CHANDLER – Always apply full-court pressure. Always force opposing players to their left when they have the ball.
In theory, those simple building blocks explain how Seton Catholic women’s basketball coach Karen Self has built her program and keeps her teams on top.
Under Self, Seton Catholic has won 12 state titles, including the last two 4A championships, and has appeared in 17 championship games. To say Seton has dominated over Self’s 30-year career is an understatement.
What’s her secret?
“Play defense,” Self said. “We have made a name for our program by playing outstanding team defense.”
In reality, of course, there is so much more that goes into it.
Self’s players practice two hours a day, six days a week. They travel across the country, from New York to sunny California, to chase the best competition the nation has to offer. It’s late-night film sessions followed by 6 a.m. weightlifting.
It’s competing through injury, illness and even a global pandemic. It’s weathering every major storm and still ending up victorious, even when the competition always knows that you are the team to beat.
“Everybody’s gunning for you when you’ve won state the last two years, and 12 overall,” Self said. “Everybody’s always gunning for us.”
During a recent game, Notre Dame Preps basketball coach Dell Mims sat in the stands scouting Seton Catholic. Notre Dame was preparing to play the Sentinels the next night. He took detailed notes on Seton’s offensive and defensive schemes. It’s something opposing coaches do on a regular basis for most opponents. But even recognizing what Seton wants to do is rarely enough to stop the Sentinels from doing it.
The heavily favored Sentinels were playing St. Mary’s. Self’s up-tempo offense was on display, and while it might be unpredictable to opponents, it is second nature for the Sentinels. On the opposite end, their defense is built around trapping, forcing opponents left and – most important – defenders moving their feet. On either end, the Sentinels are constantly communicating, which embodies their coach, a member of the Arizona High School Athletic Coaches Hall of Fame and a legend in Arizona high school sports circles.
Coaches like Self don’t become legendary without maintaining high expectations.
That was evident midway through the third quarter against St. Mary’s. It was abundantly clear the Sentinels were headed for another victory. Still, Self called a timeout, visibly frustrated after one of her young forwards committed a foul.
“Play defense!” Self shouted during the timeout. “Stop letting people drive by you so you can block their shot. That is horrible defense!”
Seton’s defense strangled the Knights after that timeout and Seton went on to win 53-33, outscoring St. Mary’s 25-14 in the second half. Senior captain Sasha Daniel led the way with 21 points.
Despite Mims’ scouting, Daniel put up 30 and Seton destroyed Notre Dame Preps 53-35 the next night. Much like coaches from around the state and across the country over the last 30 years, Mims will need to return to the drawing board.
But teams haven’t always been gunning for Seton, which was the Valley’s smallest Catholic school before a fire destroyed most of its old campus near downtown Chandler in the 1980s. Self arrived at Seton’s new campus near Ray Road and Dobson in 1992 as a 22-year-old, just one year removed from playing basketball for Arizona State.
Overwhelmed, Self nearly quit.
“My first season, we went 12-14 and I thought ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ Self said. “I was so afraid to tell them that I didn’t want to come back. It got to be a couple weeks before the season. My husband and I talked about it, and we’re like, ‘Well, I can’t really tell them now.”
In year two, her system “clicked,” Self said. The Sentinels won their first state title in her fifth season. Seton has been clicking ever since, and Self is in her 30th season.
She put the Self in selflessness. The Seton coach is quick to credit players and families (her own included) for all the success.
“It’s unbelievable to look back and think how quickly this has gone, how many people who have touched my life,” Self said. “And just being a part of, you know, going to this wedding or going to this baby shower (over the years).”
A season of growth
This year’s team is young, with four freshmen, one sophomore and just two seniors. As always, Self relies heavily on her team captains – Daniel and junior guard Amelie Cartagena this season – to lead the young players and ingrain Seton’s team-first culture.
Daniel and Cartagena grew up in the program, winning a state title in 2020 a week before the COVID-19 pandemic really took hold. They won again while playing under strict COVID-19 protocols in 2021. Then, they were appointed captains of one of the youngest teams in program history and tasked with handling the pressure that comes with pursuit of a three-peat.
“It’s pretty intense,” Daniel said. “There’s never a day where we just kind of slack off. Every day has meaning.”
Daniel has been part of the last two state championship teams and reached the championship game before Seton lost in the championship during her freshman year. She embraces her leadership role.
She is the first one on the court at practice. Initially, the senior guard is silent. She waltzes out on court and begins her shooting routine. Her shot has an abnormally high arc – reminiscent of the rainbows former NBA guard Derek Fisher used to launch.
It’s different but, for Daniel, it works.
Even in practice she plays tight defense and communicates to her less experienced teammates where they should be in Seton’s offensive sets. Daniel never stops competing because she’s on a mission to maintain the program’s level of excellence.
“When you look at the wall and see all the championships from girls basketball, you see that’s a big legacy to live up to,” Daniel said. “At school, people expect (us) to win all the time. You live up to this really big legacy.”
Playing through obstacles
Meanwhile, it’s been a tough season for Cartagena. During a practice in early November, the two-time state champion started feeling her throat close up. She was diagnosed with an allergic reaction. But to this day, doctors don’t know what caused it.
Cartagena suspects it was something she ate in her lunch from a nearby restaurant, but she doesn’t know for sure. Regardless, she missed time on the court.
Then two weeks later, Seton traveled to San Diego for a tournament. Four minutes into their first game, Cartagena stepped on a player’s foot, causing a painful sprain. She was sidelined again.
She tried to make the best of it, studying her teammates and providing leadership from the sideline.
“It’s a good thing for me,” Cartagena said. “I like understanding my teammates and playing with them, but it’s fun watching.”
During the St. Mary’s game, Cartagena sat next to Self and assistant coach Kayla Refner, cheering on her teammates.
“I wouldn’t expect anything else from her,” Self said. “She’s a very intense player. She’s very smart and has a very high basketball IQ.”
As a former player for Seton Catholic and Self, Refner has mentored Cartagena the same way she has supported many Seton players through the years. So it is no surprise that Cartagena took a seat next to her for the bulk of Tuesday’s game.
“I really tried to focus on individuals a lot,” Refner said. “So Karen has a big picture in mind and can see that very, very well. And she can see that for other teams.”
In that big picture, Daniel takes a place among the best in Seton history.
“Sasha is gonna be stellar every night, that’s just what she does,” Self said. “She defends 94 feet the entire game. She just gives every ounce that she has every night that she’s out there.”
This season’s captains are the latest in a long line of stars in Seton Catholic’s rich girl’s basketball history. And often those stars are followed by siblings, who also excel. From the Wirth family to the Barcello sisters to the Krick family, a common theme in this program is family lineage.
For instance, in 2017, Seton Catholic posted a starting lineup of five players who would go on to play at the Division I level in college, including Sarah Barcello, Liz Holter, Kendall Krick and the Wirth twins: LeeAnne and Jenn. Four out of five players on the team either had a sister who had played for Self or were playing alongside one that year.
From 2016-2018, the team played in an invite-only national tournament run by ESPN in New York City and were placed in the national division at the highly respected Nike Tournament of Champions. The Sentinels, in traditional program fashion, also won three straight state championships during that span.
All five played basketball at the Division I level: Barcello and Krick at Marist, the Wirth twins at Gonzaga and Holter at Incarnate Word.
But Self impacts her players far beyond the court, and she is well aware of the role she can play in their lives beyond their hoop dreams. It’s something that did not exist when Self was growing up.
“When we are surrounded by strong women who can help these kids develop and follow their dreams, it normalizes something that wasn’t normal for me as a child,” Self said.
Balancing parental, coaching duties (sort of)
An economics and math teacher at Seton Catholic, Self is a mother of four children, including triplets and a child born 21 months before the triplets.
When she was pregnant with her triplets, doctors told Self to go on bed rest over Thanksgiving. But it was the beginning of the basketball season, so hopeful that she could continue coaching, she pushed back.
Naturally, she was persuasive and convinced the doctor to let her coach under strict guidelines. Self used a wheelchair and was hooked up to a terbutaline pump to ease her breathing and help prevent early on-set labor. She coped as her stomach dramatically increased in size within weeks.
“I was ginormous,” Self said. “I remember walking into a Walgreens late into the pregnancy. The checkout lady said to me ‘There better be more than one baby in there!’ I’m just like, ‘Well, there’s three. Thanks for that!’”
She coached all the way up to the state semifinals on February 22. Then Self began suffering from preeclampsia, which is characterized by high blood pressure that can cause organ damage. It caused her kidneys to shut down.
Her children were born on February 26, just four days after the semifinals. She was unable to attend the state championship game, and the Sentinels lost.
All she could think about was not being present for her team’s heart-wrenching loss.
“I think any sane person would have just let their assistant coach take over,” Self said. “But I was right there until the end, at least as long as they let me.”
After that season ended, there was still the matter of Self and her husband raising four children all born within 21 months. So she hired what she calls a “basketball nanny” to help navigate the “baby chaos.”
“I would take a portion of my basketball pay and pay them to be there on every game day,” Self said. “(They would) help the kids with homework, get them baths, put them to bed. And that way my husband had a choice whether he wanted to go to the games or not.”
Now, Self mentors younger female coaches. She advises many to also invest in a “basketball nanny,” and regularly consults with ASU coach Charli Turner Thorne, who raised three sons while coaching. Turner Thorne once took an unpaid leave from coaching at ASU in 2011-12 to spend time with her family and find her “center as a person,” as she described it to espnW.com at the time.
Self wants to guide her players just as Turner Thorne has guided her.
“I love seeing young women who are getting started in their career,” Self said. “I want to be the person that they feel comfortable coming to.”
Seton Catholic players can miss large chunks of school due to the team’s travel schedule. When the team is on the road, Self puts on her teaching hat, tutoring her students in math and helping them study for tests they have to take remotely.
“We went to California, and I had to take a test. She tutored us in the hours leading up to the test, and it really helped,” Cartagena said. “If you ever need it before practice or after, she tutors you.”
Beyond state titles, national tournaments and college scholarships, Self’s program is preparing players for the next chapter in their lives – whether it involves basketball or not.
Self hopes the sport helps her players envision the path to greater accomplishments.
“It just changes the way kids see those possibilities in the future that’s available to them,” she said.