When top-ranked Tempe Corona del Sol began this Division I basketball tournament, coach Sam Duane Jr. addressed his players on the court after a practice and told them it’s time to be the hunter.
He knows everybody has been after his teams for four years. It has survived double-digit deficits, overtime games and close calls along the way.
The three-time defending state champions, taking everybody’s best shot, can enter the Arizona preps record book Monday night with one more win against the last athletic, defensive-minded team out to stop them – long and hungry Phoenix Desert Vista (26-4) – at 8 p.m. at Gila River Arena in the championship game.
A win would make Corona del Sol the first team since Phoenix Union, from 1958-61, to win four consecutive state championship in the highest division in Arizona.
Corona del Sol (32-1) would also join Mesa’s string of four successive titles from 1923-26 for most in a row in the highest division in Arizona.
Thatcher holds the overall state record for consecutive state titles at any level with six from 1981-86, all under coach Paul Nelson, at the Class 2A level.
Sam Duane Jr. can become the first coach in the highest division to capture four consecutive state championships. He would also tie his father for state titles. The most in a row that Sam Duane Sr. won was two at Corona del Sol, back-to-back in 1980 and ’81 in Class 4A. He also led Corona del Sol to state titles in the highest division in 1989 and ’94.
Is this wearing on Junior?
“People don’t realize how hard that is, to win at the highest level,” he said.
Duane has been blessed with talent since this all started with now-senior forward Cassius Peat as a freshman coming off the bench and providing valuable minutes. But it’s not as if superstars flocked together and landed at Corona del Sol at the same time. Duane gradually built Corona del Sol into a top team leading to this dynasty.
PHOTOS: Boys basketball state tournament
Corona del Sol celebrates their win over Desert Vista in their Division I boys basketball championship game Monday, March 2, 2015 in Glendale.
Peat has played a complimentary role since 6-foot-7 wing Dane Kuiper moved in from Alaska before his junior season.
Kuiper was the sidekick to point guard Casey Benson on last year’s championship team.
With Benson now at Oregon, Kuiper hasn’t had to be the go-to guy with 6-foot-11 forward Marvin Bagley III coming on as maybe the best freshman in the nation.
Bagley has averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds, and he wasn’t even voted by the coaches as the section’s Player of the Year.
That title belongs to sophomore point guard Alex Barcello, who moved into Benson’s role with ease, adding toughness, efficiency and precision shooting to lead Corona del Sol into another title game.
“No, it’s a whole new team, OK,” Duane said after Saturday’s 79-70 semifinal win over Scottsdale Chaparral. “We take everybody’s best shot. And we’ve done that. It’s made us mentally tough. It’s not going to be easy. Everybody wants to beat us.”
Desert Vista is waiting.
It is in the final for the first time since it won it all in 2008.
The catalyst on this year’s team is 6-7 senior forward Brandon Clarke, who didn’t have one of his better games in a 73-59 loss before an overflow crowd at Corona del Sol on Jan. 27.
Darden’s team has grown with confidence and toughness in his first year at the school with defense emphasized.
Guard Quincy Taylor, playing despite an injured shooting hand, is a defensive force, and Tarik Cool and Caleb Simmons provide an offensive punch for a team that is hoping for a much better performance this time against Corona del Sol.
“That starting five is Division I players, whether it’s basketball or football,” Darden said about Corona del Sol with its only football player being Peat, a linebacker who has signed to play football at Michigan State. “For us, it’s a matter of earning that respect that some of our kids and some of our staff don’t feel that we’ve quite gained yet.”