The last time the Grandview girls basketball team played a game, Michaela Onyenwere scored 43 points with 29 rebounds.
The Wolves ended up losing that game — an 86-83 defeat at Lakewood in the Sweet 16 round of last season’s Class 5A state playoffs — but it provided a glimpse of what a primarily young team could be at their best.
Onyenwere is back after a season in which she averaged 23.7 points and 11.5 rebounds and further established herself as the state’s most explosive player. In addition, coach Josh Ulitzky also has back five other players who appeared in that playoff game and use it as motivation for a potentially deeper run in 2015-16.
“I think the big thing for the kids is the pain of that loss (to Lakewood) helps motivate them,” said Ulitzky, whose program has won 20 games or more for four straight seasons.
“At the same time, the only way I can get them experience in those kinds of games is to be in those kinds of games,” he added. “I think they’ve grown up a little bit and that should pay dividends for us later.”
Freshman Alisha Davis adds nice size at 6-foot-1 that should allow Onyenwere to continue to operate on the perimeter, where her game expanded last season.
Junior Lenzi Hudson developed into a bonafide perimeter shooting threat late last season and should again provide that to the Wolves, while junior Kennede Brown is in her third season as a varsity starter. Seniors Alexus Gash and Kayla Vallin and sophomore Jaiden Galloway contribute in many ways to a team that will also work in some up and coming youngsters over the course of the season.
Coming off 5A state championships in the previous two seasons, Regis Jesuit had an uncommonly early exit to last season’s playoffs, as coach Carl Mattei’s team lost by a point in tight second round game at Grand Junction.
The Raiders graduated a great leader in point guard Jess Lewis, but bring back two college-bound seniors in TaeKenya Cleveland (American University) and Ezekia Johnson (Biola University).
Cleveland — the program’s 32nd Division I signee in 11 seasons — finished second on the team in scoring with an average off 11.9 points per game, through she admittedly struggled with consistency. She scored 20 points or more four times, but also finish with six or less six times and has vowed to be more aggressive from start to finish in her fourth varsity season.
Mattei has noticed a remarkable change in the hunger of Johnson, who averaged 9.5 points and 4.6 rebounds per game last season and now has a chance to play at the college level.
Sophomores Jasmine Gaines, Noelle Cahill and Emma Wrede will play expanded roles as Mattei waits to get his full roster into place, which won’t happen until late in the season. Another sophomore, Olivia Ayers, must sit out half the year after transferring from Cherry Creek, while impactful freshman Sidney Weigand will miss the early portion of the season with a broken leg.
“With all the change, we are a team this year that will be a lot better each month,” said Mattei, who lost returning junior Jewell Humphrey to a torn ACL. “By the time we get to February, I’m hoping we’ll be a pretty solid team…With the youth on this team, I think by next year we’ll start getting back to where we’ve been, but hopefully we can speed up the process and make Aurora proud.”
Cherokee Trail is under new leadership in Jerry Austin, who inherits a roster including several key returning players who helped the Cougars win a playoff game last season before losing to eventual state champion Broomfield.
The senior trio of Jaleesa Avery, Anastacia Johnson (a first team All-City pick last season) and Kenzie McLelland all have either signed or committed to play in college and have the skills and experience to carry the program a long way. Junior Taryn Foxen gives Cherokee Trail another threat.
Eaglecrest and Smoky Hill enter the second seasons under Tim Brennan and Andrea Gross, respectively, and both expect to make significant strides.
No seniors appear on the Raptors’ roster this season, giving Brennan a future to look forward to in addition to the present. He feels “miles ahead” of last season and has a better grasp on the players in the program, just as the players have demonstrated a better understanding of the defensive mindset he favors.
Junior guards Jessica Stoner (a second team All-Centennial League performer last season) and Samoane Emecheta key the way for a team with some size and strength in 6-footers Sha’la Wiggins, a junior, and sophomore Kailey Wilson plus a boost of athleticism from freshman Raquel Turner. Versatile junior Jordan O’Brien is injured to start the season, but will give Eaglecrest’s depth a shot when she returns.
“Last season, we won the games we were supposed to win and lost the games we were supposed to lose,” said Brennan, whose team finished 8-16 in 2014-15. “The real sense of accomplishment of the players and the program would be by getting the some of the wins in games we’re not supposed to win. We’ve never really rounded that corner.”
Gross has no explosive scorers and believes Smoky Hill could have different leading scorers in many different games this season.
For that reason, good defense is paramount to the Buffs’ hopes to improve on last season’s 4-19 mark. With juniors Evan McCleary and Emma Gala having the team’s only real size at 5-9, Smoky Hill’s quickness will be key as Gross believes she may need to play three point guards at a time in some instances.
Blue collar seniors Vannessa Ruby and Gabbi Walker and tireless junior Mikayla Hernandez lend experience to the Buffaloes.
“We’re dedicated to defense and we work hard on it every day,” Gross said. “We’re not going to win if we try to outshoot teams, but we’ll score points here and there and we want to disrupt other teams knowing that hopefully that creates more points on the other end.”
Overland has a bonafide point guard in freshman Kailey Brown, which makes coach Wayne McDonald believe the Trailblazers will be markedly improved from a team that finished 0-14 in the Centennial League last year.
Brown stands just 5 feet tall, but has a feel for the game and the understanding of how to involve her teammates that could be key. Sophomores Maia Jackson and Lyric Thompson both come back improved as well, especially in terms of perimeter shooting.
“A lot of our points last year came out of sloppy play, but we need to be able to deliver better this year,” McDonald said. “I believe I have a point guard who can do that. It’s difficult at times for a freshman to come in and lead older people, but she’s shown us that she can do it.
“We’re working on how she can control the ball when she’s out there and put people in the right position.”
Gateway and Rangeview both lost in the first round of last season’s state tournament, but both should be in contention in the EMAC and make a return to the postseason.
Olys coach Tammi Traylor-Statewright returns All-City first teamer Carmen Ramey and other holdovers with talent and she’s trying to get her team to exhibit more patience this season. Between Carmen Ramey (who averaged 11.7 points per game last season), twin sister Ashley and junior Makayla Jones
“We’re trying to get them to think a little bit more this year and not constantly try to use our athleticism to beat people,” Traylor-Statewright said. “We have to think a little bit more and be more strategic, look for other options than the first one. We need to get them to be patient and attack with a purpose.”
Coach Lamont Weddle’s Raiders, meanwhile, return leading scorer and rebounder Jaelin Jones plus Dixie State signee Tomarow Whitfield from last season’s 11-13 squad.
Jones averaged 11.7 points and 8.3 rebounds per contest a year ago and has a nice touch around the basket, while Whitfield is very active in the paint. Junior reserve Makaylee Jones should help loosen up defenses with her outside shooting.
Aurora Central is under the new leadership of coach Anten Sakagawa, the former Sheridan coach who is seeking to change the culture of a program that has experienced some frustration in recent seasons, including 2014-15 when it went 5-18.
Sakagawa moved senior Jenna Henderson — the team’s most accomplished player — from an inside role to point guard, where she’ll have the ball in her hands more often. Henderson averaged 19.4 points per game last season.
“She told me she hasn’t played point guard since the eighth grade, but that’s where I see her strength,” Sakagawa said of Henderson. “My philosophy is always to try to get the ball into your best player’s hands as often as possible and the best way to do that is let them have it from the start.”
Senior guard Awah Tilong is another leader the Trojans, while sophomore Akolda Redgebol is a key figure in the paint.
Jim Bartok is eager to begin his second season at Vista PEAK as his comfort level has improved and he can’t wait to build on the three-game winning streak the Bison went on to close out last season.
The development of several players, primarily senior Jaylynn Johnson, has Bartok looking forward to the season and a hopeful run to the 4A postseason.
Johnson and junior DeMe Moore give the Bison an inside presence that should compliment the ability to go up-tempo. Senior Allie Johnston is the third Vista PEAK regular that returns from last season and shares captain duties with Johnson.
The Bison appear improved in the backcourt and feature depth up front.
“We really stepped it up at the end of last season, so we’re feeling good about ourselves coming into this year,” Bartok said. “We’re going to find out early. We have eight games before Christmas break and that’s really going to tell a lot about our chances.”
Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel
2015 AURORA GIRLS BASKETBALL PLAYERS TO WATCH
Aurora players to watch: Jaleesa Avery, 6-foot-1, C, sr., Cherokee Trail; Kailey Brown, 5-0, G, fr., Overland; Kennede Brown, 5-5, G, jr., Grandview; Noelle Cahill, 6-3, C, soph., Regis Jesuit; TaeKenya Cleveland, 6-0, G, sr., Regis Jesuit; Alisha Davis, 6-1, F/C, fr., Grandview; Julia Drexelius, 5-4, G, sr., Regis Jesuit; Samoane Emecheta, 5-6, G, jr., Eaglecrest; Taryn Foxen, 5-9, F, jr., Cherokee Trail; Jasmine Gaines, 5-6, G, soph., Regis Jesuit; Jaiden Galloway, 5-7, G, soph., Grandview; Alexus Gash, 5-9, G/F, sr., Grandview; Jenna Henderson, 5-7, G, sr., Aurora Central; Mikayla Hernandez, 5-9, G, jr., Smoky Hill; Lenzi Hudson, 5-7, G, jr., Grandview; Deanna Hughes, 6-1, F/C, sr., Overland; Maia Jackson, 5-7, G/F, soph., Overland; Anastacia Johnson, 5-8, G/F, sr., Cherokee Trail; Ezekiah Johnson, 6-0, F, sr., Regis Jesuit; Jaylynn Johnson, 5-10, C/F, sr., Vista PEAK; Allie Johnston, 5-4, G, sr., Vista PEAK; Jaelin Jones, 5-7, G/F, jr., Rangeview; Makayla Jones, 5-6, G, jr., Gateway; Makaylee Jones, 5-4, G, jr., Rangeview; Kenzie McLelland, 5-11, F, sr., Cherokee Trail; DeMe Moore, 5-8, F, jr., Vista PEAK; Michaela Onyenwere, 6-0, F, jr., Grandview; Ashley Ramey, 5-5, G, sr., Gateway; Carmen Ramey, 5-7, G, sr., Gateway; Akolda Redgebol, 5-11, C, soph., Aurora Central; Vannessa Ruby, 5-7, G, sr., Smoky Hill; Jessica Stoner, 5-7, G, jr., Eaglecrest; Lyric Thompson, 5-7, F, soph., Overland; Awah Tilong, 5-2, G, sr., Aurora Central; Raquel Turner, 5-7, G, fr., Eaglecrest; Kayla Vallin, 5-8, F, sr., Grandview; Gabbi Walker, 5-6, G, sr., Smoky Hill; Jordan Walton, 5-4, G, soph., Overland; Tomarow Whitfield, 5-10, G/F, sr., Rangeview; Kailey Wilson, 6-0, C, soph., Eaglecrest; Emma Wrede, 5-6, G, soph., Regis Jesuit