ST. GEORGE — The Panthers were the No. 7 team in the final RPI ranking of last season and made a miraculous run into the championship game. They took down the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds on the way but eventually lost to Cedar in the championship. While Pine View is losing some key pieces from that team, they have some big contributors returning as well as some talented underclassmen.
Sophie Jensen, Ellie Wilson and Leiani Tonga will all be graduating, but their anchor and a St. George News first team all-region selection, Averi Papa, is returning. Add in Alex Olson who was a second team selection and you have a solid foundation.
“We’re losing some key girls, but we’re going to reload pretty easily with Alex (Olson), Averi Papa and Mady Jensen,” Pine View head coach Ben Luce said. “We’ll have some varsity experience back and a couple of younger guards that will start getting some time.”
The program as a whole had a fantastic season as well. Their freshman team went undefeated, the sophomore team lost two games and their junior varsity team lost only once on the year. While the varsity team went 18-8, they dealt with injuries throughout the season but got healthy in time for the postseason to make their run.
Luce said those injuries only helped their program as other girls were given opportunities to step up.
“I think that was a pretty big thing because it took some of those younger girls, kind of a domino effect. And as I had to pull them up to help fill the roles, there were opportunities for those younger girls to step up as well,” Luce said.
The biggest improvement Luce is looking for in the offseason from his team is their ability to step up and take on leadership roles naturally.
“Different teams I’ve coached, you can have your best basketball players be underclassmen, but you’re usually only as good as your seniors are,” Luce said. “I had some good seniors this year and there were a couple that didn’t play but they were still good teammates and good leaders.”
Luce is also looking to see his girls putting time in the gym during the offseason. That’s another emphasis Luce puts on his players to make sure they are working out on their own and devoting the time not only by themselves but also with their teammates.
“I think it speaks to the character of the girls first,” Luce said. “I had my goals and expectations for myself, and the one thing I was pretty confident about was X’s and O’s. As far as that part, I knew I’d be able to figure out how to play girls. For whatever reason, the girls bought into everything we were selling. There was never any pushback or questioning, they were just on board from the start.”
The Panthers’ best player this season was Averi Papa, and she showed it throughout the season. The junior post player has offers from Dixie State University and Southern Utah University already and averaged a double double.
The hype surrounding her senior season will be even bigger, and Luce knows that Papa will put in the work to be prepared.
“I know for sure she’s going to put in the time,” Luce said. “Already this week, with the moratorium over, she’s wanting to get in the gym and they’re closed. I know she’s going to lead by example.”
Luce joked that it’s easy to coach good players, but he also realizes that teams are going to game plan for Papa much more in her senior season. She will have to adjust to having entire teams focusing in on her down low because of her dominance.
As for their returning roster for next season, after losing to Cedar in the Class 4A state title game, Cedar head coach Corry Nielsen said Pine View had to be the favorite in Region 9 on paper heading into next season. That’s high praise coming from the coach of a team that has been as dominant as Cedar has been.
“That means something coming from him for sure,” Luce said. “He’s going to have a really good team as well, he’ll have a lot of good defenders and that’s why they’ve been so good. He knows his stuff so when I hear something like that from him, I don’t know if the expectations get a little steeper or if it’s some sort of psychological warfare.”
The Panthers are a program on the rise in Region 9 girls basketball and fans should keep an eye out for them next season.
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