It's not uncommon for the Coconino and Flagstaff girls basketball teams to meet three times during the course of a season.
The crosstown rivals butting heads in a state tournament for a third meeting, however, is a rare occurrence. So rare that the current coaches of both programs can't recall a time it last happened.
With both teams looking to make a Final Four appearance for the second straight year, the No. 3-ranked Flagstaff Eagles will host the sixth-ranked Coconino Panthers in the quarterfinal round of the 4A Conference playoffs Friday.
"We've got to prepare for the moment and we've got to be ready because we know Coco is going to bring a valiant effort; they will be well prepared, (coach Martin) Reyes will have a great game plan going in and they will play with energy and heart," said Eagles head coach Tyrone Johnson, whose Eagles hope to complete the three-game sweep of the Panthers. "In turn, we have to be as prepared or even more prepared to go out, meet their energy and play the game we are capable of."
In a season in which the teams missed each other in the Pepsi Holiday Tournament, Flagstaff easily handled Coconino in the two regular-season games. The Eagles outscored the Panthers by a combined score of 62 points and held them to under 25 percent shooting from the field in each meeting.
Johnson isn't letting past success turn into complacency among his team as it prepares to face a Panthers program that is coming off one of its best games of the year against the team that prevented Coconino and Flagstaff from colliding in Flag High's Pepsi tourney.
In Tuesday's first-rounder against No. 11 St. Mary's at home, the Panthers avenged the December loss thanks to seniors Jada Golding, Kortnee Begaye and Kaylee Begay leading the way with a combined 42 points in the 55-33 victory. All three also played a role in helping the Panthers limit the Knights to three points in the third quarter.
It was the kind of win Reyes wanted to see from his team.
“Right after we lost to Flag High, my talk wasn’t about what happened in the game," Reyes said. "I walked in and said, ‘Well, that’s done, let’s leave it here, moving forward, we are in the state tournament, we have to prepare.’ So if you cannot leave this here and you cannot prepare, our season is over.”
A key factor in the first two games was Flagstaff's dominance of the glass, outrebounding Coconino 48-23 in January and 37-21 in February. Johnson said he has a good mix of players who can can box out, get hoops underneath and penetrate as a real scoring threat in order to keep defenses scrambling.
“We want to really put pressure on the defense by getting into the paint and getting good looks," said Johnson, who added that keeping Begaye off the boards will be part of determining how the night will unfold.
Begaye enters Friday having notched 10 or more rebounds in four of the past five games and leads the team in total boards with more than 250. While the rest of Coconino's roster other than freshman Oniah Barton-Paddock aren't near the 100 mark in rebounds, the Eagles have four players in Monique Ware, Josephine Faull, Mikaila Kayaani-Lee and Reece Honanie who have at least 100 boards.
Reyes wanted to make sure to keep things fun, yet challenging, in practice lately considering the ups and downs of the season. The team played volleyball for most of a practice and they have had the JV boys team coming in to go against the girls.
"They go after us, and we got after them," Reyes said of scrimmaging the boys. "It wasn't an official basketball game, but it was hard basketball being played, which is what we need."
Both teams are playing some of their best basketball, so the game could come down to the group that can better keep its composure.
“That’s what the girls have got to know, is that the stakes are higher for both programs, because whoever loses, their season is done," Johnson said. "I guess if we have to play each other, than why not, why not have everything on the line.”