Perfect in the Grand Canyon Region since the 2013-14 season, with their lone section loss coming in the one-year realignment of 2015-16, the Flagstaff Eagles boys basketball team will face a bigger challenge this season.
Only K.P. Kortsen and Kyle McCormick return to Flagstaff’s varsity roster from last year’s Grand Canyon Region champions, who finished at 15-3 overall and 12-0 in the region. With wins in the Pepsi Holiday Tournament and Grand Canyon Region Tournament, the Eagles reached the 4A Conference playoffs before falling at Buckeye Union 88-84 in the first round.
Now with a roster of five seniors, six juniors and a sophomore, Nick Walton enters his second year as the Eagles head coach with a whole new look as he tries to ease the roster through its transition to varsity basketball.
“It’s really focusing on blocking out the noise as much as you can. Families are here, friends are here, it’s the prime-time game,” Walton said. “As best you can, we have got to block out the noise, we have got to be able to communicate, listen to each other, play as a team and execute.”
Leaning on McCormick and Kortsen to help the rest of the Eagles execute on varsity, Walton said that has been the team’s primary focus in practice leading up to Monday’s season opener at home against the Bradshaw Mountain Bears.
Regardless of the changes to the roster, Walton said the program’s goal, as always, is to come away with a region title and berth in the 4A tournament. The AIA’s playoff qualifications tweaked slightly in the offseason, with the region tournament eliminated in favor of play-in games for the whole conference.
With the top eight-ranked teams placed directly into the 4A tournament with first-round home games, schools at No. 9 to 24 will face off in a play-in round before being reseeded into a 16-team state bracket. Any region champion will be placed at least in the top 16 automatically, guaranteeing a home game in the play-in round.
RIGHT INTO REGION
Flagstaff will know early on what its chances in the region are, as five of its first six regular-season games from Nov. 20 to Dec. 15 will be against fellow Grand Canyon schools.
“The region is going to be a little more challenging this year. With our transition, you look out at these other schools in our region and they didn’t lose as much as we did,” Walton said. “I think it is going to be a good challenge for us, but at the same time this group we have coming up, they have been doing extremely well in region play as well. We want to take care of business in the region and try to win out.”
Sixth on the team in scoring last year, Kortsen averaged 4.1 points per game along with 4.8 rebounds in 16 games played. After playing as a secondary option alongside a group of seniors last season, Kortsen now takes over as a leader of the team and key option on both ends of the court.
“He’s got the experience, he’s our big guy, so he is going to take a majority of the load,” Walton said. “He leads by example on the floor. Just his style of play and what he is able to do on the floor, a lot of guys feed off of that. They feed off his energy, they feed off his intensity, so we are lucky to have someone like him on the team that brings all that to us.”
Along with the other varsity returner in McCormick, Walton said juniors Ramsey Penza, Troy Yazzie and Andrew Harbottle should make an early impact for the Eagles. Penza and Yazzie were added to the varsity roster in limited minutes a year ago for Flagstaff.
As in past seasons, the Eagles will again enter the year with a fair amount of size in the front court, aiding them on both ends of the floor. Kortsen and junior Sean Estes are listed at 6-foot-6, with McCormick at 6-foot-4.
“Last year we had a couple big guys that stay underneath. George (Faull) brought a lot of size to us, Christian (Singleton) brought a lot of size, KP obviously,” Walton said. “This year we come back and KP is back, Kyle has grown and we have a couple juniors that bring some length, so we are pretty close to where we were last year, if not longer than we were last year.”