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State runner-up Aztecs look back on season

Photo by Maria Martin

Photo by Maria Martin

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After falling out of the playoffs in the quarterfinals last year, the Aztecs made their way back to the state championship game. It was their fifth time in six years that the team found themselves playing for a title.

“It is a huge accomplishment,” senior Alex Barcello said. “It is tough to just get to the championship game. It is not always going to end the way you want. It is not what you want, but you just need to take it and learn from it.”

The Aztecs started off the year with a convincing win against Copper Canyon. Next up were the Toros of Mountain View in a game that would prove to be an important early test for the team.

Known for its defense, Mountain View would turn out and be a small preview of the Aztecs’ state championship opponent. Corona was able to escape by three points, winning 53-50.

The next major test for the squad would be playing four games in five days. First up was their future semifinal opponent, Cesar Chavez.

The game lived up to its expectations as the Aztecs escaped with a one-point victory as the Champions missed an open layup as time expired. The Aztecs remained undefeated on the year as they went into the Hoophall West tournament.

The first game in that tournament was against Moreau Catholic from California. The Aztecs won with ease in that game to set up a matchup with Christ the King from New York. Both teams came out swinging in that game, but the Aztecs pulled out one of their signature wins of the season.

“That was the best team game,” junior Melek Alexander said. “We all played well and did what we needed to do. We got a good win that game.”

That win put the Aztecs on the national scene. The team had a game against Highland and won by double digits. Undefeated at that point, Corona took off for Hawaii to play in the ‘Iolani Classic.

The tournament in Honolulu was one that stood out in many players’ minds as the highlight of the season.

“Hanging out in Hawaii with the team was my favorite time,” senior Saben Lee said. “Not just basketball but getting together and just chilling.”

Traveling across the Pacific Ocean to play basketball is no easy task. The Aztecs learned that the hard way falling to Kailua (Hawaii) while only scoring 47 points.

“We took our first loss in Hawaii,” senior Jordan Guy said. “We all stuck as a team after that and won the consolation bracket.”

Overall, the trip to Hawaii was a success. The team returned home and had very little rest before playing in the Visit Mesa Tournament. The Aztecs played eventual 5A runner-up Apollo and lost in a blowout. The Aztecs turned things around and went on a 13-game win streak throughout the month of January.

“This was a season where we definitely came together,” Lee said. “We faced a lot of tough times and all came together as a team in the end.”

Led by captions Lee and Barcello, the Aztecs saw freshman Dalen Terry and Eric Blackwell play big roles and progress as players.

“They are very talented players with great potential,” Barcello said. “The sky is the limit as well. They always did more than the coach asked, which is what everyone strives to do, and they asked me questions and I gave them a few tips and hope that I had an impact on them.”

The Aztecs earned the No. 1 seed to go into the state playoffs. They faced Mountain Ridge in the first round and won, 59-43. The Aztecs didn’t play their best game and actually trailed after the first quarter, but they turned it on in the second half and pulled away.

“You have to recognize in a close game when they are not going in and you have the ability to get to the rim, you need to get to the rim,” MacDonald said. “When you’re one for eight, one for nine, it is time to start getting to the rim. We have the ability to shoot the 3.”

In the second round, the Aztecs went up against Westview and beat them easily, 73-57. The Aztecs advanced to the semifinals to face Cesar Chavez, a very athletic team that many people expected to beat the Aztecs. Lee had his best game of the season, scoring 39 points with 8 rebounds and 5 blocks.

“We had to come together, especially at the end of games.” Alexander said. “That’s how we got most of our wins this year.”

The Aztecs moved the final against Basha, a team with only one loss on the year. Barcello dominated the first half offensively and his play had the Aztecs down nine at the half. The second half started well for the Aztecs as they cut the lead down to two, but they were never able to tie it or take the lead.

“I should have been more aggressive,” Lee said. “I started getting aggressive late in the second half and I should have been more aggressive early.”

The Aztecs lost, 75-65, and ended the season 26-4. The team will look to reload next year after eight players graduate.

“Next year is going to be a big year,” Alexander said. “Big for me and big for everyone. I think that having the trust of my teammates is key. It’s just work.”

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State runner-up Aztecs look back on season