The last time the No. 32 Flagstaff Eagles (2-6, 2-3 Grand Canyon Region) and No. 30 Coconino Panthers (3-4, 3-2 Grand Canyon) boys hoops teams met on the hardwood, the then-22nd-ranked Eagles came away with an upset win over the then-No. 11 Panthers in the school’s first-ever postseason matchup.
The Eagles walked out of the Coconino High gym with a 60-58 win just one week after the Eagles were on the opposite side of a buzzer-beater loss in the War Memorial Gymnasium at Flagstaff High against the Panthers.
At the time, Coconino was fresh off winning the Grand Canyon Region title in Mike Moran’s first season back to the helm of the program, while Flagstaff had dropped its final three games of the regular season -- including the last-second defeat to Coconino.
Neither team was able to defend their home court last season as the away team won each crosstown rivalry game, and the Eagles beat the Panthers in two of the three meetings. All three games last season were decided by no more than two points -- the tightest scoring margin the series has seen in recent memory.
The first of this year’s crosstown games has both teams sitting in the middle of the pack among the Grand Canyon Region, as both have faced rebuilds. The Panthers have been led by a scrappy group of sophomore guards, and the Eagles have been riding the play of star senior guard Troy Yazzie and other veterans. Just four Panthers players and five Eagles remain from each squad’s roster from last season.
Both squads are fighting for a return to the playoffs, with each ranked in the low 30s of the AIA’s power rankings as of Thursday, making Friday’s matchup even more important. Of Grand Canyon Region teams, only No. 36 Mohave and No. 39 Prescott are ranked lower than the Eagles and Panthers.
“This, I think, obviously, yes, is a major game given where we are at and given where they are at. We got to be able to get some wins to make a run at the region and they happen to be one game ahead of us," Eagles head coach Nick Walton said of the importance of Friday's game. "If we’re unable to do that, it just puts us another game behind. And I think they are in the same boat, right there one game behind the lead. So losing another game would hurt them as much as it would hurt us.”
The Panthers are battling injuries to some of their key guards as Jacob Begay, Roy Billups and Ethan McGowan all missed Coconino’s Tuesday loss to St. Mary’s.
If Coconino can’t get healthy ahead of Friday’s matchup with Flagstaff, the Panthers could find themselves in some trouble against Yazzie’s offensive ability. The Panthers struggled without Begay and Billups against St. Mary’s as Coconino committed 24 turnovers -- giving the Knights easy fast-break baskets off live-ball turnovers.
Walton said he is excited to see what the young group of Panthers will do to challenge his team, specifically Yazzie, who Walton said adds a depth of needed experience in the rivalry game with his three years of varsity under his belt.
“I hope they are healthy and I hope they do get to play because for local kids, it's great," Walton said. "I played in this game for Coach Moran and those are some of the best memories I have playing high school basketball, and I sure would be disappointed for them if they weren’t healthy and able to play. I just hope everybody is healthy and we can make it happen."
Moran he said he is always eager to coach against his former player, adding that the rivalry game is always a highlight of the season and a great showcase of the talent in town.
“I love playing against Flag High; the rivalry is a great thing to do and to be a part of,” Moran said. “Nick Walton, my buddy, my former player over there, I love coaching against him, and it’s gonna be another great night and showcase of these great kids. We’re hoping we will get a little healthier and be competitive -- that’s all we need right now.”
Moran knows he just has to have the crew prepared.
“We feel confident that we are going to do what we do,” Moran added. “They got the great Troy Yazzie and they got some great leaders over there. We got to go out and play our game.”
Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. at the War Memorial Gymnasium at Flagstaff High following the conclusion of the girls game.