6A showdown: Arizona’s top high school basketball teams square off for the title

Valley Vista High School coach Rachel Matakas is leading a program that is vying for its third straight championship and fifth in the past six years. (Photo by Dominic Rivera/Cronkite News)

Valley Vista HIgh School’s assertive play was key in its 6A girls basketball semifinal victory over Desert Vista, exemplified by senior forward Jennah Isai, who stole the ball in the final minute of the second quarter. (Photo by Dominic Rivera/Cronkite News)

Desert Vista sisters Katelyn Larney, left, and Breanna Larney sit emotional on the bench knowing it is the last game they will be playing with each other in high school in the final moments of the fourth quarter. (Photo by Dominic Rivera/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Since November, high school basketball teams in the Valley have been vying for the biggest prize in Arizona, the 6A State Championship. Tonight, at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum, both the boys and girls champions will be crowned, and there are some compelling storylines to follow.

How they got here

The Girls 6A Championship will tip off at 6 p.m., a matchup of No. 1 Valley Vista (24-5, 11-0 6A Southwest) and No. 11 Perry (22-9, 5-4 6A Premier).

Valley Vista dominated in-state competition this season, winning all 11 games in section play. All five of the Monsoon’s losses came at the hands of out-of-state opponents; three from California, one from Anchorage, Alaska, and one from Toronto. The Monsoon’s postseason bid started with a 76-point drubbing of No. 16 Sunnyslope, followed by a 62-25 win over No. 8 Dobson in the quarterfinals. A 25-point victory over No. 5 Desert Vista secured its place in the final.

No. 11 Perry (22-9, 5-4 6A Premier) had a much more tumultuous campaign, but it didn’t start that way. The Pumas won their first nine games, including a 77-7 victory over North High School. In section play, Perry lost both games in a back-to-back set against Xavier Prep, but much like its boys team, the third matchup between the two sides went the Pumas’ way. As the No. 11 seed, Perry knocked off No. 6 Cibola by 19 in the first round and No. 3 Westwood in the quarterfinals, setting up Perry’s redemptive semifinal against No. 2 Xavier, a 50-45 victory that sent the Pumas to the championship.

The Boys Championship will be settled between No. 3 Perry (24-5, 8-2 6A Premier) and No. 9 Hamilton (20-8, 3-5 6A Premier), set to tip off at 8 p.m.

After a quarterfinal exit in last year’s state tournament, the Perry Pumas set out to scale even greater heights in 2021-22 under coach Sam Duane. To open this season’s campaign, the Pumas rattled off three straight wins, against Desert Ridge, Valley Vista and Mountain View, before suffering their first loss to rival Gilbert. Less than a month later, they faced off against California powerhouse Sierra Canyon, led by elite senior guard prospect Amari Bailey and perhaps the most popular athlete in all of high school sports, junior guard Bronny James, son of LeBron.

Valley Vista’s student section goes crazy after an ankle-breaking move by Jennah Isai in the 6A semifinal game that sent the program to the championship.(Photo by Dominic Rivera/Cronkite News)

After a 13-point loss to the Trailblazers, the Pumas avenged their quarterfinal defeat to Mountain Pointe in last year’s state tournament with a 30-point victory that ignited a nine-game win streak. Perry then won every game against opponents not named Brophy, with the Pumas dropping both section games to the Broncos. As the No. 3 seed for the second straight year, Perry knocked off No. 14 Queen Creek in the first round and No. 6 Basha in the quarterfinals before coming face to face with nemesis Brophy for the third time. Perry finally overcame its adversary, winning 49-47 in triple overtime to advance to the title game.

Hamilton, coached by Doug Harris, began its season at the Fear the Hop Tournament, rattling off four straight wins, against Mesquite, McClintock, Mesa and Corona del Sol, before falling by one point to Chaparral on Dec. 2.

The Huskies put together another four-game winning streak before suffering a two-point defeat on the road at Pinnacle. Section play was a roller coaster for the Huskies, who defeated crosstown rival Chandler but dropped games to the elite teams of the region, including Brophy and their opponent in tonight’s title game, the Perry Pumas, who beat them twice. As the ninth seed in the tournament, Hamilton opened its postseason bid with a defeat of No. 8 Mesa, then knocked off No. 1 Sunnyslope in a three-point upset in the quarterfinals. In the semi-final game, the Huskies handily defeated Boulder Creek by six.

Cordial competitors

Perry’s Duane and Hamilton’s Harris have known each other for the better part of three decades. Harris played for Duane’s father, Sam Sr., at Corona del Sol. Duane was an assistant coach for that CDS team. Duane and Harris were part of teams that won a state championship in 1989 and finished runner-up the following year. Now, both coaches are on the cusp of another championship, this time at the helm of their own programs.

Duane is no stranger to championship titles. While at the helm of the Corona del Sol program from 2012-2015, he collected four consecutive state titles, matching the total of his father.

Overcoming the odds

Desert Vista fans offer words of encouragement during the game to let them know they appreciate the hard work the team has put in this season.(Photo by Dominic Rivera/Cronkite News)

Valley Vista coach Rachel Matakas is a warrior. Developing a program that is vying for its third straight championship and fifth in the past six years would be difficult enough for any coach, but with the series of circumstances that Matakas has faced, it’s been the challenge of a lifetime.

In August, the Valley Vista coach had a heart attack. She is also waging an ongoing battle with cancer. A very intense and vocal leader for her girls, Matakas stepped away for a few games to tend to her health, but it ate at her soul. Matakas also lost her brother in November, the second brother she’s lost. Her twin, Matt, died several years ago.

Key players

Athleticism is in the DNA of Perry freshman small forward Koa Peat. The son and brother of NFL offensive linemen, with another brother who was a standout two-sport high school athlete, Peat is the latest member of his clan to play under Duane. Both his brothers played under the coach at Corona del Sol. Peat’s sister played basketball for Seattle University. Peat was Perry’s hero in the triple overtime upset of Brophy in the semifinal. The freshman already has received offers to play basketball at the next level from the likes of Kansas, USC and Arizona State.

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Hamilton senior guard Daimon Denning has become a fan favorite thanks to a long black mullet that dips below the neckline of his jersey. A glue guy and key contributor for the Huskies, Denning set out this season to match the prowess of his sister, Raelin, who won a state title with Hamilton in her senior year in 2019. Denning will not be able to look in the stands and spot his biggest fan; his mother died in a car accident three years ago.

Valley Vista is home to the best girls’ player in the state, Jennah Isai. Committed to play basketball at Oregon after she graduates this year, Isai is averaging 25 points, seven rebounds, three assists, four steals and two blocks. Despite battling injuries most of her career, she’s determined to cap off a historic year of domination as the Monsoon’s key piece.

Mac Friday(he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Mac Friday expects to graduate in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Friday, who reports for DevilsDigest.com and does play-by-play for Pac-12 Insider, is working for the Phoenix sports bureau.

Dominic Rivera daw-mee-nee-k rih-ver-ah (he/him/his)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Dominic Rivera expects to graduate in spring 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. He is working for the Phoenix sports bureau.