It’s natural to be optimistic this time of year if you’re a winter sports coach. Games are just beginning, and for those teams that have significant turnover in personnel, there’s some added anxiety.
Such is the case for Mesa’s boys basketball team. Mesa, the defending 5A East Valley Region champion, saw its 2007-08 season end on a sour note with a first-round state tournament exit, partly hastened by a broken jaw that essentially ended player of the year Aaron Fuller’s season.
The Jackrabbits graduated four of five starters, so 2008-09 had the look of a rebuilding year.
But after watching Mesa play in its Fear the Hop Tournament last week, it looks like Mesa may just be reloading.
The Jackrabbits’ lone starter back is three-year veteran guard Donte Medder, who has confidently taken the reins of this club as its offensive leader. Medder is not afraid to take the ball to the basket at any time, and if he feels rebuffed, he’s at ease to pull up and pop a 3 or a long two-pointer.
He was outstanding in leading Mesa to a second-place finish in its tournament. Coach Shane Burcar believes the lightly recruited Medder will attract more attention from recruiters as the year progresses, much like Fuller did last year when he eventually signed in April with Iowa.
Another piece to the Mesa puzzle is Blondy Baruti, who came to Mesa High from the Congo. The 6-foot-9 junior center is adjusting to the high school game in the U.S. but comes with some nice skills. Keeping an aggressive, vocal game in control will be the key to Baruti’s season.
“He’s only played organized basketball for a year and a half,” Burcar said. “He doesn’t speak English, just French. He’s aggressive and active and you don’t want to discourage that. We need him to channel that correctly.”
In each of Mesa’s first two games of the tournament, Baruti received technical fouls. One against Phoenix North Canyon was for pounding the floor after getting called for a foul he didn’t think he committed.
The next night after slapping away a Corona del Sol shot, he got in the face of the player he rejected to let him know he was the one who blocked it. Taunting earned him another T.
“We want our players to be passionate but in a positive way,” Burcar said. “We’re trying to get that across to him.”
Along with the seasoned Medder and the skyscraper Baruti, Mesa also introduced a freshman into its lineup, something that Burcar believes is a first for Mesa High and a rarity for any school in the district.
Freshman Danny Powell, who has size (6-5) and shooting range that present problems for opponents, averaged 10 points a game in the tournament, including 17 in his debut against North Canyon. He makes the trek to Mesa High from feeder junior high Taylor.
Another varsity newcomer, who may be the most versatile player for the Jackrabbits, is guard Mohamed Sobh, a 6-3 junior. Of all the aforementioned, Burcar thinks Sobh is under the radar because of the uniqueness of the other three.
“I really think he goes unnoticed,” Burcar said. “He can play point, shooting guard; we usually put him on the other team’s best player. He played the most minutes in our first three games. There’s a lot of things new for us, but we’re excited.”
For at least a few more weeks, most everyone else competing in winter sports will be, too.
Fishing for 400
Chandler Seton Catholic’s girls basketball team scratched out a 3-2 record last week at the Gilbert Highland Thanksgiving Tournament. The Sentinels like stepping up and playing the tougher competition in the tournament. After losing its first two games, Seton won its final three and knocked off two 5A-I schools and a 4A-I foe. The three wins leave Seton coach Karen Self with 398 in her career. The Sentinels don’t play this week but have four games next week — Gilbert Williams Field, Scottsdale Notre Dame, Tempe and Page. Win No. 400 has a good shot of happening during that week.
The Old Pueblo is crumbling
Tucson schools have been a staple at the Highland Thanksgiving Tournament since it began 15 years ago, but its strongest teams year in and year out have suddenly fallen on hard times.
Tucson Salpointe, a team in the thick of the 5A title chase most of the this decade, was hammered by foes in last week’s tournament. The Lancers were blown out early and often. Ditto for Tucson Flowing Wells, a recent power in 5A-I and 5A-II. They combined for one win, and that was by Salpointe over Flowing Wells. The power in 5A-I girls basketball rests heavily in Gilbert, Chandler, Mesa and Tempe. Titles won’t be coming from anywhere else anytime soon.
Thanksgiving all-tournament team
The all-tournament team at last week’s Highland Thanksgiving Tournament featured 13 players from local schools among 15 players chosen. Named to the squad were tournament most valuable player Morgan Wohltman, Haley Vennard and Malia Magazzeni, all of Gilbert Highland; Aley Rohde and Kirstyn Shaw (Phoenix Pinnacle); Maylinn Smith and Kelsey Misseldine (Gilbert Mesquite); Kameron Knutson (Mesa Dobson); Whitney Southerland and Justine Johnson (Gilbert High); Joy Burke (Tempe Marcos de Niza); Kaela Oakes (Chandler Basha) and Theresa Wirth (Seton).
“It was a weird night. … I think we weren’t playing with our heads fully screwed on.”
MAX SMITH, SAGUARO LINEBACKER, ON THE SABERCATS’ RATHER CRAZY PERFORMANCE IN A 17-14 SEMIFINAL WIN OVER PEORIA LAST WEEK.
All-Trib watch: Notre Dame’s Taylor Malenfant caught two TD passes and nabbed his third interception in two games against Phoenix Greenway in the Saints’ 42-0 win in the 4A-II semifinals.