When Mike Moran returned as the head coach of Coconino High School this past offseason, he had a few goals in mind.
While a state playoff appearance, a Grand Canyon Region title and a victory against Flagstaff High School were on the list, the first-ever state tournament rivalry game wasn't exactly considered.
"When I heard about this opportunity, the first thing my wife said to me was 'Are you ready to do the Flag-Coco game?' and I said that's why I want to do it," Moran said. "They have had such a great run over there -- just to be in the same gym with them so quick, and playing a third time, it is an honor. Coconino is back in my mind, we are here and you have to deal with us again."
Teams from the Grand Canyon and Black Canyon Regions created a perfect storm on the last day of the regular season, leaving Coconino at No. 11 and Flagstaff sliding to No. 22.
Idle since Feb. 2, when they beat the Eagles on Harding Eddie's buzzer-beating 3-pointer, the Panthers slipped down from No. 10 to No. 11 as their region foes dropped games to end the season.
Meanwhile, Flagstaff lost its season finale to Washington, dropping from No. 19 to No. 22 as the Rams rose up to No. 20 and jumped the Eagles. The loss was Flagstaff’s sixth in its final seven games, with all six coming to teams that made the 4A Conference tournament.
“To be realistic, that’s good for us,” said Eagles head coach Nick Walton, who added he thought the matchup was a possibility following Tuesday's loss. “We are pumped about it; we don’t have to travel -- which is huge. A team that we probably know the most about, that we are most familiar with and we get to play in front of our fans. It’s a home game without it being a home game.”
HOW THEY GOT HERE
The happenstance of two Coconino County schools facing one another in the play-in round, coupled with the Santa Cruz County schools of Nogales and Rio Rico matched up as well, provided suspicion from some around town.
With Nogales at No. 10 and Rio Rico at No. 23, the Panthers trailed the Apaches by 0.0803 in Wednesday’s 4A ratings, allowing the AIA to avoid nearly five-hour bus rides for both Rio Rico and Flagstaff and keep two play-in games within reach for dueling fan bases.
Seth Polansky, the AIA's sports information coordinator, explained that the rating system relies in part on the strength of schedule of opponents. While Coconino did not play during the final few days of the regular season, losses by teams it played during the season aided its drop in the standings.
With a loss to Salpointe Catholic on Tuesday, Nogales dropped 0.9628 in the final rankings. While Coconino wrapped up its regular season with a win, it slipped 0.0322 as Flagstaff, Youngker and Lee Williams all dropped games on Tuesday night. On the flip side, Dysart rose 0.3487 from Tuesday as Washington and Estrella Foothills won their regular-season finales.
With the difference between Dysart and Nogales 0.16 in the final ratings, and only 0.08 between Nogales and Coconino, Polansky said even just a few losses by opponents could be enough to shift teams around slightly.
Lower down the rankings, Flagstaff’s loss to Washington, which entered Tuesday at No. 22, sent the Eagles down three spots in the rankings with a .749 dip to its rating. Despite its 10-9 record, Flagstaff trailed 6-13 St. Mary’s by 0.0214 in the final ratings thanks to the Knights’ average opponent rating of 9.4019 topping the 4A Conference.
Additionally, the AIA clarified the host schools for the play-in round keep the profit from the gate and the concession stand and it would not profit from keeping matchups more regionalized in the play-in round.
TAKING ANOTHER STEP
Moran said last Friday’s victory at Flagstaff helped Coconino get “the monkey of the back of these kids,” with the Panthers now bringing in a whole different mindset into the third meeting between the schools this season.
Coconino fell to Flagstaff 59-58 on its home court on Jan. 9, a game the 16-3 Panthers led for much of the night, for its lone Grand Canyon Region loss of the year. The sides fought back-and-forth in last week’s second meeting of the season, with four ties and 12 lead changes, the last of which came on Eddie’s buzzer-beater.
Separated by one point 12 times in the game, the teams traded baskets to end the third quarter and in the final three minutes. Eddie’s shot sent the Panthers rushing to their student section, which poured out onto the court.
“Just keep my head down and stay humble,” Eddie said of the past few days at school. “It has been overwhelming a little bit because everybody has come up to me. I come to school to just handle my business, go to class and everything.”
With its 10 seniors listed on its roster helping to snap an 11-game losing streak to Flagstaff, Coconino will need to begin a winning streak against its rival to continue on in state.
A long-time participant in the rivalry until his extended departure, Moran said Friday’s environment will serve as an example of what should be ahead in the coming years.
“Our fans are growing. Our crowd is just enormous right now and it’s going to be even bigger,” Moran said. “I am glad to be on the same stage with Flag High and Nick, enjoying the game of basketball. That's all it is, it’s a game.”
A SECOND CHANCE
While the Eagles struggled down the stretch, playing six games against 4A playoff teams and losing five of them by a combined 18 points, Friday’s rematch with the Panthers gives them a second chance at extending their season.
Dropping four region games, two to Mingus Union and once to Prescott, Flagstaff failed to earn the Grand Canyon Region title for the first time since 2012-13.
A trip south to Nogales, a team Flagstaff would have no familiarity with and much less fan support, would have presented a challenge for the Eagles to reach the final 16 of the state tournament. Instead, Flagstaff will face a team it beat once already in front of plenty of its own fans.
“It’s a historic game for the town and both schools,” Walton said. “We expect a large crowd with a lot of people there. We are ready. We have prepared as best we can, we know where we made mistakes in the two games and we feel very confident we can be successful.”
Flagstaff put together the largest run of last Friday’s game, scoring 10 straight points during a nearly four-minute stretch of the third and fourth quarters. While Coconino fought back and took a lead with 37 seconds left thanks to a goaltending call, Flagstaff answered back.
Hitting a one-handed shot while off balance on the baseline, K.P. Kortsen put the Eagles back ahead with 20 seconds left before Eddie beat Flagstaff’s defense with a quick release on his corner 3.
“We looked at the different spots where we had some breakdowns and we let the game go,” Walton said. “From an emotional standpoint, with the a rivalry game, it is tough. We are as prepared as we possibly could be.”