GILBERT - It was a season for West Valley 5A boys basketball teams to dream big. Ironwood could defend its title and Centennial and Willow Canyon rose to unprecedented heights.
One by one Tucson Catalina Foothills used patience, precision and exquisite positioning on the court to dash those dreams and make their own a reality.
5A #1 seed Centennial was the latest to fall in the March 20 5A state final at Mesquite High School in Gilbert. #2 Catalina Foothills (19-1) never trailed and were rarely challenged, winning its first state title in its first year back in 5A by a 59-45 score.
"This is a very versatile group. They adapt to what is needed in the situation," Catalina Foothills coach Scott D'Amore said. "There are games where matchups dictate that we push the tempo and they can do that too."
This was the first state finals appearance for both programs. But the Falcons were achingly close to the big stage their last two years in 4A and played like the team more comfortable in a big-game situation in an unfamiliar gym.
Catalina Foothills played only six players through the first three quarters. Four of them played as sophomores in a 7-point semifinal defeat to Deer Valley in 2019, and all six experienced a 6-point loss to rival Salpointe Catholic.
This postseason, the core of five seniors and one junior left nothing to chance. D'Amore's ironmen defeated Tempe McClintock by 20, Willow Canyon by 21, Ironwood by 12 and Centennial by 14 in the playoffs.
"I could not be happier for these guys. They have worked so hard for this moment," D'Amore said.
These teams have not played in years, even in fall ball, so the big question coming in was how would the Coyotes, with no starter taller than 6-3, defend Falcons 6-10 star senior center Will Menaugh. The answer never materialized.
Menaugh picked up two fouls in four minutes and sat the rest of the first half. Two more in the third quarter sent him back to the pine and he fouled out with five points in about 10 minutes.
No problem. 6-4 senior forward Ben Pinckney came in and carved out space inside for 11 points. And 6-5 wing Trace Comeau regularly slid into the post for16 points in the first three quarters and 17 overall.
While the Coyotes reached the semifinals in 2018, Randy Lavender's first year as coach, none of this young team was on that varsity roster.
Centennial fell behind to Yuma Gila Ridge in the first round before recovering to win by two. Gilbert jumped out to a 20-6 lead in Thursday's semifinal before Cenennial cranked up its fast break for a 67-53 victory.
Catalina Foothills almost completely shut down the Coyotes' transition game and would not allow itself to be sped up, working the ball around in the half court. Combined with only two made three pointers, it was a long afternoon for the boys from Peoria.
"We could not make shots and when that happens against a disciplined, well-coached team like that it's going to be a long game," Lavender said.
Only junior shooting guard Jake Lifgren could get loose with any regularity. He finished with 16 points.
Centennial closed to within six when Menaugh picked up his fourth foul, but would not get closer the rest of the game. It was a bitter end, but this team reached rare air for a program with only two trips to the semifinals in the previous 20 seasons.
"It's been a great ride. A lot of these kids have been here three years now and have learned what our expectations are. They've set a new standard," Lavender said.