Call it a conflict of interests. This is supposed to be the year. Seniors not only line the rosters, but they’re seniors without whom neither of these schools would be playing in tonight’s 5A Division II boys basketball state championship.
Therein lies the conflict: This is “the game” culminating “the season” in which both Paradise Valley and Scottsdale Desert Mountain eyed themselves as champions, yet only one team will see it through.
Both schools have won against each other this year, and view their respective seasons as a success, but that’s as far as the comparisons go.
Desert Mountain (20-11) will move up to 5A-I next year, a concept hard to imagine two years ago while the Wolves slogged through a 6-19 season.
Not many seasons prior were memorable either. The school had never won more than 16 games.
“It was nothing to write home about,” senior guard Kelly Bardet said.
Then Todd Fazio arrived as coach. He saw the program from afar in his two years at Scottsdale Horizon, felt there was talent and quality kids in the area. They just needed to be challenged.
The Wolves went 8-18 in 2005-2006 under Fazio, but it went deeper.
They lost 12 games by single-digit margins, and seven of those 12 were by one possession. Wins were important to Fazio, but not before instilling his philosophies of teamwork and commitment.
“We needed last year to be where we’re at,” he said.
The top three scorers and rebounders from last year’s team graduated, but that wasn’t going to be a problem.
Months before November rolled around, Fazio knew youngsters such as Bardet, Kyle Smith and Colby Wagner were going to see plenty of playing time.
Nearly 50 kids were in the weight room four or five days per week from spring through fall. There was conditioning and pickup games.
There were expectations.
“We did more spring and summer work than any time in our lives,” Smith said. “We had a good summer and no one paid attention, but we knew we’d have a good team.”
Smith leads the team in height (6-foot-4), scoring (13.5) and rebounding (7.5), but the Wolves rely on the sum of their parts being better than any individual talents, and it’s worked.
Now with a school-record 20 wins, they won their first state tournament game in school history, and, obviously are playing in their first championship.
Now and later, the plan remains the same.
“We’re like those little dogs that nip at your heels,” Fazio said. “They’re kind of a pest. We have to be that team that grinds until things go our way.”
Paradise Valley’s objective was obvious in October:
Win this game.
Two years ago the Trojans lost in the first round of the state tournament. Last year, wide-eyed about playing at Jobing.com Arena, they fell in the semifinals to eventual-champion Phoenix South Mountain.
A new backcourt of Chris McFaul and Brandon Garrett emerged this season, along with a slew of juniors off the bench, led by Ryan Ramsey and Marcio Vandik.
But the Trojan Triangle — an all-senior frontcourt of Chris Bonham (6--10), Alex English (6-10) and Javon Jones (6-5) — was back.
Height (English and Bonham) and athletic ability (Jones) have predictably carried the Trojans (21-11) to tonight’s rubber match of a season best-of-three, and they’ve done it without ego or whining over who gets the ball.
“It’s nice to play with guys who have this talent and desire,” English said.
There was a stretch, however, when those two attributes didn’t translate into tangible results. The Trojans went 1-6 from mid-December through mid-January.
Five of those losses were by six points or fewer.
“We had to re-assess our goals and play better,” Bonham said. “Coach said we wouldn’t get there. We were lacking focus, low energy.”
“The same thing happened last year, but this time we came back stronger as a team.”
Two losses to 5A-I finalist Phoenix St. Mary’s in the past six weeks are the schedule’s only blemishes.
The Trojans would like to keep up their schedule. It’s 10 years to the week since they last won a state title.
“Last year, were happy to get to Glendale,” Bonham said. “From this year’s beginning we thought we could get here and stay here.”
Who: Scottsdale Desert Mountain vs. Paradise Valley
What: Boys state championship game
Where: Jobing.com Arena, Glendale
When: 7 p.m.
TV: Cox Ch. 7
Radio: ESPN (860 AM)