For the last four years, Corona del Sol High School has ruled Division I boys’ basketball in the state of Arizona. That all ended last night when Sunnyslope High became the new sheriff in town – at least for now.
It was a stunner that Corona, which owns the last four state titles, wasn’t able to get past the quarterfinals this year and has been eliminated, 61-53, by an eighth-seeded team.
Stunning, perhaps, but not necessarily totally unexpected. Despite the fact that Corona went into the playoffs as the No. 1 seed, the end of its reign has actually been forecast for some time.
The wheels starting coming off the bandwagon almost a year ago when Sam Duane Jr. stepped away from his job as head coach after taking the Aztecs to all four titles. Corona became just the third team in Arizona prep history to win four straight and Duane became the first big-school coach in the state to win four in a row.
After 12 years directing the Tempe program, he shocked everyone by leaving to pursue a career in school administration. Neil MacDonald, his assistant coach for the previous two years, was handed the reins in the hopes that it would result in a smooth transition.
However, that transition was anything but smooth after the team’s 6’11” freshman phenom announced he was leaving the school. Marvin Bagley III, considered by most recruiting services as the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2018, led the team to a 33-1 record and its fourth championship.
Corona also lost two of its other top players with the graduation of 6’7″ wing Dane Kuiper and 6’5″ forward Cassius Peat, two of the top college prospects in the state.
That left MacDonald with a talented back court, but lacking Bagley’s presence under the rim. And Sunnyslope was smart to exploit that, as the Vikings’ sophomore center Chris Orozco collected most of his 17 points in the paint, off the glass.
But the cracks in the Corona mystique began with the first game of the 2015-16 season when Mesa High School handed the reigning champions a 65-62 loss in the first game on the schedule. It was the first time in 70 games against in-state teams that the Aztecs had been beaten. The aura of invincibility had been punctured.
That put a target on their backs that suddenly seemed easier to hit for all those opponents that followed. Seven more losses came after that, sprinkled throughout the schedule – including a stretch of three straight in late December – and Corona closed out the season 15-9 and with a loss in just their second game of the playoffs (they had a play-in at the second round).
And Sunnyslope wasted little time last night serving notice of their intent to close out the Corona reign. The Vikings held several early leads and went into halftime with a 22-20 advantage.
They widened the gap to 12 points in the final quarter and held off a Corona rally that enabled the Aztecs to get within striking distance at 57-53 in the final couple of minutes. But Sunnyslope pushed off the threat and earned the right to move on to tomorrow’s semifinal match-up with No. 4 seed Gilbert High.
Alex Barcello, the junior point guard who was last year’s Gatorade Arizona Player of the Year, put Corona on his back for this game and tried to carry them through, scoring 29 points. His back court teammate, senior guard Tyrell Henderson, contributed 18 points and 11 rebounds. The pair put up a ton of shots, but the team finished with just 32 percent accuracy from the field.
Sunnyslope, on the other hand, converted on 49 percent of its shots as the Vikings had three players in double figures. In addition to Orozco’s 17 points, senior guard Dane Maggi added 14 points and pulled down seven rebounds. Kyle Fischer, a sophomore guard/forward, came off the bench to score 10.
The other semifinal game tomorrow will match No. 2 Mesa High and No. 3 Basha High in the evening games, while the girls play their semifinal rounds in the afternoon, as the site moves from ASU to Grand Canyon University.