With many top-rated prospects around the state recently moving on from the AIA to the prep school ranks, there are still many top-rated prospects competing for AIA programs in Arizona. There are also still some very good teams, comprised of serious Division-I talent still in the state as well. On Wednesday evening, two of the elite programs in the AIA faced off very early in the 2021 AIA season - making for a delightful match-up for the basketball enthusiasts to observe and enjoy. A very talented Sunnyslope team would begin their season on Wednesday on the road - facing an absolutely loaded St. Mary's program on their home floor, in the second contest for the Knights in the early season.
This has been a highly anticipated match-up for some time, as Slope and St. Mary's are considered as possibly the two most talented programs in the state - both programs loaded with Division-I prospects. While Sunnyslope recently lost the services of 6-foot-10 senior big man Carson Basham (Pepperdine signee) to a transfer to AZ Compass Prep, and St. Mary's lost promising sophomore guard Vincent Delano to a transfer to Bella Vista Prep, both teams are still very loaded with talented prospects. At one time during their contest on Wednesday evening, there were as many as (8) different Division-I prospects on the floor at the same time representing both teams - the most we have seen in an AIA basketball game since 2006, when Trevor Browne and Deer Valley HS matched up, or during the same year when Deer Valley faced off with Mesa Mountain View HS. Not since then has there been so many talented college prospects competing at the same time.
Sunnyslope (1-0) took the biggest hit in losing Basham from their lineup, but the Vikings, led by game Head Coach Ray Portela did not miss a beat, as a result. In fact, the Vikings played faster and allowed rising star, 5-foot-11 junior point guard Oakland Fort to have his way. The very fast and athletic guard prospect was a terror on Wednesday evening from start to finish, pushing the basketball hard and making plays for himself and his teammates. Fort would again prove his value and potential en route to scoring a game-high 22 points and 5 assists - leading Sunnyslope to a big 59-51 road win over St. Mary's.
Fort has one offer currently to his credit from Northern Arizona, but this young man is well deserving of many more offers for himself immediately, as he is as talented and gifted a guard prospect as there is in Arizona's 2022 Class. Schools should begin lining up for his services, as the pandemic really hurt his opportunity to showcase his talent this past spring and summer.
Sunnyslope also has two other prospects that are worthy of much higher college recruitment. 6-foot-7 junior forward Elijah Saunders is another big-time talent that has really improved over the past year. Saunders started the game off right for the Vikings, as he hit a nice long-range jump-shot over the outstretched hands of his defender to start the contest - giving Sunnyslope the first lead of the game. Saunders would compete hard and with much improved confidence throughout the game - finishing with a double-double in the win, 16 points and 11 rebounds. Saunders is a rising stud in the 2022 Class, and currently only holds an offer from South Dakota. Look for him to pick up a great deal of interest and offers over the next (6) months.
Sunnyslope's strong and athletic 6-foot-8 senior forward Grady Lewis is another prospect that deserves much more recognition and attention as well. Lewis has developed each season throughout his high school career, and is a rare find in the state, with his combination of size and athleticism. Lewis was very strong on the glass against a bigger and very talented St. Mary's team, and finished with 14 points and 14 rebounds in the victory. He also only has one offer to his credit from UC-Davis, and also was significantly hurt by the pandemic this past spring and summer.
St. Mary's (1-1) is as talented a team as we have ever seen in the AIA ranks. While the program is still very young overall, the sky is the limit for this team. They looked like a young team on Wednesday, as they got down early, and by as many as 16 points in the contest, but the loss will only benefit them in their pursuit this season to win a 4A State Championship. Head Coach Damin Lopez has worked extremely hard to build this roster and program, and has done an epic job of bringing the St. Mary's program to the level it is at currently - both on and off the court.
St. Mary's has the most overall talent in the state on one roster, among AIA schools, and will be considered among the nation's elite high school programs in the very near future. Sporting a lineup that includes 6-foot-3 senior guard Keiren Brown, who was a First-Team All-State selection last season by the Arizona Republic, very athletic 6-foot-5 junior wing Garrison Phelps, promising and talented 6-foot-4 sophomore guard Jason Fontenet, strong and athletic 6-foot-8 junior forward Foune Doucoure, 6-foot-7 well-developed sophomore forward Seydou Tamboura, large 6-foot-10 junior post Jeremiah "Bear" Cherry and superb 6-foot-1 freshman guard Styles Phipps - all Division-I prospects.
With the offense not functioning on all cylinders in a very early season contest against a very difficult opponent, freshman guard Styles Phipps would steal the show for the Knights - making numerous big shots down the stretch for the Knights and keeping his team within striking distance, until Sunnyslope would pull away in the final minutes of the game. Phipps showed super confidence, as he always does, and grasped the moment as an opportunity to prove his value as a mere freshman on a loaded lineup of talented performers. Phipps' worth this high school season will be tremendous for the Knights, as he is a pass-first point guard that allows for his Knight teammates to play off the ball and each do what they do best - score the basketball. Phipps in a backcourt with Brown and Fontenet will be tremendous for St. Mary's this high school season, and the future will be very bright for Phipps, as he will have a long tenure in varsity high school basketball.
Keiren Brown is one prospect that deserves serious recruiting attention as well. A member of the highly esteemed Brown family in Arizona, this young man has excellent size and a nice overall skillset with a good overall feel for the game. He is a very willing passer and has a nice shooting stroke with unlimited range. Currently, Brown still mysteriously does not have any offers to his credit, while being a First-Team All-State selection last season as a junior. It is an absolute travesty and I am personally pioneering a campaign to see this young man get his just due. While it is unclear why he has flown so far below the recruiting radar, he is very well deserving of recruitment. Most importantly, he is also an excellent student and a fine young man.
Jason Fontenet, the son of former Arizona superstar guard Jason Fontenet, Garrison Phelps, the son of former Division-I coach Dionne Phelps, and Jeremiah "Bear" Cherry, the younger brother of Arizona State standout forward Taeshon Cherry, are each definite Division-I talents, and each, while still well under recruited early in their college recruitment, will be fine, as their talents are too glaring to surpass. The same goes for Foune Doucoure and Seydou Tamboura.
As college coaches eventually get an opportunity to return to the road by the NCAA, at some point, these two strong Arizona high school programs will benefit a great deal, as college coaches will find out just how good these prospects are and can be. Many coaches will absolutely live in the Sunnyslope and St. Mary's gymnasiums - looking for an opportunity to make connections with these talented prospects. I would encourage my recruiting base to get on them now, and do not wait until everyone else has staked their claim for these promising student-athletes.
Overall, the match-up Wednesday night was not about a win or loss record, but rather a fun battle between two of the state's best programs - showcasing that there is still a lot to offer in the AIA Classification. Sunnyslope will look to win a 6A State Championship this high school season, while St. Mary's will fight it out in the 4A Division. This contest will do both programs very well for the remainder of the high school season, as many of the top-rated events that they were scheduled to play in have been cancelled due to the pandemic. It was a joy to watch these two teams compete Wednesday evening, and there were truly no losers as a result. The valuable experience gained from the match-up will benefit both programs the remainder of this high school season. Iron sharpens iron.