For the first time since their move to 5A, the teams from Region 4 have the inside track on a state championship.
The American Fork Cavemen are the title favorites this season behind the prowess of four seniors and a pair of juniors, who have been working and playing together far longer than just their high school years. They came oh-so-close last season to bringing home a title with a loss to Skyline in the state championship game, and because of that they know what it takes to win it all.
And not only does this team have experience working together at the highest levels, but they also have talent, and plenty of it.
Premier phenoms Haley Holmstead and Kaycee Mansfield lead the team offensively and with intensity and athleticism. But though players Cydne Mason and Nikki Ybarra also have offensive skills for the Cavemen, both of those girls have happily given themselves over to their roles on the team, getting the team into its offense and playing stifling defense, doing anything that needs to be done. Those four seniors will be joined yet again this season by a pair of junior powers, Makenzie Moea'i as the main presence in the middle, and Amy Krommenhoek, a huge outside threat. Those six players were the main cogs in last year's second place squad at state, and they all return for a run at a title this season.
And running this team does. Scrappy and solid full-court defenses and a tough half-court 'D' lead this team to plenty of fast breaks, making them fun to watch and not so much fun to play against most of the time.
Holmstead did have her knee scoped several weeks ago, but coach Corey Clayton says she's 100 percent and under no restrictions in practice. She's scored over 1,000 points in her career, and Mansfield isn't far behind.
A pair of juniors and a pair of sophomores will round out the players that will see most of the varsity minutes as Clayton expands his rotation this season to give more players experience that might become necessary in the state tournament.
"Last year my rotation was too short. This year I'm going to go to a much deeper bench," said Clayton, giving credence to the problems his team ran into with foul trouble last year at the tournament.
Kylie Allen, Laini Kalumbi, Shelby Carson and Hayley Su'a-Filo will all see a little time during the season as will freshman Grace Farnsworth, whom Clayton claims is probably the most athletic player on his roster.
"She's gonna be a superstar," said Clayton, which makes his team future look bright as well.
If the Cavemen do as they are slotted and make it through Region 4 play unscathed, Clayton believes his stiffest competition for a state championship will come from Riverton, Bingham and possibly Davis. But that is not to say there won't be any competition coming from their own backyard. The Lone Peak Knights have once again reloaded and are looking to make some noise of their own.
Despite losing key seniors last year, including but not limited to point guard Shantel Flanary and versatile Amanda Farish, who signed with SUU, this team has been rampaging through its schedule so far this year.
Swing player Megan Smith, center Whitney Johnson and forward Marquelle Funk are taking turns demolishing their opponents with huge games. Kristen Owens is on the court at the point despite rumors that she might miss the season, and the Knights have a host of players they can count on in specific roles. Whitney Stevens, Brittany Davies, and Dalene Hansen all know the best way they can make contributions on the court.
Lone Peak coach Keith Flood says he's using the preseason to "try to find out where we are and what we need to work on as a team."
Because once the region season rolls around they're are going to have to be firing on all cylinders every night to avoid the upset and settle into their position in the state tournament.
While American Fork is the team to beat and Lone Peak is the team to challenge, there doesn't seem to be any consensus to which team should come out of the woodwork for the third coveted spot in the state tournament. With only three tourney slots this year, the competition could be bloody to land in the top trio.
One team that has hopes of landing in that spot is the rebuilding Timpanogos Timberwolves.
Six-foot-2 Morgan Bailey is the queen on that team, and everyone out there will be gunning for her this year with the noted absence of graduated senior Amy Weitzeil, who took plenty of attention away from the athletic Bailey last year.
Not only is Bailey averaging over 20 points per game this season despite the new double teams, she's also pulling down double digit boards and getting her hands up to block staggering numbers of shots. Bailey is proving herself one of the state's toughest.
"She's playing very well. People know about her. She's great left and right and uses her body well. She has a good range shooting and is a strong post," said Timpanogos coach Liz Darger about her junior star.
But she isn't working alone. Amanda Larsen, Meagan Riggs, Alexa Anderson, Jessica Fisher, Lissy Bingham and Courtney Brown will all spend plenty of time on the court. One thing this team has to work on is teamwork as Bingham is coming back from an injury and Riggs is joining the team from a stint at ALA last year. The T-Wolves lost four starters, but Darger is making them jump in with both feet in the early-going this year. "We purposely schedule a tough preseason. The preseason is about exposing weaknesses and gaining strengths, but we're going to use this to prepare for region games," said Darger.
One of the teams the T-Wolves will be battling in the regular season for that third playoff spot will be the post-laden Pleasant Grove Vikings.
In Pleasant Grove this season life is all about getting the ball inside. With a pair of posts averaging nearly 20 points apiece, this team has no problem once the ball hits the paint. The only problem is getting it there. Inexperienced guards are manning the court for the Vikings, giving them a little trouble moving the ball to where it needs to go in the preseason so far.
"If we can break the press and get into a half court game, we'll be okay. If we can't break the press we're in big trouble," said Pleasant Grove coach Glenn Larson.
With 6-foot-6 Jennifer Hamsen and 5-foot-11 homegrown developed post presence Ana Finau inside, this team knows how to stop the other team's inside efforts and can get the ball into the hoop--when it manages to get into those two girls' hands.
But much of the Vikings' success will depend on the backcourt and players like sophomore Danyelle Hoffman, Mackenzie Larson, Savannah Brazil and Kim Dahl. Another pair of posts in Natalia Parks and Katie Mitchell will man the post in case of foul trouble or any time either of the star pair rides the bench.
The Lehi Pioneers have their own version of the Hamsen mountain peak on their own squad in less experienced sophomore Elle Brainard, who stands at 6-foot-5 and is learning her own way to dominate for her team.
The Pioneers lost leading scorer Stephanie Rogers to graduation, but they do have a solid cast coming back with a little experience under their belts this year. That cast is led by junior guard Jackie Cattani, who has a nice touch from long distance. Swing player Katie Rogers will also be counted on heavily on the scoring front, which could prove a difficult aspect of the game for the Pioneers this season.
Tough-minded Briar Sands, Kjersti Secretan, Haylee Hunter and Gabby Granthem will also play heavy minutes for the Pioneers, who have to be considered an underdog to make the playoffs in this tough region.
"Anything is possible. We're even shooting for American Fork, but we need to shoot for everyone else. We need to step up and be patient. We're trying to build our confidence in the preseason," said Lehi coach Kahlil Sikander.
And another team that will need to work on confidence boosting this preseason is the Spanish Fork Dons as they waltz into another year with inexperience. They have to come out this year counting heavily on the inside game of center Erin Redd, an athletic young junior with plenty of talent. Though the team has suffered a little during the preseason they've done so while taking on some of the toughest competition in the state. Not only is this team trying to rise above last year's mark and slip into one of only three slots in the state tournament this year, the school also lost some of its population to new Salem Hills, giving the Dons fewer players trying out for the team this year.
But the team still has some experience to fall back on in addition to Redd in seniors Jessie Anderson and Katelynn Elliott and junior shooting guard Brinlee Nielson, who is known for her long distance bombs. They will also be adding the services of post player Rachelle Remund and scrappy guard Shea Johnson.
"I love feeling like the underdog. Our posts are definitely looking good so far. They're just as quick as our guards and strong," said Spanish Fork coach Aubrey Johnson.
And they will definitely be thought of as the underdog. Though everyone in the region agrees that after American Fork at the top and Lone Peak in second, four teams with definite strengths and weaknesses will be battling for that third and final playoff spot in a dogfight any of them could win.