Long after Wells Fargo Arena emptied, a dozen teenagers wearing blue uniforms and reddened faces slowly meandered across the floor a final time this season. One held a video camera while the others talked, looked around at the backdrop in which their season came to an end, and embraced.
This was a new floor on which Perry's boys basketball team played upon; a new feeling in reaching the Division I semifinals for the first time in the school's relatively brief history; an even more empty feeling when it ended at the hands of a current dynasty in Corona del Sol, 78-66, on Friday night.
The game was both entertaining and competitive for more than three quarters. A pair of superb freshman showed their stuff in Perry's Markus Howard (26 points including a 30-footer at the halftime buzzer) and Corona's Alex Barcello (21 points, four rebounds and three assists off the bench).
The Pumas got a big left from senior Geoffrey Vredevoogd (14 points, six rebounds), whom coach Joe Babinski said was "far and away the most improved player on the team," and 12 points from Jordan Howard. Both are seniors who were part of Perry's rise to fortunes the past couple years, but who will graduate presumably just as the Pumas have possibly only begun their ascension.
The lower levels are doing well, and with Markus Howard coming back as a sophomore - unless he and the family are swayed by a national team such as Findlay Prep, which seems unlikely for at least another year or two - the Pumas have a "franchise player" for three more years, and nine others on the roster returning. More kids are coming.
"We have set expectations high and we've taken one big step in the right direction," said Babinski, his necktie finally loosened while he also tried to wear a smile after the game.
Corona is too good offensively and defensively, and though Perry nearly (and perhaps should have) beaten the Aztecs in the Super Sectional tournament a couple week ago when a 20-point lead early evaporated into a one-point loss, such are the progressions involved when trying to build something within a mile of what the Aztecs have done the past three seasons.
"They have all the pieces," Babinski said of Corona. "We haven't seen teams like these in Arizona, at least not in my nine years here."
Thanks in-part to the older Howard, the younger Howard could be the best player in the state already, if not next year, if not three years. The Pumas have a championship coach in Babinski, who won with Goodyear Desert Edge in 2008, a growing influx of families and students, and a lot of good complimentary components either returning, or coming up the ranks.
The seniors, though relatively few in numbers, are a huge component which will need to be accounted for next year if the Pumas want to play here - and Jobing.com Arena - again.
But nobody called the Pumas' run any kind of culmination.
"The kids like to use the 'sneak up on people' idea," Babinski said. "I like to break the door down and say here we are.
"We're going to be competitive every year. Are we going to win 25 games all the time? Not necessarily. We have a lot of work to do but we're here now."
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune assistant managing editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or (480) 898-6576.