Estrella Foothills’ head girls’ basketball coach Matthew Johnson has shuffled more of his cards this year than a blackjack dealer in Las Vegas.
On a roster of 15, two players have suffered torn ACLs. One injured her foot in the first scrimmage of the season and missed the first 10 games of the regular season. Another will undergo surgery this Friday after sustaining a knee injury in December.
Two more have been playing through pesky lower-leg injuries for a majority of the season.
But Johnson has tinkered with different and lineups and rotations and has marvelously pressed all the right buttons. The Wolves will compete in the state tournament for the eighth time in nine seasons in the Johnson era.
Estrella Foothills, ranked 14th the 4A conference, will travel to three-seed Mesquite High School for the first round of the tournament at 7 p.m. Wednesday, February 13, hoping to avenge a 67-49 loss they suffered to the Wildcats in December.
“We lost by 18, but it was a single-digit game until the last 4 minutes of the fourth quarter,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty good game. They’re really talented. They were in 5A conference up until this year and they were in the state finals the last three years of 5A. They’ve got a great tradition, they’re very talented, they’re very well-coached, so it’s going to be a challenge.”
It’ll surely be a challenge, but Johnson feels the Wolves have the right personnel to upset the Wildcats on the road to advance to the quarterfinals.
They’re led by freshman Tianna Reeder, who’s spearheaded the offense averaging 13 points per game since being plugged into a starting role after returning starter and sophomore Olivia Niedzwecki tore her ACL in the preseason.
“The game plan all along was Tianna was going to be a key part of what we do,” Johnson said. “Tianna is more of a power-player, although she does have good perimeter shooting and ball-handling skills. Her strength is probably rebounding and driving to the hoop.”
You could argue that inserting a freshman into the varsity rotation could be akin to drinking out of a firehose, but with Reeder, Johnson had no concerns.
“There was no reservation at all that she was the next player up and we were confident she was the next talented player we wanted to put in,” he said.
Along with Niedzwecki, who played in 23 games her freshman year, the Wolves will also be without junior Cheyenne Hubbard, who’s having surgery Friday to repair her injured knee. Hubbard, who was productive off the bench for the Wolves, averaged 18.8 minutes per game in 20 games before being sidelined with the injury.
Senior Myia Wilkins, who tore her ACL in December, is questionable to return Wednesday against Mesquite, according to Johnson.
“Myia has been sore and hasn’t played the last two games. It’s undetermined right now whether she would play Wednesday or not, but the goal would be to try to get her on the court at least somewhat.”
Senior Daija Burrell has rebounded well since a foot injury forced her to miss the first 10 games of the season. Playing in the last 17 games, Burrell has been one of the Wolves best offensive forces on the glass, hauling in three offensive boards per game.
After the 18-point defeat in their previous meeting with Mesquite, Johnson has been busy strategizing a new-and-improved to beat one of the most potent teams in the 4A conference.
“Their post-player, Olivia Champion, is a really good scorer around the basket,” he said.
Champion torched the Wolves to the tune of 17 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in December.
“We’re going to do our best to keep the ball out of her hands, but they’re very versatile. They have a lot of girls who can shoot from the perimeter if you leave them open, so it’s going to be tricky to match up with them with all of their different scoring threats.”
Despite the lineup-roulette Johnson has routinely played this year, he’s pleased with the current rotation he’s penciled in.
“Our mainstays – seniors Lily Mika, Zyaire Brown, Hannah Watson and then Reeder – have been a four-horseman. They’ve been pretty reliable.
“Ziare and Hannah have been playing with injuries since the beginning part of the year, with lower leg injuries, but they rarely come off the court despite being in a lot of pain. It’s been a challenge, but these girls have been very courageous. They’ve never given up.”
Mika, Brown and Watson all average at least 23 minutes per game. The 5-foot-4 guard Mika is the team’s second leading scorer with 11.8 points per game.
The Wolves are coming off a 41-19 thumping over Lee Williams in the play-in round of Kingman’s tournament.
Johnson has been a head coach long enough to be conscious of the importance of any postseason win. But, he said, if an upset over Mesquite is in the cards for Estrella Foothills, the Wolves “have to play better offensively.”
“They’re lethal offensively and we want to try to minimize their possessions as much as possible.
“We’ve seen them before, we’ll come up with a better game plan, we’ll prepare for them and we’ll roll the dice and see what happens,” Johnson said.