Gronning vs. Snake River

Soda Springs’ Sadie Gronning (2) goes to the basket against Snake River’s Adia Goff (4) during a game on Dec. 11, 2019 at Snake River.

5A

HIGHLAND RAMS

Coach: Gino Mariani, second year

Record last year: 18-10, two-and-out at 5A state tournament

Current record: 6-7

Returning starters: 2

Players to watch: F Mackenna Thayne, jr.; F Lydia Maughan, jr.; G Meghan Calley, jr.

Outlook: After losing five seniors from a state-tournament team a year ago, Highland started slowly but has begun to round back into form.

“I knew we were going to be young,” coach Gino Mariani said. “Early on, we had a ton of games and not a lot of practice time. We’re starting to get our feet underneath us. We’ve won four of our last five games. Hopefully we continue to take steps forward.”

Juniors Mackenna Thayne and Lydia Maughan are both 6-feet or taller and anchor the post for the Rams, while Meghan Calley is a steady guard.

“Those are three girls that played for me last year,” Mariani said.

“They understand the system that we put in place, and they’re doing a good job of leading us in the right direction.”

Freshman Khalia Pongah has also emerged off the junior varsity to lead the Rams in scoring in multiple games.

“She’s a girl that we watched this summer,” Mariani said. “She’s one that can step on the court and she’s an automatic scorer. If she gets a little bit of room, she can fire up shots, and that’s what we like.”

4A

BLACKFOOT BRONCOS

Coach: Courtnie Smith, fifth season

Record last year: 23-5, won 4A consolation championship

Current record: 8-1

Returning starters: 3

Players to watch: G Tenleigh Smith, jr.; C Hadley Humpherys, so.; G Isabelle Arave, so.

Outlook: Blackfoot was one of the best teams in the state a year ago, but the Broncos still feel like they have something to prove.

“Blackfoot’s been down so long, people kind of looked past us,” coach Courtnie Smith said. “People in our district know it’ll be us and Bonneville battling it out again. ... We’re just excited. It’s a good group of girls and I think that we’ll surprise a lot of people.”

The Broncos like to play pressure defense in a fast-paced style, and point guard Tenleigh Smith is a perfect fit for the system.

“She’s a hard matchup,” Courtnie Smith said. “She’s a 5-11 point guard, has a ton of speed, can handle the ball well, and then she can shoot.”

When things slow down, Blackfoot can go to post player Hadley Humpherys, another player who offers a lot of mismatch potential.

The best thing about the Broncos is that a lot of contributors are still young, meaning further development is possible.

“I feel like they’ve been around forever, but they’re really young,” Courtnie Smith said. “But they don’t play young. They’ve played a lot of basketball together.”

CENTURY DIAMONDBACKS

Coach: Chris Shuler, 11th season

Record last year: 27-0, won 4A state title

Current record: 8-3

Returning starters: 3

Players to watch: F Lexi Bull, sr.; F Abby Christensen, sr.; G Preslie Merrill, jr.; G Ashton Adamson, jr.

Outlook: After an undefeated season and a state championship, the Diamondbacks are tasked with providing quite the encore.

After a loss to Liberty (Nevada) in the Tarkanian Classic on Dec. 18, they won’t be perfect again, but are still the favorite for the state crown.

“I have a lot of kids back,” coach Chris Shuler said. “A lot of kids know what I expect. We’re trying to have our older kids balance it out with the younger kids.”

Wyoming basketball commit Lexi Bull is a do-everything forward. Bull was a first-team All-Area selection by the Idaho State Journal a year ago.

“Lexi’s our leader this year,” Shuler said. “She’s been playing really great, really consistent. She knows what we expect of her, but she’s also being a really good leader.”

Senior Abby Christensen provides height at 6-foot-1, and juniors Preslie Merrill and Ashton Adamson are athletic, skilled guards.

“We still do the same things from last year,” Shuler said. “We have some length, some speed, some kids that can shoot the ball. Our defensive intensity is pretty good.”

POCATELLO INDIANS

Coach: Sunny Evans, first season

Record last year: 7-16

Current record: 2-8

Returning starters: 3

Players to watch: Hailey Roubidoux, sr.; Alexia Tinno, so.; Madison Wilkes, sr.

Outlook: Sunny Evans might be in her first season as Pocatello’s coach, but she already has a vision of what she wants her team to be.

“The girls have always played really, really hard, and that’s a tradition that I want to continue,” Evans said. “That’s something we’re going to take pride in, is playing really hard.”

Evans has the experienced personnel to do that, with seven seniors and three returning starters.

“We’re senior-heavy, and they’re a great group,” Evans said. “They’re everything high school athletes should be. ... I want to surprise some people.”

Pocatello took a big blow when senior Adi Spillett, coming off a starmaking season for Pocatello’s soccer team and leading the basketball team in scoring early in the season, suffered an ACL tear.

With Spillett out, Pocatello’s strength might lie in its depth, which includes seniors Hailey Roubidoux, Aaliyah Murdoch, Madison Wilkes, Ashlynn Keller, Megan Rowe and Paeton Cates, plus sophomore Alexia Tinno.

PRESTON INDIANS

Coach: Ryan Harris, first year

Record last year: 16-9

Current record: 11-2

Players to watch: F Cassee Pugmire, sr.; G Saige Meek, sr.; W Mickayla Robertson, so.

Returning starters: 1

Outlook: Ryan Harris walked into a stable situation at Preston and the team’s success has continued through the first half of the 2019-20 season with the new head coach at the helm.

He follows three-year Indians coach Kimber Hall, who guided the Indians to two state tournament appearances, including their first in six years in the 2016-17 season.

The Indians will continue to have a frenetic style, but with differences. For example, Harris deploys man-to-man defense, while Hall predominately utilized a 2-3 zone.

“We’re trying to be a fast-paced team, in-your-nose defense to get transition offense,” Harris said.

Harris will not have the luxury of size on this year’s team, unlike previous squads. But he said his players do boast athleticism, in addition to other qualities.

“They’ve been very coachable,” Harris said. “The girls have bought into what the coaches ask them to do. They have excellent work ethics.”

3A

AMERICAN FALLS BEAVERS

Coach: Stephen Grigg, third season

Record last year: 2-21

Current record: 5-5

Returning starters: 3

Players to watch: F Emma Barclay, jr.; G Mckienzie Long, jr.; G Katie Hunt, sr.

Outlook: After a two-win season a year ago, American Falls has been much-improved early in 2019.

“We’ve done the same thing now for three years,” coach Stephen Grigg said. “Now, they’re kind of getting used to what we do and how we do it. I’m just excited to see the program turn around for the girls, and it’s just exciting to see things going where we want to go.”

Junior Emma Barclay is a force in the post for the Beavers, while junior point guard Mckienzie Long has returned from an ACL injury suffered in the first game of last season.

“(Long) does everything for us,” Grigg said. “Missing the year, I actually feel like she’s just coming into her own this year. As she goes, our team goes.”

Guard Katie Hunt, a vocal leader and tenacious defender, is the team’s only senior. But despite their youth, the American Falls players are working hard to improve.

“The girls have really worked super hard,” Grigg said. “Our program, we feel, is on the upswing.”

MARSH VALLEY EAGLES

Coach: Kyle McQuivey, 13th season

Record last year: 8-18

Current record: 5-6

Returning starters: 4

Players to watch: G Valerie Vorwaller, sr.; G Zoie Armstrong, jr.

Outlook: Coach Kyle McQuivey is looking for improvement out of his team this year, and is optimistic about his chances of seeing it.

“We have more speed, a little bit more talent, and we’re just looking at them gelling together better,” McQuivey said.

Having four starters back will help with that, especially after having just one returner a year ago.

Senior guard Valerie Vorwaller makes things go for the Eagles.

“She’s a very good shooter, good ballhandler, sees the floor well,” McQuivey said.

She gets support from fellow guard Zoie Armstrong, a deadeye shooter who’s consistently been the team’s high scorer early in the 2019-20 season. If the chemistry develops, McQuivey is confident that Marsh Valley will be fun to watch, as well as much-improved.

“This team this year, they’ve got speed,” McQuivey said. “They’re very quick, handle the ball well, see the floor well. We’ll work with it and adjust to it. They’re just exciting to watch. The chemistry is coming into tune, so hopefully that will keep on going.”

SNAKE RIVER PANTHERS

Coach: Jeff Steadman, fourth season

Record last year: 17-8, 1-2 at 3A state tournament

Current record: 4-7

Returning starters: 2

Players to watch: F Josee Steadman, jr.; F Jordyn Gilbert, sr.; F Olivia Kracl, sr.

Outlook: The Panthers leverage an uncommon advantage for a 3A team.

“We’ve got a lot of height this year for a 3A team, and we’re pretty athletic,” coach Jeff Steadman said. “Our size and our length, that will give some teams some trouble.”

That length gives teeth to Snake River’s traditionally tough man-to-man defense.

Forward Josee Steadman was all-state as a sophomore a year ago and has worked hard to round out her game.

“She has improved from previous years,” Jeff Steadman said. “She’s gotten a little quicker. Her dribbling has improved. She’s worked hard in the offseason and improved continually on her ballhandling.”

Jordyn Gilbert, Olivia Kracl, and posts Adia Goff and Sage Stimpson round out a very capable top of the rotation for the Panthers.

“Last year, we struggled at times to find a second scorer, and this year, we have several girls that can step up and score on any given night,” Steadman said.

2A

ABERDEEN TIGERS

Coach: Ryan Wahlen, sixth season

Record last year: 7-15

Current record: 7-3

Returning starters: 4

Players to watch: G Yasmin Ortiz, so.; F Ellie Watson, so.; F Zenaida Colungo, sr.

Outlook: The Tigers are in an interesting place this year, with four returning starters but only two upperclassmen on the whole roster.

“We have one senior, one junior and six sophomores,” head coach Ryan Wahlen said. “Our girls, even though they’re young, they have varsity experience. They’re kind of seasoned.”

Point guard Yasmin Ortiz, who made second-team all-conference last year as a freshman, runs the show for Aberdeen, while young post player Ellie Watson has “really come on this year,” according to Wahlen.

The lone senior is Zenaida Colungo, who missed most of last year with a knee injury. Wahlen called her the backbone of the team.

“We feel pretty good about the team and the potential,” Wahlen said. “Their ceiling is high. Right now, we’re just doing our best to keep improving.”

The Tigers have as many wins by Christmas (seven) as they did all of last season.

Aberdeen, like many 2A teams, wants to rachet up the defensive pressure this year and has the personnel to do it.

“We’re not real big, but we’ve got a lot of speed,” Wahlen said. “A lot of girls on our team either won or placed in a sprint in the district track meet. We’re exciting, we get up and down the floor and we put a lot of pressure on the other team’s offense.”

BEAR LAKE BEARS

Coach: Brenda Messerly, second season

Record last year: 9-13

Current record: 5-4

Returning starters: 4

Players to watch: G Hailey Humpherys, jr.; F Chelsea Gunderson, sr.

Outlook: A young Bear Lake team struggled in close games last year. With that experience banked this time around, head coach Brenda Messerly hopes that the Bears can change that pattern.

“The experience from those games will propel us into this year,” Messerly said.

Bear Lake returned five seniors and four starters, including second-team all-conference junior guard Hailey Humpherys, who had 18 and 13 points in the Bears’ first two games, both wins.

“She can score the basketball,” Messerly said. “Our goal with her is to play free and fast.”

Senior post Chelsea Gunderson, another second-team all-conference player from a year ago, anchors the middle. Experience from last year has also allowed the Bears to be more versatile.

“With experience, it’s allowed us to have more confidence in using different looks on offense and defense,” Messerly said. “Their confidence and everything they’ve built have been huge for us. ... We’re bringing the excitement back to Bear Lake basketball. It just creates a positive environment for the kids to be a part of.”

MALAD DRAGONS

Coach: Ty Price, first season

Record last year: 18-10, won 2A consolation championship

Current record: 0-10

Returning starters: 1

Players to watch: G Jenna Peterson, sr.; G Riley Dorius, jr.

Outlook: With ISJ All-Area second-team honoree Shawnee Simpson and her 23.9 points per game gone, it’s a rebuilding year for the Dragons, who returned one starter. Not to mention, they have a new coach in Ty Price, who replaced Jeremy Jones.

“We have four seniors, but as far as varsity experience goes, we’re really young,” Price said. “It is a little bit of a rebuilding year, but I think there are some good things there if we can start playing together as the year goes on.”

Senior guard Jenna Peterson is that lone returner. She splits ballhandling duties with junior Riley Dorius, who missed most of last year with injuries.

Senior Jeni Alder is, along with Peterson, one of the few returning players who got varsity time last year, while junior Shannon Hudnell is a solid post player.

“The biggest thing is getting them to work together,” Price said. “I’ve seen progress every game so far.”

SODA SPRINGS CARDINALS

Coach: Wade Schvaneveldt, 18th season

Record last year: 27-0, won 2A state championship

Current record: 9-2

Returning starters: 3

Players to watch: G Sadie Gronning, sr., G Dani Smith, sr., F Jorianne Balls, sr.

Outlook: The Cardinals have quite the season to live up to after going undefeated and winning the state championship last year. Soda Springs’ 54-game winning streak was snapped early in the season, but Wade Schvaneveldt’s team still has the talent to be considered one of the top girls teams in the state.

“We never lower our expectations,” Schvaneveldt said. “If anything, we increase them a little bit. This group knows what the goals are. We’re gonna give our best effort to reach those goals.”

Senior guard Sadie Gronning led the Cardinals with 17.2 points per game a year ago and made the Journal’s first-team All-Area. She can shoot and drive.

Fellow senior guard Dani Smith is steady, and senior post Jorianne Balls is a tough inside scorer.

The trio is surrounded by a group of capable, experienced players that give the Cardinals the depth to run their traditional zone press.

“We’re gonna try and tweak some things here and there,” Schvaneveldt said. “But for the most part, it’s the same old stuff: play pressure defense and run the floor and knock down open shots.”

WEST SIDE PIRATES

Coach: Bob Sorenson, second season

Record last year: 4-20

Current record: 0-10

Returning starters: 3

Players to watch: F Kajsia Fuller, F Kenlee Nance.

Outlook: The task of bouncing back from a tough season got a little bit harder for the Pirates when they lost sophomore guard Sienna Fuller to an injury in the summer. Fuller was second-team all-conference last year.

“Our goal is to try to find ourselves without her, and we’ve been struggling,” head coach Bob Sorenson said. “We’re trying to find girls who will step up.”

Her sister Kajsia Fuller might have to pick up most of the slack. The left-handed post player was honorable mention all-conference a year ago.

Power forward Kenlee Nance is the only returning senior starter, while point guard Jocie Phillips keys what Sorenson hopes is a fast-paced attack.

“We’re trying to go up-tempo a little bit, trying to put pressure on the ball coming down,” Sorenson said. “Create things in the up-tempo game.”

1A

GRACE GRIZZLIES

Coach: Kyle Christensen, 2nd year

Record last year: 17-9, won 2A consolation championship

Current record: 10-2

Returning starters: 5

Players to watch: F Maniah Clegg, jr., G Breanna Hill, sr.

Outlook: Grace is in an envious position, bringing five starters back from a team that made it to the state tournament last year.

That’s meant smooth sailing, for the most part, for second-year head coach Kyle Christensen.

“We haven’t changed a lot,” Christensen said. “The girls who have been in the program more know my philosophies. Hopefully, we can build on last year’s successes.”

Post player Maniah Clegg and point guard Breanna Hill are talented, experienced players who anchor the lineup.

“Both have played since their freshman years,” Christensen said. “They’re aggressive players, pretty smart, bring the other girls along with them.”

With a base of success, Grace’s goals are pretty simple.

“We’re looking to get to the state tournament again and hopefully have an opportunity, at the end, to compete for a title,” Christensen said.

NORTH GEM COWBOYS

Coach: Dana Strong, fifth season

Record last year: 8-13

Current record: 3-5

Players to watch: G Harlee Davids, F Shannessey O’Brien

Outlook: North Gem’s state tournament drought reached seven years after last year’s 8-13 season.

Senior guard Harlee Davids carries most of the responsibility for reversing that after picking up an honorable mention all-conference spot a year ago.

“She kind of helps make the team go,” head coach Dana Strong said. “She provides speed, very good defender off the ball, gets a lot of steals that way.”

DanniKa Barfuss is expected to step up into the second scorer role, while young post Shannessey O’Brien provides some upside down low — “she’s 5-foot-10, and still growing,” Strong said.

The Cowboys are shorthanded, with only nine players on the roster, but Strong is confident they’ll grow throughout the season.

“Every year’s a little different, but this team has a really good attitude,” Strong said. “They’re wiling to learn, which is good. ... Our big thing is to put pressure on the other team, getting steals and running the floor. This is a smaller, quicker team than we’ve had.”

ROCKLAND BULLDOGS

Coach: Vern Nelson, 24th season

Record last year: 21-6, two-and-out at 1A DII state tournament

Current record: 10-2

Returning starters: 3

Players to watch: G Madalyn Permann, sr., G Charlotte Wilson, sr.; F Evie Waite, sr.

Outlook: Vern Nelson, the longest-tenured coach in the area, brought back a trio of experienced seniors hoping to expand on last season’s state tournament appearance.

“Our goal for this season would be to win the district again,” Nelson said. “We want to go to state, and this year we want to bring something home from state. Last year we didn’t. We’re working hard towards that.”

Seniors Madalyn Permann, Charlotte Wilson and Evie Waite are all multi-year starters, with Permann the reigning 1A DII District 5-6 Player of the Year.

“She’s always been an offensive player,” Nelson said about Permann. “She’s been our go-to player for sophomore year, junior year and this year. She can shoot outside, she can go to the basket.”

Permann and Wilson, as the guards, spearhead the Bulldogs’ aggressive pressure defense. Waite is joined inside this year by sophomore Kiersley Boyer.

“We play a lot of full court defense and then we try to run the ball down the court,” Nelson said. “We have depth this year, which we didn’t last year. This group of girls, they work really hard in practice.”

SHO-BAN CHIEFS

Coach: Justin Dance, first season

Record last year: 22-4, 1-2 at 1A DII state tournament

Current record: 5-2

Returning starters: 4

Players to watch: G Harley Jackson, sr.; F Reesha Pokibro, jr.

Outlook: As always, Sho-Ban is primarily chasing one thing this year — the team’s first district championship.

“Sho-Ban’s never won a district title, so that’s kind of the goal,” first-year coach Jeremy Dance said. The Chiefs were 21-4 last year but two of those losses were to Rockland, costing them the district.

Once again, Sho-Ban has the talent to make a run at it, led by senior guard Harley Jackson, who’s averaging 30 points per game so far, according to Dance.

“She’s just really smart,” Dance said. “She shoots the ball extremely well, which opens it up for her to drive, and she just makes the smart play every time.”

She’s supported by triple-double threat Reesha Pokibro.

With a new coach, the Chiefs have made some scheme changes to try to get over the hump.

“Last year, we really struggled when teams went man against us,” Dance said. “The goal for us coming in was to push the ball and execute when teams are manning us. We’ve thrown in a new offensive system and they’ve picked it up really quick and really well. We just want to put up a lot of points every game.”