By Kody Acevedo
Karen Self wears many hats on any given day. She transitions constantly from teacher mode to coach mode to mom mode all in a matter of hours.
But it seems like she’s handling her busy load just fine. While juggling her mom and teacher duties, Self has coached the Seton Catholic Preparatory girls basketball team for 24 years, leading the Lady Sentinels to eight state titles since 1996.
Their most recent title was the 2016 Division II State Championship, the team’s fifth since 2010.
“This is probably the most successful team that we’ve ever had,” Self surmises.That says a lot, considering the success Self has had during her tenure as head coach—but it’s true.
After defeating Cactus Shadows 49-40 in the championship game on Feb. 29, the Lady Sentinels were ranked No. 10 in the nation by USA Today with a 31-1 record.
Then, the news of a lifetime reached Self and her girls. The team had been invited to fly to New York and participate in the 2016 Dick’s Sporting Goods High School Nationals tournament. The Lady Sentinels were one of four girls basketball teams in the U.S. invited to play for a national title.
“I did not know that was even a possibility for us,” Self said. “But to have the opportunity to travel to New York was really, to me, a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity for my team. We are just so grateful for that.”
Self explained that the tournament uses the USA Today rankings and invites to top four teams to compete in the weekend-long bracket, but not every state allows for postseason competition.
So, if the No. 1-ranked team is from a state that doesn’t allow postseason play, they’ll bypass that team and invite the No. 2-ranked team, and so on, until they have four teams that come from states that allow it.
Arizona allowed its teams to be eligible for postseason play last season.
Juniors Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth are twin sisters who play together under Coach Self. They were part of the 2014 State Championship team as freshmen and are now leaders of the Lady Sentinels, with Jenn serving as one of the team’s co-captains. Both said the team was completely shocked when they discovered they qualified for a trip to the Big Apple.
“When it was finally confirmed that we were going, it was so surreal because none of us could actually comprehend it. It just didn’t seem real,” Jenn said. “But it was such an amazing opportunity, so I’m really happy that it all worked out.”
The Lady Sentinels faced Jacksonville Ribault in the second semifinal on April 1 at New York’s Christ the King High. But after a hard-fought game, Seton Catholic dropped the game 49-41.
Still, the Lady Sentinels remain grateful for the opportunity. Talk to anyone on the team and they’ll say the weekend was full of positives, despite the loss.
“I felt like we played a pretty solid game [in New York],” Self said. “[Ribault] averaged 70 points per game. We held them to 49. So, I took a lot away from that as far as we can compete at the highest level. We also will return all of our starters, and they are only going to get better and now they know, ‘Okay, that’s the level we need to get to.’”
One of those returners is sophomore captain Sarah Barcello, who was azcentral sports’ Big Schools Player of the Year. She scored eight points in the game, going 3 for 14 from the field and sinking 2 of 8 3-pointers.
“It was an unbelievable trip,” Barcello said. “It was a great thing to be apart of. We were really excited and ready for the opportunity.”
Even though the stage was larger than usual, Barcello said the team tried not to let the glory of the occasion get into their heads too much.
“It was just like every other game. We focused on our game and our goals for that game,” Barcello said.
Despite the loss, it was a season that came full-circle for the Lady Sentinel compared to the 2015 campaign. Last season, Seton Catholic lost the state championship to Maricopa in a heartbreaking 49-52 loss.
LeeAnne Wirth said the biggest difference this season was leadership on the team.
“Last year, one of our problems was our starters were all very young,” LeeAnne said. “So, we didn’t really have the leadership that we needed. We had good team chemistry, but this year I think everyone was a great leader out there and talked together well.”
Stronger leadership was something Self and the coaching staff focused on during the off-season. Self said the girls began training for the 2016 season the moment they lost the 2015 state championship.
“They spent all summer training super hard,” Self said. “Our weight room does not have air conditioning, our gym does not have air conditioning, so they spent a lot of time either coming in at six in the morning to avoid the heat or they just worked out in the heat.”
The hard work and determination definitely paid off. Their New York trip was not only an opportunity, but a reward, Self said.
“[The season] was very inspirational to us,” Self said. “I feel like everyone is inspired to achieve more. “Our main goal is just to get better and to give everything we have each time we step out onto the court in order to benefit the team,” LeeAnne Wirth said.
It looks like they have done just that.