Halfway through their high school careers, Danielle Cassady and Emily Henderson were, surprisingly, at a fork in the road.
Mere months after Ironwood’s first Division I playoff victory, the duo saw Coach Justin McLellan and friends and fellow young star Tierney DeDonatis leave the program.
After thinking about what to do next, both decided to stay. Two years later they lead a 20-5? Team to a top 10 seed in 5A.
“Me and Danielle were like, ‘Should we dip too?’ But we stuck it out and I’m glad we did. Carreon knows what he’s doing and I like him as a coach,” Henderson said.
Cassady, DeDonatis and Henderson started playing together in seventh grade. They would end up playing together for only one year at Ironwood.
Henderson began her career at Mountain Ridge and was the Mountain Lions’ leading scorer and rebounder as a freshman in 2013-14.
When her family moved near the area Henderson decided to transfer in, She said she wanted to play with her friends. The three sophomores joined forces with seniors Sierra Adams, Shannon Dohrman and Jenna Sandbloom.
Ironwood finished the 2014-15 season with a 23-11 record against a schedule full of larger schools. The Eagles knocked off Phoenix Mountain Pointe in the playoffs before bowing to Chandler Hamilton.
“That was a great year for us. I think a lot of teams underestimated us,” Cassady said.
A few months later McLellan stepped down and Carreon stepped in by May 2015. DeDonatis transferred to Cave Creek Cactus Shadows that summer and is now averaging 11 points a game for one of the state’s top teams.
For the next few months Cassady and Henderson wondered what they were getting into, as Carreon had some unorthodox ideas.
“At first, I’m going to be honest, it was a little tough. The way I do things is a little outside the box,” Coach Carreon said. “At first they looked at me like I was green in the face or something. I knew Dani and Emily were a bit apprehensive. They had been starting since their freshman year and I come in and my motto is our starting lineup changes every single game.”
The coach and both players said a winter break Payson trip brought the team closer together.
The Eagles went 10-5 after that trip and returned to the playoffs, this time in Division II. An overtime buzzer beater by Scottsdale Desert Mountain knocked the Eagles out in the first round.
This year the senior are leading a varsity team with five freshmen and putting their stamp on the program.
Henderson is built and can handle the ball like a guard but plays more like a power forward. Every year of high school she has led her team in rebounding, and she is pulling down an average of almost eight boards a game this year.
“She takes pride in that. She does kickboxing on the side. She’s a very tough kid but at the same point she’s got a lot of finesse to her,” Coach Carreon said. “She enjoys the physical part of the game.”
With less scoring options, Henderson has shown the full range of her offensive game in the last two years. As a junior she averaged 18.2 points and this year she is up to 19.5.
Junior Maya Walker is the Eagles’ only true post player, so Henderson will often take smaller guards down on the blocks.
“I feel like I’m stronger than a lot of girls,” Henderson said. “Sometimes I get little, quick guards on me so I just go into the post.”
She was quick to say that getting points is easier thanks to the way Cassady directs the offense. The point guard sprained her ankle in December against Centennial and missed a couple games, including a loss at Maricopa.
Now back, Cassady said she has enjoyed this year more, since the team has more scoring options and she can facilitate the offense more.
“Dani’s on pace to break the school’s all-time assist record. She’s realized there’s not as much pressure on her shoulders and that she can distribute the ball more,” Carreon said.
The coach said the duo teaches the freshmen class constantly and sets a standard with their work ethic and toughness. He said Cassady and Henderson also do not hold back for freshmen, treating them like varsity players.
Henderson said in particular she reached out to Mehgan Stickler during Cassady’s injury, since the Eagles freshman has a similar power guard mindset. Strickler leads the team in steals and nearly matches Henderson in rebounding.
Cassady works often with guards Amelia Coker and Illicia Zamorano.
Cassady made a verbal commitment to Glendale Community College Feb. 1. She plans to study her core classes there then major in business once she gets to a four-year school.
Henderson said she is weighing her options as far as college Basketball. She said she want to be a pre-dental major then go to dental school after college.
Right now, though, both are focused on making a playoff run and leaving the Ironwood program in good shape for the future.
“To leave it in better shape would be amazing. To know that you came in with a program that hasn’t been in the playoffs for a while, it would show what we’ve done,” Cassady said.