For the Peoria High girls basketball team, a few very close games were all that separated it from the upper echelon of Division II.
“We lost to Buckeye (in the regular season by two points), (Scottsdale Saguaro) by two points, and we lost (to Buckeye) by one point, in the sectional,” Peoria head coach John Canale Jr. said. “Both times we played (Phoenix) Sierra Linda, we lost to them both times, in the Christmas tournament by two baskets and we lost to them at home by two baskets.”
The also had a physical loss dealt to them when sophomore center Precious Jackson went down because of a torn ACL during the Lady Titan Winter Hoops Classic at Phoenix Arcadia.
“(Losing Jackson) was an adjustment to us, losing our center because she was a starter as a freshman,” Canale said. “And so we put a girl in there who was coming off the bench for us and she’s playing much better now, after being thrown in there. … And I think (the team has) come through that very well.”
But those losses are not what the team has focused on this season. Instead, they have focused on becoming closer as a team and spreading the ball around the floor more.
“Last year, (the team) used to stand around and watch Taylor Blue and Lexi Camacho do most of the work,” Canale said. “But this year, they’re playing more as a team overall.”
Playing more as a team has resulted in a six-game improvement in their record this season, and it has secured the Panthers a spot in the Division II state tournament.
Camacho and Blue are seniors who have been playing on the varsity level since they were freshmen. Their sophomore year, the team won 30 games, earned the No. 1-overall seed in the Division II tournament and made it to the state championship, where it lost to Chandler Seton Catholic.
The next season, the girls had two huge transitions to make. First, transitioning to becoming upperclassmen and leaders on the team, and second, to a new head coach after Leslie Saulsby, who won more than 80 games in five years at Peoria, left the program to become the athletic director at Avondale Agua Fria.
That transition under the new direction of Canale resulted in a 13-game drop in wins from the previous season and saw the team miss out on the state tournament.
But now, the team is back on the right track, as it has qualified for the state tournament as the No. 18 seed, and it is looking to make a Cinderella run.
“I have experienced girls, three of the starters playing on that state team two years ago, so they know what the pressure is,” Canale said.
Canale realizes how important playing in both the sectional and state tournaments are to the development of his younger players.
“They sure realize that … the difference is you’ve got to elevate your game,” Canale said. “And just being at that sectional tournament, the atmosphere is completely different. You need to work hard in the off-season, and that’s why. Because when you get in these situations, the difference is teams elevate now.”
But even if the season ends without a state championship or championship-game appearance, Canale is still happy about this season.
“This season’s gone pretty well for us,” Canale said. “We started out strong; … as we approached the end of the year, we lost some close games to a few good teams. … But overall for our kids, we still had a pretty good season.”