Sunrise Mountain girls earn program’s 1st state title

The Sunrise Mountain Mustangs lift their trophy after defeating Canyon View to win the AIA Conference 5A girls basketball state championship game at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix. (David Minton/Staff Photographer)

The Sunrise Mountain High School girls basketball team has been in a league of its own, as the program has won 15 games or more in each of the last five seasons — a feat no other 5A program has matched.

Regular seasons have been impressive for the Mustangs, but the postseason has exposed the proverbial Achilles heel.

In the four seasons prior to 2022-23, Sunrise Mountain has made an early exit from the playoffs and just once reached a state championship game, losing to Goodyear Millennium in 2020.

But 2023 was different for the Mustangs.

Sunrise Mountain worked its way into the 5A State Championship game against No. 1 Waddell Canyon View and reached the top of the mountain. For the first time in program history, the Mustangs had won a state title after beating the Jaguars, 52-47.

“I'm incredibly proud of them. It’s a blessing to coach them,” Sunrise Mountain head coach Jennifer Tolle said. “They put in a lot of time. It’s not just over the course of the season, it’s over the course of the summer and the preseason, and all the years leading up to this. So it’s a really special accomplishment.”

Entering the 2022-23 playoffs, the Mustangs were yet again at the top of the 5A Northwest region holding a 16-2 regular season record and earned a spot in the inaugural Open Division bracket as the No. 16 seed.

In a tough game, the Mustangs’ Open title dreams were shot down, as they fell to perennial girls basketball powerhouse Surprise Valley Vista, 59-55.

The dream wasn’t entirely over for Sunrise Mountain, however.

AIA rules state that if a team makes the Open Division and loses within the first two rounds, they are to be put back in their respective conference in the seed they would’ve held if they hadn’t played in the higher tournament.

Going back into 5A competition as the No. 3 seed, Sunrise Mountain made quick work of its first two opponents, Oro Valley Ironwood Ridge and Phoenix Mountain Pointe, beating each team 76-53 and 58-44, respectively.

With a matchup against No. 2 Phoenix Betty H. Fairfax up next, Sunrise Mountain had its hands full with a team that finished the regular season at 17-1 and was coming off two dominant wins of its own.

The game was as competitive as they come, and the largest lead of the game was just five points.

Trailing by one point with under 30 seconds left, Reena Bhakta recovered a rebound and converted a layup giving Sunrise Mountain a one-point lead. After seeing the rest of the game through, the Mustangs punched their ticket to the 5A State Championship game against Canyon View.

The Mustangs got out to a hot start, leading the Jaguars 13-6 on the back of seven points from senior forward Mackenzie Dunham.

“She’s an incredibly smart player, and she’s just a problem for other teams because she’s so big,” Tolle said of Dunham. “She’s such a skilled player. She’s a good passer, so she opens up and creates opportunities by drawing the defense in, but she’s also great about finding her teammates. And that makes her even more of a threat around the basket.”

“(I was) just working like it’s my last game,” Dunham added later. “I got to show out, put it all on the floor. I want to be there for my teammates. I want to put as much work for my teammates and be there for them.”

Canyon View, however, came out hot in the second quarter and scored 22 points in the frame. With a huge performance from freshman guard Aaliyah Rogers, who tallied 12 for the Jaguars in the quarter, the Mustangs went into the locker room at a 28-23 deficit.

Sunrise Mountain wouldn’t stay down for long.

Breaking out of the locker room, the Mustangs locked in. After a tight third quarter, the score was tied at 38 going into the fourth quarter.

Sunrise Mountain kept piling on the pressure in the fourth, as Dunham and senior guard Mackenzie Nielsen heated up and gave their team the lead heading into the waning minutes of the game.

“I just think we leaned on our experience,” Tolle said. “I know our three seniors have been through a lot of battles over the years, and that’s how it is in the playoffs.

“We practiced that heading into the playoffs. We prepare for that. We mentally prepare them for that, and we tell them that’s the type of game you’re going to have to play to win a game like this. So, I thought they did a great job of keeping their cool.”

Eventually being forced to the foul line by Canyon View, the Sunrise Mountain players had to hit the biggest free throws of their lives, and the player who came up clutch for them in their previous matchup, Bhakta, still had some ice left in her veins, hitting all of her free throw attempts, and helped secure the state title for her team.

“It was pretty special,” Tolle said of Bhakta. “I’m incredibly proud of her. But that’s just what she does.”

Walking away with the trophy in hand, the Mustangs were finally where they had wanted to be for so many years, at the top.