The 14-0 Catalina Foothills High School boys varsity basketball team continues to keep cool heads as their season draws to a close and the real season begins: the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s Basketball State Championship in Phoenix.
The Falcons secured the No. 1 spot in the AIA’s 4A Boys Basketball ranking after beating rival Salpointe Catholic by a score of 70-62 on Jan. 21. The formerly ranked No. 1 team, Phoenix’s Arcadia Titans, also had a big loss that week to Gilbert’s Mesquite Wildcats, which has ensured Catalina Foothills stay on top for the moment.
The team, led by Coach Doug D’Amore, made excellent runs in the previous two state championship tournaments, getting as far as the semi-finals and finishing 21-8 last season.
During those seasons, the Falcons benefited from ballers like Sam Beskind and Carson James (who currently play for Stanford and Johns Hopkins, respectively). But without a marquee player this year the team relies on one thing: teamwork.
“Those guys took a lot of pressure off us because they are so good,” said Falcons junior Will Menaugh. “At the beginning of the year we struggled a little bit, but we had to face the pressure and now we’ve acclimated well to it.”
Menaugh said he’s fortunate to have played on the previous two teams with Beskind and James that made “deep playoff runs,” but this season the Falcons are looking to go farther than before.
“We have a lot of chemistry and camaraderie,” Menaugh said. “We just got to stay focused for the rest of the season but we’re real confident about where we are now.”
Falcons senior Charlie Curtis agrees with Menaugh’s assessment of this season’s squad. Curtis said he attributes the team’s current success to being good friends who have spent years playing together.
“We’ve been playing together for three years and four juniors have been on varsity since they were freshmen,” Curtis said. “We definitely click very well.”
Playing Salpointe Catholic is one of the most challenging matchups the Falcons face each year, Curtis said. This year was no different. The rivalry between the two schools has been around since CFHS opened in 1994 and many students from each high school previously went to middle school together in District 16.
“All the middle schools disperse to either Foothills or Salpointe, so that’s why there’s a big rivalry,” Curtis said. “We’re all friends. On the court, not so much. But off the court we’re definitely cool with each other.”
D’Amore has been coaching the Falcons for the past seven years. He said there’s always excitement when they play Salpointe and he’s happy to see how the rivalry has progressed over time.
“That game is different, it’s fun,” D’Amore said. “We have a lot of respect for (Salpointe’s) program. They have a ton of talent and great coaching.”
D’Amore admits it was tough for the team to lose “a few big pieces” from last season. But this squad’s ability to anticipate each other’s movements has made them a tighter unit than teams past, he said.
“This is my first group who has played a lot of basketball together outside of our school season,” D’Amore said. “There’s been a lot of growth personally within that.”
The coach said there’s a certain amount of accountability the team employs during practice. The Falcons work hard so when they hit the hardwood at show time they’re having fun, while still staying focused.
“Our practice is work and our games are fun,” D’Amore said. “We look at it like our reward is to go play a game after a tough week of practice.”
With four games left in the regular season, including a rematch against rivals Salpointe Catholic on Feb. 7, the Falcons still have along way to go to win the coveted state champion title.
“We’re confident. We play together as a team and that’s where our strength comes from,” Menaugh said. “We’re not going to let up for anything.”