A first-year coach and a couple of talented freshmen usually aren't enough to gain the respect of the state's coaches.
But when the coach is former WNBA All-Star and Olympic gold medalist Natalie Williams and the freshmen are twins who give the team a superior inside-outside game, well, that's a completely different story.
"I'm not sure what they thought about me, but people saw us play this summer, and they knew we did really well," said Juan Diego head coach Natalie Williams, whose team was voted No. 4 in 3A girls basketball preseason polls and is currently ranked No. 1 statewide. "And we competed really well with freshmen."
The freshmen are twins Monique and Dominique Mills. Monique is a guard and leads the team in scoring with 12 points per game. Her sister, Dominique, is a forward and is averaging 9.1 points per game. The team's lone senior, Julia Colosimo, is averaging about 4.5 points per game, and she provides leadership to a young but talented team.
"They pass so well together," said Williams. "They have that weird, twin, sixth-sense. They just have an innate sense of where each other is on the court."
That caused the team a little trouble last week against Riverton when Dominique was out with an ankle sprain.
"She had a hard time Thursday without her sister," said Williams. "They play so well together."
In that Thursday game, the Soaring Eagle lost to 5A powerhouse Riverton, and the team's only other loss is to a ranked 5A team, Weber.
"Everything happens for a reason, and when you have superstars you have to find that balance (between relying on them and working with them)," she said. "Their role is huge, but I think we'll find that fine balance."
Juan Diego has beaten some of 3A's other promising squads, including Snow Canyon and Desert Hills.
"They're the biggest team I've ever seen," she said of Desert Hills. "They play a zone and they're huge."
Desert Hills head coach Chris Allred is the beneficiary of three sophomores who are 6-foot or taller, and he has a couple of other players close to that height.
"We have quite a bit of size," he said. "And we have some pretty athletic guards. Right now we're just young and we're learning how to deal with adversity and compete at that level. We've had some ups and downs, but we've won some tough games."
Among those, an early preseason contest against another team voted into the top five in those preseason polls, Cedar. Allred admits he didn't want to play the region game that early, but was proud of how his young team performed.
"We're glad to be 1-0 in region," he said laughing.
The Thunder are led by Blair Bliss, who is averaging nearly 11 points per game and Haley Bodnar, who is averaging 8.5 points.
With Cedar and Desert Hills currently in the top five and Snow Canyon expected to be there by tournament time, Allred said the Region 9 race will be difficult.
"Dixie is playing well right now," he said. "Coach Staheli is Pine View is doing a good job of building that program; Snow Canyon is having success; Cedar is tough, so I expect it to be a knock-down, drag-out battle."
It has been a bit of a different race the last few years as Region 9 was made up of both 4A and 3A squads.
"This year we'll just try to be one of the top four teams," he said.
Juan Diego and Desert Hills are currently No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, and Cedar sits at No. 3 with just the one loss to Desert Hills. The Redmen are led by junior Tara Shipp, who is averaging 12.5 points per game, junior Alainey Carter, who is averaging 7.7 points per game, and Jessica Nakken, a junior who is averaging 6.8 points. Junior Madison Alger is right behind them with 6.4 points per game.
Morgan was voted into the top five in preseason polls and remains there, as most of the Trojans' losses have come to larger schools.
Head coach Brad Matthews said the team is young with no returning starters. Still, the Trojans are a perennial power and have tradition on their side. They're led by Rashel Blazzard, a sophomore who averages nearly 15 points per game, and senior Kelsey Henry, who is averaging 12.8 points per game. McKenzie Schenk, a sophomore, who is averaging 13.2 points per game gives the team a lot of scoring options.
Carbon has the best record in Region 12, but Delta, Juab and North Sanpete are all strong squads. The Dinos are led by Miranda Averett, who is averaging 14.8 points per game, and Rachel Scoggins, who is averaging 8.3 points per game.
And while it is any team in 3A that could hoist that trophy at the end of the season, coaches agree that the changes in the classification only made it deeper and more competitive.
Note: Projections were picked by Deseret News staff, with input from coaches.
1. Snow Canyon
3. Desert Hills
5. Canyon View
7. Pine View
1. Juan Diego
4. Park City
2. Bear River
7. Ben Lomond
3. North Sanpete
5. Spanish Fork
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