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Spring Valley girls look to take final step to championship

Most coaches don’t put much stock in preseason rankings, since they become irrelevant as soon as the season tips off.

But for Spring Valley coach Billy Hemberger, he sees that his Grizzlies are one of the Class 5A girls basketball favorites as a sign of respect.

It’s also a far cry from where the Spring Valley program was during his first year at the helm.

“I’m always grateful (for the respect) knowing when I first started we were 1-24,” Hemberger said, thinking back to the 2013-14 season. “I remember looking up at halftime of a game against Arbor View and we were down 47-7. The fact that we’ve built it to what we have, it’s taken a lot of hard work from people that believed in us.”

Spring Valley reached the state semifinals in 2019, which showed how far it has come. It also gave the Grizzlies a glimpse of how far they were from the top, as they dropped a 62-37 decision to Centennial, a team that won its sixth straight state championship a night later.

Centennial remains the favorite to claim the title again, but Hemberger isn’t thinking too much about the Bulldogs. He’s learned his lesson in that regard and is focused on his team.

“They’re the top dog until somebody knocks them off,” Hemberger said. “They always will be. They’re athletic. They’re long. They’re big, and they’re aggressive. They’re the same old Centennial. But two years ago, I made the mistake of making the season about competing against Centennial. I won’t do that again.”

As for Centennial, it’s in a unique position in that it only has one player in Mary McMorris, a Northern Arizona commit, who has been through a full season with coach Karen Weitz.

The Bulldogs picked up a transfer from Liberty in Montea Dew, who is a top-20 recruit in the 2023 class, according to ESPN, and a heavily recruited sophomore in guard Kaniya Boyd.

Weitz said her team has shown it enjoys playing together and that she has “really good pieces to work with.”

“We do have a lack of experience, not that I really care about that because I throw them in the fire,” Weitz said.

Spring Valley counters with two of the top players in their respective recruiting classes. Guard Aaliyah Gayles is the top senior in the valley and is ranked No. 8 in the nation by ESPN, and freshman Grace Knox is among the top recruits in the nation in her class.

Hemberger compared Knox, a 6-foot-2-inch forward, to former Liberty standout Rae Burrell, who now plays at Tennessee.

“I have had a player like her to coach,” Hemberger said “Her athleticism for her size is unique, and that’s exciting.”

Hemberger said because of Gayles’ ability, her teammates “almost look up to her, instead of realizing they’re teammates and need to play together.”

Centennial and Spring Valley appear to be a cut above the rest of the competition, but Liberty has plenty of talent.

Desert Oasis is a team to watch despite losing coach Laurie Evans after a run to the state championship game in 2019. Will Pricebrooks, who was an assistant on that team, takes over as coach, so the players are familiar with how he likes to do things.

Like Centennial, most teams will be loaded with players who lack high school experience. How they handle the transition from club to high school will be a key.

“Getting them to understand these games are bigger than AAU games where you’re not representing your school will be important,” Hemberger said. “When it’s Desert Oasis vs. Spring Valley or Bishop Gorman vs. Spring Valley, those are always competitive rivalry games. I’m looking forward to what they do in games like that.”

Contact Jason Orts at jorts@reviewjournal.com. Follow @SportsWithOrts on Twitter.

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