For the last two years, Panguitch has dominated the 1A girls basketball landscape.
And while this year it appears the Bobcats are still the team to beat, there are a handful of other teams with both the ability and confidence to challenge Panguitch’s effort to three-peat.
“Yes, (Panguitch) is still the team to beat,” said Duchesne head coach Eric Jessen. “I’ll be honest. It’s pretty much the same scenario (as the past couple of years), but I think it’s a lot tighter gap.”
Last year, not only did the defending state champion Bobcats finish the season undefeated 1A state champions, their closest playoff game was a 30-point win over region-rival Piute in the championship game.
The most impressive aspect of last season’s title win was that it came after an undefeated 2014 season. Their closest game in the 2014 playoffs was a 22-point win.
This year the top-ranked Bobcats have two losses heading into the playoffs — 3A’s top-ranked Cedar and region rival Bryce Valley. Panguitch owns the tiebreak victory over the Mustangs as the Bobcats beat them in the Region 20 tournament 35-30.
But the fact that another 1A team found a way to beat Panguitch indicates there might be an opportunity for others.
“Their region championship was a fairly close ball game,” Jessen said. “So they look more vulnerable than in the past.”
That’s not to say Panguitch looks vulnerable.
They boast the top scoring offense in the classification and the fourth-best (statistically) scoring defense. They’re led by a group of experienced, accomplished and talented seniors, starting with last year’s 1A MVP Whittni Orton, a senior guard who averages 13.3. points, 5.8 assists and 5.3 steals per game. Senior forward Chesney Campbell (12.9 points, 7.2 rebounds) and senior forward Taylor Bennett (12 points and 7.2 rebounds), as well as junior forward Briann Birch (9.2 points, 3.6 steals) make the Bobcats tough to slow and tougher to beat.
Second-ranked Duchesne earned the region title without a loss, but Jessen said they got a bit of a wake-up call last week when they lost a non-region contest to a team they’d beaten earlier in the season.
“We laid a rotten egg,” he said. “It’s probably the worst we played in my two years of coaching. But they realized, ‘We still have to work for this.’”
Duchesne’s got great veteran leadership, as well, and they boast the second-best defense in 1A, statistically speaking. The Eagles are led by Mashaylee Giles, a senior who averages 11.5 points per game, and Alyssa Nielsen, who averages 11.2 points per game.
Jessen said his team has a tough road to Saturday’s 1A title game. They start the tournament with either ICS or Milford, and then it could be a parade of Region 20 teams, that is, “assuming we can win.”
He said his players are looking forward to the post-season with excited anticipation.
“They have high hopes and expectations,” Jessen said. “They're anxious. If you’re not nervous a little, then you’re in the wrong business. I think as a general rule, it’s not going to be easy. But we’re very excited for (the tournament).”
Third-ranked Bryce Valley’s (18-5) has some impressive pre-season wins over 1A’s other top teams including, Duchesne, Monticello and Rich, as well as some of the state’s top 2A teams in Enterprise and Kanab.
The Mustangs are led by senior Jailine Vasquez (9.4 points), junior Danielle Brinkerhoff (7.3 points) and senior Brittany Shakespear (6.9 points).
Fourth-ranked Monticello faces the winner of the Wayne vs. Dugway play-in game. The Buckaroos (14-6) won the Region 19 title without a loss. The team is led by junior Atlanta Black, who averages 15.5 points per game, and junior Michaela Wolford, who averages 8.7 points per game.
Fifth-ranked Piute relies on a mixture of veteran and youth. The T-birds boast a Jan. 29th victory over Bryce Valley, which illustrates just how competitive Region 20 really is.
The T-birds are led by junior guard Macey Dalton, who scores 12.2 points per game, sophomore guard Mickell Morgan, who averages 11.5 points per game, as well as junior forward Mikaylee Morgan, who scores 7.3 points per game.
Piute has a brutal draw as they have to beat Whitehorse in a play-in game, and if they’re successful, they face Panguitch in the first round.
Also serious contenders are Region 17 champion, Tintic, finished with just one loss — a one-point heartbreaker to Wendover; Rich (16-12), which is Region 17’s second-place team and a perennial power with a new coach; and St. Joseph (13-6), Region 18’s second place team and another team with a first-year coach. The Jayhawks boast the classifications number one defense, allowing an average of just 30.1 points per game.
1A Girls Basketball Brackets
Valley vs. Green River, 10 a.m.
Duchesne vs. ICS/Milford, 11:30 a.m.
Parowan/Region 17 #4 vs. Tintic, 1 p.m.
Bryce Valley vs. Monument Valley/Westridge, 2:30 p.m.
Wendover vs. Rich, 4 p.m.
Monticello vs. Wayne/Dugway, 5:30 p.m.
Panguitch vs. Whitehorse/Piute, 7 p.m.
Tabiona vs. St. Joseph, 8:30 p.m.