10 biggest Arizona high school sports memories of 2016

Desert Vista celebrates its Division I state championship win after beating Chandler Hamilton in penalty kicks.

Desert Vista celebrates its Division I state championship win after beating Chandler Hamilton in penalty kicks.

Another year is about to end, but the memories are lasting.

Here are 10 Arizona high school sports memories from 2016:

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No. 1 Tyler Prewitt Night

In late April, when Phoenix Greenway baseball players badgered coach Matt Denny if they could wear the Tyler Prewitt-dedicated camouflage helmet that hung on a hook in the dugout on Tyler Prewitt Night, he only allowed the leadoff hitter to wear it. On the first pitch, senior Matt McDonald launched his first career home run, feeling the former Greenway player and fallen soldier’s strength run through his veins as he crossed home plate in a surreal moment. “I came in from the third-base box and into the dugout after the inning like a ghost, going, ‘What the heck is going on?’ ” Denny said. Greenway went on to win the state championship.

No. 2 Tears of joy

In October, two days after his dad died, Marana quarterback Connor Leavens, had the game of his life, completing 16 of 18 passes for 335 yards and four touchdowns in a 52-14 victory over Poston Butte. “I told (my family), ‘I have to play this Friday because growing up playing football was the thing me and my dad shared together,’ ” Leavens said. “He taught me how to play. I made him proud doing it. I did him justice by playing a good game Friday.”

No. 3 Something to celebrate

In February, Phoenix Desert Vista’s girls soccer team won a thrilling state championship shootout over Chandler Hamilton that gave the Ahwatukee school a much-needed boost after receiving negative national publicity over a senior picture day photo involving six Desert Vista girls that spelled out a racial slur and went viral. “I told the kids, ‘This isn’t just about soccer; it’s bigger than you are,’ ” coach Marvin Hypolite said after the game. “For what this school went through, for these girls to stay tight, it’s tremendous.”

No. 4 Coming home

Peoria Centennial senior Caleb Norling didn’t want special treatment while on the base path with his walker because he had cerebral palsy. And he wasn’t given any when his coach put him in as a pinch-runner at third base during a March baseball game. He scored the first run of his life, after being driven in by best friend Tanner Bland. “As a dad, there are no words,” said Troy Norling, who was an assistant coach, at the time. “I’m blessed by my son’s attitude about the way he attacks life. He just doesn’t have bad days. God has blessed him with an amazing positive attitude, and it’s infectious to everyone around him, not only in baseball, but at school and church, everywhere.”

No. 5 Olympic glory

This didn’t happen in Arizona and not during the school year, but it stood out because of the stage on which Scottsdale Chaparral swimmer Taylor Ruck did it. She was part of two relays for Canada that won Olympic bronze medals in Rio last summer. She returned to school and settled into her junior season with her high school teammates, setting two more individual state records and helping Chaparral break a relay state record. “It helped bring me back into focus for future goals, brought my individual performances back under my radar, and also helped remind me of how much I love this sport and the people in it,” Ruck said of her Olympic moments.

No. 6 Bibby buzz

For the second time in three years, father and son shared a state championship, as coach Mike Bibby and senior point guard Michael Bibby dispatched Avondale Agua Fria, a team riding a 23-game winning streak, 86-55 in late February. Two knee surgeries after his first state title as a sophomore, Michael Bibby had the game of his life with 22 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and five steals in the Division II final. “To get this to end my high school career, it means the world to me,” Michael said after the game.

No. 7 Shrouded season

Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep wanted to show that no matter how many players had left for Scottsdale Saguaro, that it could still feature a championship football season. But it had nowhere to go after finishing with an 8-2 record, because the Arizona Interscholastic Association Executive Board refused to lift probation over a fully padded (helmets and shoulder pads) June summer-school football course and for a recruiting violation (promoting a skills camp to youths). It ended ugly with second-year coach Mark Nolan being fired before the final regular-season game and president Jim Gmelich eventually turning in his resignation to the Phoenix diocese.

No. 8 Buzzer beater

This came this week when Phoenix Sunnyslope guard Jaran Whitfield, with time running out, took an inbounds pass, dribbled twice and launched a shot from well beyond half-court that banked in and gave his team a one-point win over Seattle’s King’s School in the Visit Mesa Basketball Challenge at Mesa Mountain View. So shocked by what he did, Whitfield ran into the lobby, where teammates were finally able to chase him down to celebrate the moment. “It just felt so surreal and I couldn’t believe that the shot went down,” Whitfield said.

No. 9 Purdy power

Gilbert Perry and junior quarterback Brock Purdy were nowhere on the radar to open the football season. Purdy didn’t play until the fourth week of the season, after recovering from mononucleosis. But he had one of the greatest efforts of the year in 6A Conference quarterfinal thriller against Chandler Hamilton in November. In a back-and-forth game, Perry prevailed 63-60 in overtime on Purdy’s 15-yard run. It was the biggest win in school history, getting Perry to the semifinals for the first time. The second-biggest win was beating Hamilton in the regular season for the first time in its history. Purdy ended up beating out the likes of Ryan Kelley, Chase Cord and Spencer Rattler for All-Arizona quarterback by azcentral sports.

No. 10 The stand

Thatcher hadn’t won a state football championship since 2006, and was about to see its season end in the semifinals to unbeaten Eloy Santa Cruz. But Thatcher’s defense wouldn’t cave from its 1-yard-line on two successive carries by All-2A Conference running back Devin Neal. Time ran out, and Thatcher won it in overtime 27-26 on an extra point by foreign-exchange student Tormod Sandven, the kid they call “Thor.” The following week, a blocked punt fueled Thatcher’s state title win over another unbeaten team, Eagar Round Valley. “With that stand right there, any team we play, we like to say that they’ll break before we do,” middle linebacker Brandon Hayes, who ran in the tying touchdown in overtime from 2 yards out, said afterward.

Suggest human interest stories to Richard Obert at or 602-316-8827. Follow him at

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