The Coconino Panthers enter the season missing their star guard of the last four seasons, JJ Nakai, but they do carry a group of experienced upperclassmen who have been working hard in the offseason.
“We saw good competition, and we’ll need it because we’re without JJ,” said Martin Reyes, who is in his third year as head coach.
In June, playing as a club team, the squad got in 62 games. With two four-year veterans part of a group of seasoned seniors, Coconino got a head start on making the adjustment of being without Nakai, who in her final year with the program averaged 20.2 points and 6.3 rebounds per game to help lead the Panthers to a 17-1 regular-season record and a 4A state tournament semifinal appearance.
Nakai hasn't slowed down. Now at Pima College, she has been her team's leading scorer and dropped 34 on Tuesday in a 112-40 victory over Tohono O'odham Community College.
For the Panthers, Jada Golding, Kortnee Begaye, Taylor Hansen and Kaylee Begay, big contributors from last season, are looking to to keep their foot on the pedal in their senior years.
Begaye led Coconino last season in rebounds at 9.3 per game and followed Nakai only in scoring, acting as a offensive presence in the paint.
“I know I return a good mix of girls, but it’s still an unknown on what we are going to be, who we are going to be,” Reyes said.
With Begaye a threat under the rim, the team might try working from the inside out, luring defenses to collapse in order to open lanes and outside shots.
As has been a rule under Reyes, defense and ball security will be an emphasis for the team, which held 11 of its regular-season opponents to 30 points or less.
Golding was second on the team behind Nakai a year ago in steals per game at 2.9, while Begaye recorded nearly two blocks per game. Overall last year's squad ended the season, including tournament action, with 413 steals over 32 total games.
“Guard, guard, guard as hard as we can all over the floor," Reyes said.
Adding to the attack underneath, Reyes brought up Kailani Charlie, one of many juniors on the roster, for a varsity year after she demonstrated that she was a double-double threat night in and out during her JV stint. He also said junior Kenzie Palmer is ahead of the curve, especially on defense.
If the Panthers can do damage under the rim, Begay is freed up to damage outside.
Last season Begay was responsible for the third-most points scored on the team at 214, following Nakai's 646 and Begaye's 234. In fact, Begay, Begaye and Golding all finished with around the same total of points. Other than Nakai, Begay, who has a solid catch-and-shoot game and can penetrate, was the team's only other real threat from 3-point range last season, plugging 47 total 3s.
Starting their season a bit later than most, the Panthers open on a two-game road trip, with the first stop being Page for a 7 p.m. game Tuesday. Before playing the home opener against the Metro Tech Knights, who the Panthers trounced 89-6 last year, Coconino takes on the Peoria Panthers Thursday.