Dominic Gonzalez and Trent Hudgens did not know each other well until this fall, except for bumping into each other at the occasional club basketball tournament.
But for one season only the senior guards have struck up a lethal partnership to fuel the best regular season of basketball in Ironwood High School history.
The Eagles finished the season with a 24-2 record and earned the No. 2 seed in 5A. Gonzalez averaged 18.4 points, 6 rebounds and 4.1 assists, while Hudgens - playing half the season after transferring in from Moon Valley - averaged 18.5 points, 4 revounds and 3.6 assists.
"When he started coming here, we talked about chemistry and that comes with reps. There isn't really a formula for it. That comes from being unselfish enough to say, hey this guy has the hot hand so we're going to find him," Gonzalez said.
Indeed, this duo account for only half of Ironwood's dynamic guard lineup. Juniors Bailon Black (12.4 points, 4.3 assists) and J.J. White (12.8 points, 2.5 steals) add two more ballhandlers that can creat, shoot from distance and drive to the bucket.
The result is a team that just broke the 5A record, sinking 257 threes. They did this while averaging 18 assists a contest and hit 38 percent of their treys.
"When you're coaching guys who are capable of hitting tough shots, at some point you don't want to get in their heads. You want to let them play," Ironwood coach Jordan Augustine said.
This is Augustine's fifth season at Ironwood. The last four have been winning seasons with playoff berths.
Gonzalez has been on all four teams, and started on the last three years.
"I worked harder as a coach in my first year just to win nine games than I've ever worked. I had this built-up perception that it took miracles to win high school basketball games. What it took was Dominic Gonzalez. He's eight assists from breaking our all-time assist record. He's got our all-time points, steals and wins records," Augustine said in January. "That kid's been very special, and not just for our basketball program. You go around campus and everybody talks about his character and how well-spoken he is. He's added another element to Ironwood and he's been phenomenal for our community."
Hudgens led Moon Valley in scoring last season but didn't think he should come back.
He said there were reasons to go to Ironwood, but playing with Gonzalez was not the primary lure.
"I know Bailon and J.J. from playing club ball with them and I knew they went to Ironwood," Hudgens said. "It's really because it was a lot closer to my house than other schools I was going to go to. Stuff happened at Moon Valley and I felt like Ironwood would be a good place."
He is one of three transfers that gave an injection of ability at midseason, along with big men David Teibo (of Centennial) and Jaden Glass (Agua Fria).
Their wait was relatively fast because of the Eagles busy opening month of the season. Hudgens was eligible starting with the winter break tournament at Greenway High - where he earned MVP honors.
While Glass and Teibo added rebounding, rim protection and finishing inside, Hudgens fundamentally changed how teams matched up with Ironwood.
"A lot of teams are worried about me and him, so they'll guard us really heavy. When he's driving they all collapse on him, and we have a lot of shooters. Then they'll help off me and vice versa," Gonzalez said.
Augustine called Gonzalez the most coachable kid in the gym.
Also, the coach said, his presence and attitude helped draw the returning players together with the transfers, without the dysfunction and jealousy that can arrive in these situations.
"We called him our connector. The reality is as much everyone talks about transfers, they usually don't work because the reason they're transferring is they're a malcontent with the situation they're in. That's not the case with these three guys," Augustine said. "This nine-game rule has been interesting because it was almost like we had to hit the reset button. And if you don't have a guy like Dom who is modeling your culture on a daily basis that all these guys look up to and respect - he's the unifier."
Also, he said, Hudgens got involved in helping the team before he could play and that helped quell any negativity.
"He came in and the first thing I asked him was, 'What are you hoping to gain from our program?' And one thing he talked about that a lot of our guys say is the way that we teach leadership and life skills. He's grown a lot as a leader. When hwe were going through scouting reports before he was even eligible, he asked to have my marker so that he can go through the other players before the coaches did," Augustine said.
Gonzales said he has seen how hard work and a sound culture can change a program. This year, the Eagles approach allowed this group to bond quickly.
"We all genuinely like each other and like playing together," Gonzalez said.
Augustine said the program focuses on leadership training off the court as much, if not more than, as drawing up plays and team defense
"I'm a firm believer that it's a big reason we've had success on the court. We've stressed characteristics that are going to make you successful in the real world, that if you also apply them to sports, you're going to have success," Augustine said.
Both losses came before the transfers were eligible, one was at Sunnyslope during the Vikings' preseason tournament. The other was the second-to-last game before the break at region rival Sunrise Mountain.
Their biggest test entering the playoffs was Jan. 17 at Sunnyslope, a battle Ironwood pulled out 71-64 in overtime. Hudgens finished with 26 points.
"Beating Slope at Slope was fun. The crowd was talking a lot of trash and it was good to shut them up," Hudgens said.
That helped clinch the brutal Northwest Region with a 9-1 record. Apollo, Centennial, Sunnyslope and Sunrise Mountain also reached the final 16 in 5A.
Hudgens said is used to tough region games, as his Moon Valley team was in the same league as 4A state champion Shadow Mountain and St. Mary's Catholic last year.
"We want to put the West Side on the map a bit and let kids know if you're on the West Side, Ironwood is the place to be," Gonzalez said.
It could be an all-West Side final with #1 seed Millennium, the team that edged Ironwood by a point in last year's quarterfinals.
To get there, the Eagles have to survive a bracket almost as deep as the Northwest Region, starting with Apollo Wednesday and including a potential semifinal against either Sunnyslope or defending champion Gilbert.
"It would be great. I've been close to a state championship but never gotten there fully. And to get there with my brothers would be great," Hudgens said.
Hudgens just visited UMass-Lowell near Boster. Gonzalez has interest from several schools but will focus more on his decision after the season ends.
Gonzalez would like to study business with plans to become a real estate agent. Hudgens said he wants to study computer engineering.