Junior Kelci Connolly

Junior Kelci Connolly dribbles at Sunrise Mountain girls basketball practice as coach Jenn Tolle looks on.

After a back-and-forth that saw winter sports seasons canceled and then reinstated, basketball season begins for high schools around Glendale and Peoria this week.

Leading the way is the Sunrise Mountain Mustangs girls basketball team, which returns most of its top players in 2021, after the best season in its history. 

Peoria’s Sunrise Mountain takes on Glendale rival Raymond S. Kellis High Friday, Jan. 22. Both teams were to start their seasons Tuesday, Jan. 19. 

It will be quite a challenge for the Kellis Cougars, coming off a 14-14 season.

Sunrise Mountain went 26-5 and reached the 5A state championship game for the first time in the 2019-20 campaign, living up to the potential coach Jenn Tolle saw in her squad from the beginning of the year. The playoff run shocked a lot of the Mustang players, even while it was happening.

“I knew that we were good, but I don’t know if any of us were like, ‘Oh, my God, we can do this.’ It was kind of like a surreal moment for us,” said senior Julie Diveney.

Now, there will be no surprises if the Mustangs have another winning year. After losing just two graduating seniors from the 2019-20 roster, the team is still young. Diveney is the lone senior.

But, despite its youth, there are a lot of returning starters and contributors. The Mustangs can add more into the playbook, with variations of the fundamentals most of the girls already have worked on.

“We just have a lot of players that know the game of basketball. They have instincts, and we have really good athletes on our team, too. So, when coach adds more stuff or she puts in more intricate plays, it’s a lot easier for us to adapt more,” said junior Kelci Connolly.

Paired with that experience, Tolle said, is the team’s overall athleticism and size. There are a few tall players, but for the most part she foresees most of the girls being relatively similar in height in most lineups, with the ability to move and guard against a variety of positions.

“We have a lot of flexibility. We like playing man to man and playing different variations of man-to-man defense because they can do that. We can switch, we can match people up in different ways, we can play screens different ways — so they’re really fun to coach,” Tolle said.

As successful as the 2019-20 season was, there was just one hurdle the Mustangs could not get over: a 59-30 loss in the championship game to defending champion Millennium.

Diveney said the girls are “a little agitated” they did not play as well in the final game as they thought they could, albeit against a Tiger squad filled with future high-level college basketball players. But getting to that point alone gives the team the knowledge that with the right effort it can compete with the best on the right night.

“I think the excitement and energy we play with, I think that’s what’s kind of been growing over the years, and this year I think we have more confidence built up this year because we know we can do that. And we’re just trying to build on that,” Diveney said.

Whether the Mustangs could play the 2020-21 season, let alone make a postseason run, was uncertain. COVID-19 delayed the Arizona Interscholastic Association winter sports season by several weeks, after months of inability to practice and play a normal offseason schedule.

Tolle implemented a “virtual challenge” for the girls, in which the players were tasked with working out at home or another safe spot and either videorecording it or having a parent sign off to confirm the work. Online video chats and regular messages of teamwork and compassion were sent out, and the girls were encouraged to communicate as much as possible to maintain camaraderie.

“It required a lot of creativity and a lot of patience,” Tolle said.

Now, the schedule is finally set — at least tentatively. The Mustangs hosted rival Centennial to open the season. 

Kellis started its 2021 season against Gila Ridge.