Girls basketball in Aurora has become clearly stratified in recent years.
Regis Jesuit has clearly lifted itself to the front of the pack in the past few seasons and won the program’s second Class 5A state championship a year ago.
On top of that, coach Carl Mattei didn’t lose a single regular from his championship team and just had seven of his players sign national athletic letters of intent to play college basketball — including six with Division I programs.
“Just to watch this group pass the ball, I sit back and think ‘this is so much fun,’” Mattei said of his current group, most of which has been part of three straight Final Fours, two title game appearances and one championship.
“I’ve never had a team that is so special in terms of how they play for each other and how proud they are to represent Regis. They still have the desire to be state champs again and if we can stay healthy and play like a team, we could do that again.”
Two Regis Jesuit starters have signed with Top 25 NCAA women’s basketball programs in Diani Akigbogun (Texas) and Justine Hall (Purdue), while Kelsi Lidge (Drexel), Jordan Molyneaux (Seton Hall), Anna Ptasinski (Lafayette) and Neffie Lockley (Howard) are also headed to the Division I level.
The presence of this type of talent hasn’t escaped national notice, as Mattei’s team is rated No. 9 in the country by MaxPreps in the preseason and even higher by other outlets. He’s not hiding his team, either, as he’s lined up a schedule that includes a visit to Incarnate Word — ranked No. 1 nationally — in St. Louis, the Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix and the Classic in the County in Ohio.
The Raiders were the unanimous No. 1 team in the CHSAANow.com preseason Class 5A coaches/media poll, which included only one other Aurora team — Grandview, a semifinalist in 2012-13 — at No. 4.
The Wolves have long been one of the city’s other top teams, but took it to the next level last season before falling to Regis Jesuit in the Final Four.
Coach Josh Ulitzky graduated a group that laid the foundation of the rise year-by-year — including back-to-back Centennial League championships — and he hopes the momentum can be sustained by this season’s team.
“The bar has been raised; I think this group is hoping and planning to be able to continue that and go on deep runs in the playoffs,” Ulitzky said.
“We want to get to where we are consistently a final eight, final four type of team and I think that is the impression they were left with. The hope is to build the program so we can be in the same world as Regis and (Highlands) Ranch and ThunderRidge. These kids have worked so hard, we hope we are there.”
The presence of two holdovers from last season’s team and the arrival of some talented youth gives Ulitzky reason for optimism. Seniors Katie Cunningham and Natalie Halbleib —who each earned all-league accolades last season playing alongside a handful of seniors — should lead the way, while super-athletic freshman Michaela Onyenwere should provide a boost on both ends of the floor.
Smoky Hill — which won a playoff game last season — has back leading scorer Sarah Milafsky and rebounder Brooke Zimmerman for a possible move up in the Centennial League, while a variety of other city programs will need abundant youth to step to the forefront if they entertain hopes of qualifying for the state playoffs.
2013-14 AURORA GIRLS BASKETBALL AT A GLANCE
2012-13 RECORDS: Aurora Central — 4-19 overall (3-6 in 5A/4A EMAC); Cherokee Trail — 10-14 overall (5-9 in 5A Centennial League); Eaglecrest — 6-17 overall (2-12 in 5A Centennial); Gateway — 8-15 overall (4-5 in 5A/4A EMAC); Grandview* – 24-3 overall (13-1 in 5A Centennial League); Hinkley — 7-16 overall (4-5 in 5A/4A EMAC); Overland — 7-15 overall (1-13 in 5A Centennial League); Rangeview — 10-14 overall (6-3 in 5A/4A EMAC); Regis Jesuit* — 26-2 overall (10-1 in 5A Continental League); Smoky Hill — 10-15 overall (5-9 in 5A Centennial League); Vista PEAK — 3-21 overall (2-10 in 3A/4A Colorado 7 League) * — Denotes league champion
PLAYERS TO WATCH (GIRLS): Diani Akigbogun, F/C, sr., Regis Jesuit; Kennede Brown, G, fr., Grandview; Katie Cunningham, G/F, sr., Grandview; Natalie Halbleib, G/F, sr., Grandview; Justine Hall, F, sr., Regis Jesuit; Jaiden Halliburton, G, sr., Overland; Lily Hartley, F, sr., Cherokee Trail; Janay Henderson, F, jr., Smoky Hill; Jenna Henderson, G/F, soph., Aurora Central; Michaela Hinton, F, sr., Overland; Carra Jackson-Brown, G/F, sr., Rangeview; Anastacia Johnson, F, soph., Cherokee Trail; Aubreanna Johnson, F/C, soph., Eaglecrest; Jaylynn Johnson, F/C, soph., Vista PEAK; Neffie Lockley, G/F, sr., Regis Jesuit; Precious Luster, G/F, Gateway, sr.; Kenzie McLelland, F, soph., Cherokee Trail; Sarah Milafsky, G, Smoky Hill, sr.; Jordan Molyneaux, C, sr., Regis Jesuit; Zelle Moore, G, sr., Overland; Michaela Onyenwere, F, fr., Grandview; Anna Ptasinski, G, sr., Regis Jesuit; Brianna Purnell, G, jr., Aurora Central; Ajanee Robinson, G/F, sr., Rangeview; Kyah Scott, G, sr. Gateway; Nyece Smith, G, jr., Hinkley; Hannah Sparks, G, Cherokee Trail, sr.; Jamie Stoner, G, sr., Eaglecrest; Brooke Zimmerman, F/C, Smoky Hill, sr.
COACHES: Aurora Central — Matt Vigil; Cherokee Trail — Todd Dixon; Eaglecrest — Alex Moore; Gateway — Tammi Traylor-Statewright; Grandview — Josh Ulitzky; Hinkley — Harry Sledge; Overland — Wayne McDonald; Rangeview — Chris Dolan; Regis Jesuit — Carl Mattei; Smoky Hill — DeWayne Brandon; Vista PEAK — Matt Borushko
Courtney Oakes is Sports Editor of the Aurora Sentinel. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. Facebook: Aurora Prep Sentinel