Josh Tafoya, all 5-foot-8, 150 pounds of him, stood trembling on the side of the court, in front of Phoenix Brophy Prep’s Red Army of students, experiencing the longest four minutes of his life.
It was four years ago. He was a freshman then. The Avondale Westview guard had just checked in at Brophy Prep, waiting to inbound the ball. Officials were working on a clock malfunction. The extra wait made it feel like an eternity for a kid getting his first taste of varsity basketball.
“They are yelling at me,” Tafoya recalled.
Aren’t you like in the seventh grade?
Are you supposed to be home with your parents?
You got your shoes from the dollar store?
“One of them was slapping my behind,” he said. “I never experienced that before. I didn’t know what to do. Do I just take it?”
“I was going, ‘I hope he can throw it in,’ ” Westview coach Brendan McEvoy said. “He looked so scared.”
Now a senior, Tafoya’s skin has thickened, as 21-2 Westview finds big crowds awaiting it against tough 6A Conference opponents, especially on the east side.
The bigger the game, the bigger the rivalry, the bigger the student sections and the greater the noise.
On Friday night, Phoenix Pinnacle, known as the home of ‘Neer Nation or The Crazies, expects its largest student section of the season for Hoopcoming with Brophy Prep in the gym.
Pinnacle’s gym is one of the largest for a high school in the Valley, seating close to 2,000 fans.
As usual, under coach Charlie Wilde, the Pioneers have an exciting, young team that likes to shoot 3s and feeds off the students’ energy.
“We do have rules that our administration tries to keep the Crazies to stay within, honoring game rules,” Wilde said.
Usually, a teacher, a coach from another sport, is the extra security guard, making sure students don’t cross the line of rowdiness.
Some places will place yellow tape across the first two rows, as a preventative measure for students not to come onto the floor.
Extra security is called in for heated rivalry games, especially late in the season when it feels like win or go home for the players trying to win the game.
Gary Whelchel, who is in charge of officials for the Arizona Interscholastic Association, said his referees have seen the intensity of student bodies at basketball games ratcheted up over the past few years. But few, he said, got to the point where the official needs to become involved.
“Most athletic administrators sniff out the problem before it gets to that point,” Whelchel said. “It seems that when the students have a theme night, it does increase the potential for problems.”
Scottsdale Chaparral’s Bird Cage fills up for rivals Scottsdale Desert Mountain, Pinnacle and Brophy. Aside from the Silent Nights, the black outs, the white outs, the Firebirds’ student section has introduced Tight and Bright Night. That means wearing spandex-type, neon outfits or 1980s style leggings.
“When all the students do it, it looks pretty cool,” coach Dan Peterson said. “We have volt-colored warmups that we have worn on those game days to match the students. It helps to bring some energy and also some extra fans to the games.”
Tempe Corona del Sol’s student section grew bigger and bigger during its four-year run of state championships, from 2011-15. Games against Phoenix Desert Vista would become standing-room only.
Shadow Mountain seniors Joey Digiacomo, Logan Paolacci and Tasso Annos are the leaders of the Hecklers, a student section that has made a big movement in the past few years with the school’s most famous basketball alum, Mike Bibby, leading a nationally ranked team.
Strong student sections have their own Twitter accounts. Shadow Mountain’s is called “The HecklersSMHS.”
“We try to have a theme for every game to make it more interesting so more people will come,” Annos said. “We try to make it a huge game every game.”
Digiacomo said this year they’ve bumped up their apparel with gold-lettered ‘Hecklers’ on the front of black T-shirts and their nicknames on the back. Paolacci is called “Sauce Master.” Annos has “Greek Freek” on his.
“When I was a freshman, I was on the golf team, and the senior on the team was the lead Heckler,” Digiacomo said. “He brought me to every game. It basically just got passed on to us.”
At a game earlier this season at Phoenix St. Mary’s, it was the return of Shadow Mountain senior guard Marcus Shaver, who played his first two years at St. Mary’s. Shaver took the prep academy route for a couple of years in Texas, before returning last summer and enrolling at Shadow Mountain. The Hecklers wanted a good gathering, knowing that the St. Mary’s Bleacher Creatures would be all over Shaver.
During introductions, Shaver was taunted with chants of, “Marcus Traitor.”
Shaver ended up with a big game and shut down the Creatures.
“It comes to when he’s showing them up, we kind of just feed off of that,” Annos said.
But there has to be certain protocol to follow.
“Oh, they not only push the envelope, they mail it – in the form of taunts directed at players, inappropriate language and sometimes tossing objects onto the court,” Whelchel said. “We have had officials clear gyms and complete the game without spectators. They have that authority, and we instruct them that if they feel that sportsmanship has crossed over the line and there is no correction by the students after the AD has intervened, clear the gym and get the game completed.”
When Pinnacle reached the state tournament for the first time 15 years ago and lost, the Crazies made a circle around the court and had the players return from the locker room and stand in the middle, so they could give them a standing ovation.
“That was special,” Wilde said. “Our Crazies keep carrying on the traditions of being supportive.”
Westview’s schedule has been an anomaly without a single home Friday night game this year, McEvoy said. But considering that, he said the Knightmare student section has grown with the team’s success.
The Knights recently got blown out by 30 points to Avondale La Joya, where students were loud, but not terribly organized, like some McEvoy has seen in the East Valley.
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“They were cheering loudly,” McEvoy said of the La Joya students. “If we can’t handle that crowd, holy cow, what is going to happen if we go to Corona?”
The big crowds, McEvoy said, validates the work his players have done to become a top-10 team.
“Westview was not traditionally drawing big crowds,” he said. “Now, we are. What is good is making it a tough place to play. I think that’s what every coach wants. We like it when other teams are successful. If the crowd is loud, it’s going to be loud on free throws. They have their chants and stuff.
“College kids can be OK with a lot of that. But high school kids struggle to focus, especially underclassmen.”
Those taunts from Brophy students that first year of Tafoya’s high school basketball career didn’t leave scars.
“It really helped me,” he said. “The following year, we played them at Brophy. I knew what to expect. I wasn’t scared of them.”
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