Aztec basketball still hungry

Lee+rallies+up+the+team+before+a+game+against+Desert+Ridge.+Lee+looks+to+become+a+more+prominent+leader+on+the+court+next+season.+

Photo by Maria Martin

Lee rallies up the team before a game against Desert Ridge. Lee looks to become a more prominent leader on the court next season.

Written by Nikki Hinshaw, Carson Pyatt and Jake Pyatt

Coming into the 2015-2016 season, it was no surprise the Aztec boy’s basketball team had a huge target on its back. With four  consecutive state titles under its belt, everybody knew Corona was the team to beat.

Senior Tyrell Henderson and juniors Alex Barcello and Saben Lee returned as leaders of the team after the loss of several major players last year. There were notable changes to the program, with the loss of Coach Sammy Duane and Marvin Bagley III, both key components of the Aztec’s unmatchable success.

“Obviously we were missing Marvin Bagley but everybody kept each other accountable,” junior Dalen Dorsey said.

From the first game, the Aztecs looked different on the court. The season started out with an unfamiliar feeling of a loss to Mesa 67-66, after only losing to nationally ranked Sierra Canyon (Calif.) the year prior. This automatically created a different atmosphere, but the Aztecs found a way to come together.

“We had a lot of talent last year and we did lose a lot of key players but we still made what we had work and fought through the adversity,” Dorsey said.

One of the biggest adjustments the team had to make was the introduction of a new head coach. Former Assistant Coach Neil MacDonald took lead of the program, replacing Duane. Since Duane was such a winning coach and led the team to its four consecutive state championships, MacDonald had big shoes to fill.

“At first it was a little rough,” Dorsey said. “We were all shaky; we didn’t really know what was going on because we were losing games, but we decided to trust him and believe in him.”

As the new face of the program, MacDonald received significant attention and pressure to continue the legacy of winning.

“I think he handled it very well with all the outside noise, with the media talking about him,” junior Saben Lee said.  “I think he kept it between the team and the coaching staff, so I think he did a really good job.”

Under new leadership both from the sidelines and on the court, the Aztecs began their journey to state, which took on a drastically different appearance than last year’s run.

“The goal was always to win state,” Lee said. “I feel like with how we started out the season it progressively got better every game. That was a positive.”

The Aztecs entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed, receiving a bye in the first round. The Aztecs went on to defeat Mountain Pointe, 78-58, in the second round. They were set to play the No. 8 seed Phoenix Sunnyslope in the quarterfinals at ASU Wells Fargo Arena.

Corona was unable to secure a consistent lead, and after a hard-fought battle Sunnyslope emerged victorious, defeating Corona, 61-53.

“We fell short to Sunnyslope, but we gave it our all,” Dorsey said.

The early exit from the playoffs ends the quest for a five-peat. Despite this loss, the Aztecs are nowhere near done.

“I think we are definitely going to have an even more serious drive to win state next year, given that we didn’t get it this year,” Lee said.  “Just don’t walk into the playoffs and think it is going to happen. I definitely think it will be more serious and we will get the job done next year.”

The team will suffer the loss of five seniors: Henderson, Nate Marshall, Jake Burroughs, Jeff McCain and Jordan Bryant. Their presence on the team had an important impact on the younger players.

“If we needed advice or help with a play or something, they (the seniors) were always there and it was good having them,” Dorsey said.

“They set the tone for the rest of the team showing that it was their last year and that everybody else on the team needed to give it their all,” Lee said. “They did a great job with that.”

Looking ahead, Lee, Dorsey along with juniors Alex Barcello and Shane Grier will emerge as the new seniors.

“I’m going to contribute in all aspects –points, rebounds, assists, and just making sure that I’m leading the team, taking it more seriously,” Lee said.

Barcello plans on bettering himself over the summer in order to improve his game and emerge as a more prominent leader than before.

While this season ended without a state title, returning players are optimistic about their chances next year.

“I’m going to take it as motivation to work harder in the gym everyday and hopefully we will have a more successful year,” Barcello said.

“This (the loss) makes us even hungrier,” Dorsey said. “It’s going to be a good road to state next year,” Dorsey said.

MacDonald agrees that while next season is a while away, the boys will return with the same goal as always.

“I think the silver lining is we return a lot of guys and we are coming back strong,” MacDonald said. “There’s always a silver lining. I think there will be a renewed sense of mission and hunger going into next year.”