The minute freshman basketball players Matt Carlino and Nick Johnson set foot on the Gilbert Highland campus last year, observers knew the Hawks would be good for a long time.
It played out in the regular season, as Highland took the top seed into the 5A-I tournament, although the Hawks were upset in the first round.
Just down the road, the success of Gilbert is a little different story.
The Tigers finished last season 20-8 and ended up with the No. 2 seed in the state tournament, although a tough matchup with No. 15 Mesa Mountain View in the opening round sent them home early.
Gilbert is back in the mix this season, starting 7-0 and ascending to No. 3 in the latest Tribune boys basketball rankings.
The Tigers lost 10 seniors from last year’s squad, but holdovers Eric Donzella and Elliot Clark have made the transition a smooth one.
With Highland and 2007 state semifinalist Chandler Hamilton in the 5A-I Fiesta Region, Gilbert coach Jay Caserio said his team is flying under the radar.
“We graduated those 10 seniors so you’d think it’s a rebuilding year,” Caserio said. “To some extent it is. But any time you keep winning games you’ll get noticed.”
Caserio said the offense isn’t where it needs to be, but rebounding and defense have kept his team in ballgames.
Gilbert has also been very good in the fourth quarter, a mild surprise since only three varsity players returned from last year’s squad.
“It’s a pretty good sign that they’re trusting each other and learning to perform under pressure,” Caserio said.
With the success of Gilbert and Highland — the Hawks are 8-1 — it’s beginning to feel like the clock has been turned back to earlier in the decade.
From 2000-2003, Highland made the title game twice and the semifinals once. Gilbert made the quarterfinals in 2002 and won the state title in 2003.
Since then, it’s been slim pickings.
In the four years prior to last season, the teams had gotten out of the first round just one time combined.
Highland athletic director Rod Huston was a teacher at Gilbert during the early 2000s, so he knows the rivalry well.
“It’s not quite to the level of what it was then, but it’s close,” Huston said. “These two schools have a history. Even last year, both gyms were jam-packed for the games. During timeouts the cheerleaders were doing flips, and even they were getting standing ovations from the student body.”
Caserio was a freshman coach in 2003 when the Tigers won state. He said fan participation has fallen off some since then, but the games against Highland are always packed.
“All three of them were like that last season,” he said. “They had to turn people away.”
Now he wants that atmosphere every game.
“Maybe if we keep winning ballgames,” Caserio said.
They’re off to a good start.