was touch-and-go throughout the game before Coconino won with the final points.
“Kiana Manuelito was doing everything she could,” Schrader said. “She was attacking the basket, she was getting shots, playing great defensive. And on the other hand, Wynter Huskie, she’s our main ball handler, she just did a great job on not turning the ball over and everything. Our girls definitely held their own — might have gotten out-rebounded, but they had a lot to do for sure.”
With the first game over, both teams of Flagstaff prepare for the next stage of the competition where their opponents are guaranteed to be tougher.
Despite the prospects, both teams are happy to be playing at all as they reflect on the COVID pandemic which has changed their season and lives in a single year.
“We overcame a lot of adversity this season,” Schrader said. “We overcame a weeklong quarantine a couple of weeks ago because one of the officials tested positive, but we came out of quarantine and won two games in a row. They’re just happy to be here, they’re happy to have a season at all. They’re definitely taking advantage of it, all the seniors who are here, who have been here since their freshmen year.”
In her years with the program, she added, “I haven’t quite seen their desire to win at this height until now.”
Likewise, Johnson felt the same way about his Flagstaff High team.
“We’re fortunate that we got a season after it got delayed, canceled and then put back on. We just want to make sure that the girls realize the opportunity they have in front of them and that they give their all and just know that this moment wasn’t a promise,” Johnson said.
“The season is just special, to see these girls come out and work through everything that they went through with not being in school and with COVID, family members who may have gotten sick and passed but still come out and push and play the right way, it’s been special to be able to coach them this season. Hopefully we can keep on to play a few more games.”
For the players like Melinda Calnimptewa, playing not just in the championships, but alongside her longtime friends during her final year in high school is a blessing.
“I think just being able to come together before the game and doing our routine and then coming together and having a good time — it’s not just work to us …
“I think both teams played great and I can’t wait till Friday to see what we do then.”