Players to Watch:
Brynlie King, Butte County
Tavie Rogers, Butte County
Carley Strand, Challis
Sydnee Smith, Grace
Tenleigh Walker, Grace
Written by: Will Hoenike
The reigning district champion Butte County Pirates, fresh off a 23-win season and third-place finish at the 1A Division 1 state tournament last February, are reloading in 2022-23 and lurking in the shadows are the Grace Grizzlies.
The Pirates didn’t taste defeat last season until the state semifinals, when they were toppled by a different set of Pirates (Prairie) before bouncing back to defeat Raft River in the third-place game the following day. The team has a new head coach (Richard Hansen) and must find a way to replace Kiya McAffee, who earned the Idaho 1A Division 1 Player of the Year honors along with the High Desert Conference Player of the Year award.
McAffee was one of six seniors to graduate last spring, including fellow All-State honorees Syvannah Bird and Anna Knight. But the team returns experience in senior guard Brynlie King and junior post player Tavie Rogers. Hansen will lean on that pair, along with a strong incoming junior class, to help fill in for the players who are no longer on the team.
Meanwhile, about two hours south of Arco, Grace is coming off of a 15-win season and returns a strong core of players, which includes first-team All-Conference performers Melodie Straatman and Sydnee Smith. The pair provides a rare level of experience for players who are just going into their junior seasons – the two combined to score 17 points in the state championship game in 2021 to help Grace defeat Prairie in 2021. A third junior, Jacie Christensen, returns to the lineup as well. Senior guard Tenleigh Walker is also back, giving the Grizzlies a strong core of returning players this season.
Even though Butte County took the district championship last season, defeating Grace all three times the two teams met, the difference between the two was not very big. The three games were decided by, on average, about seven points per game and Butte County clinched the district championship with a tough, tight four-point win to advance to the state tournament. With Butte County looking to replace so much firepower and Grace returning so many key players, it seems logical that the Grizzlies would assume the role of High Desert Conference favorites.
The conference’s third team, the Challis Vikings, are coming off a four-win campaign last winter but the team returns some experience and showed some early defensive success that could lay the foundation for an improved campaign this winter. Sadie Taylor, who earned second-team All-High Desert recognition last season, is back for her senior season, along with fellow seniors Carley Strand and Alie Rembelski. Sophomore Jalie Oerke also returns for the Vikings to provide added depth and athleticism. Two of Challis’s first three opponents failed to top 35 points which could provide the basis for optimism as the team transitions into the key part of its season after the New Year.
Seeding may not mean as much in a three-team conference as it does in some others. Butte County, Challis, and Grace all know that the road to success goes squarely through the other two teams. The last team standing will advance to the state tournament and represent the High Desert Conference.