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Lady Vandals fall one game short on historic run

Miami High School’s Lady Vandals varsity basketball team came within one game of the pinnacle of success when they fell to the Phoenix Country Day School Eagles in the state championship game on February 24 at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix.

In the end, the Vandals were runners up in the state, playing in the championship game for the third time in school history and the first time since the 1986-87 season.

The final game was a disappointing 60-30 loss to Phoenix Country Day, a private school in Paradise Valley, but the team came away with multiple awards and plenty of hope after a dominant regular season.

“It means a tremendous amount because it puts our community on the map,” says Miami Athletic Director Paul Fine. “When it comes to going up against some of these urban schools, I think it just proves to our kids that if you work hard and put in the hours and put everything into it, you’re just as capable as any other students around the state. It’s just a matter of believing in it, wanting it and putting your mind to it.”

Third-year coach Crystal Pietila has built a powerhouse program and was named Arizona 2A Co-Coach of the Year as her team soared to the top, at times making it look far too easy.

The Lady Vandals improved four games from the 20-9 record in the 2022-23 regular season to a 25-4 mark in 2023-24, including Eastern Arizona College, Hawaii and regional tournament play.

The team entered the season ranked eighth after ranking sixth the previous year. They will go into the 2024-25 season ranked number two and a majority of the team’s core will return.

The Lady Vandals gave a hint of what was to come in the previous season, roaring out of the gate with an 83-8 drubbing of rival Hayden Lobos. Although there were a few tight games in 2022-23, the girls established dominance in several lopsided victories, including an 80-30 win over Globe.

In a pair of wins over San Tan Charter, they won by a combined total of 151-18, including a 60-2 demolition in the 2A Valley Tournament in February 2023. In all they won 11 games by at least 30 points, including tournament play, and held opponents to single-digits an astounding three times.

That trend continued in the 2023-24 school year, when hapless Hayden lost the first game of the season to the Vandals by a 79-9 mark.

By the end of the season, the Lady Vandals were victorious in 15 games decided by at least 30 points, including a 106-19 annihilation of rival Tigers in the Globe High School gym followed by a 102-23 victory in Miami on January 16, the evening of the dedication of the refurbished gym to the Vargas coaching family.

While the team’s losses were much closer in 2023-24, the Lady Vandals lost two tournament games by 30, including the semi-finals of both the I MUA Invitational in Maui on December 1 and the State Tournament in February.

According to Coach Pietila, two years of tough competition and playing 31 games last June contributed to the team’s chemistry and how the girls came together as a team.

“The opportunity to play some of the toughest competition in the country in the Hawaii tournament [in February] made us realize the intensity it takes to compete at a high level,” Pietila says. “Winning the Regional Championship two of the past three seasons was important as well.”

Pietila added that the high points of the season included Miami’s ascending rankings in the 2A Region and beating traditionally strong programs, such as Round Valley and Pima, but the cherry on top was beating the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last year, Valley Sanders High School from northeastern Arizona, by 32 points.

In addition to the work the girls have done to gel as a team, Pietila credits stability in the administration and athletic department at Miami that has helped foster a sense of family, and long-term friendships have brought a sense of community to the organization.

Her husband, Principal Shawn Pietila was Miami’s Athletic Director prior to taking the leadership position and the subsequent promotion of Fine to the AD’s office. All three worked together in San Carlos prior to accepting positions in Miami.

“Shawn being free of AD duties it has allowed him to be closer to the team and I am so grateful for his all-around support. We are blessed to have him as our number one fan,” Pietila says. “Paul Fine has been a supporter of the program even before his time in Miami began so it has been a smooth transition. I am also grateful for his hard work and commitment.”

With only two of the girls graduating, and plenty of talent in the pipeline for next year’s team, Fine believes the Lady Vandals will have another strong outing in 2024-25.

He also says he does not discount the historical value of past champions and the long history of the Vargas family on what has been happening with the team.

“When you go into the gym, and you see the years on those banners, things like that will probably get your competitive juices going a little bit,” Fine says. “The intangibles can only contribute because seasons are long and I think stuff like that helps with the day-to-day grind and with creating a team atmosphere.”

He does not believe this team will rest on its laurels anytime soon, as it has unfinished business ahead.

“The team we went against in the championship game returned everybody from last year and they’ll be coming back,” Fine says. “So it’s good to have most of the team returning.”

About David Abbott

Journalist, writer and editor who has worked for community newspapers for more than 15 years. After four years at Davis-Monthan AFB and a few years living in Tucson, moved to California to find his fortune. He is happy to be back in Arizona, in the mountains he loves.

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