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Once upon a time, nearly everyone had to wait their turn. In high school sports, it often meant a freshman or sophomore watched while juniors and seniors took to the field, floor or court; kids who’d been in a given athletic program for a few years, and, thus, “earned” their playing time. That’s not often the case anymore for several reasons, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It could be a testament to how talented and deep Arizona’s high school basketball pool has filled out: Five out of more than a half-dozen kids from across the East Valley have not only earned roster spots and playing time on elite programs, but, in many cases, are essential pieces to potential championship puzzles during the 2013-2014 state tournaments. There are many more youngsters who were key contributors for teams who, unfortunately, were left out of the playoff picture, and more are coming up the ranks. But it takes a lot to crack the rotation as a freshman on some of the state’s best teams. Namely, it means not playing like a freshman.
Alex Barcello, Guard, Corona del Sol: A freshman getting significant minutes on the two-time defending state champions means a couple things: A lot of talent, and a lot of mental maturity. Aztecs coach Sam Duane Jr. knew what he had coming in with Barcello — whose older sister, Julia, is an elite player on Seton Catholic’s girls team — but despite the reality he could earn minutes, not playing all the time was foreign and frustrating concept. “I wasn’t going to start but I knew if I kept pushing myself and others I had a chance to play,” he said. “At first I was down a bit but guys playing were bigger and older. I definitely got frustrated. It’s tough but I knew I had a chance so I tried to keep my confidence up and not let it affect me when I was playing.” He’s gradually forced his way into giving starter Casey Benson a break, and sometimes playing alongside the Oregon-bound Benson on a team already loaded with talent and depth. He’s enjoying the atmosphere and camaraderie with this team, which could be the best during this title streak. Even his teammates have embraced him enough to the point he said they haven’t done any freshman pranks on him. Duane Jr. said Barcello’s role will expand next season, and if he grows another couple inches in the near future, the sky’s the limit. Julia Barcello is aiming for a third state title in her career with Seton, and lets her older brother know about it constantly, but the younger Barcello is planning on catching up in his high school career.
Liz Holter, Guard, Seton Catholic: Actually, there are four freshmen who’ve made contributions at various points this season for Seton Catholic, with Holter and the Wirth twins (Jennifer and LeeAnne) seeing the most action for these perennial championship contenders. As is often the case with a 575-enrollment school, Seton coach Karen Self plays freshman, but four is abnormal. Older sister Anne Marie was a standout guard the previous four years, and Liz said her sister’s advice has helped on occasion. Still, Liz has been effective as the No. 1 Sentinels (Div. II) continue their march toward a championship. Self acknowledged plenty of “freshman moments” this season even during this 28-3 season, but playing in Highland’s Thanksgiving weekend tournament, along with the MLK Classic at Grand Canyon University, was designed to show the youngsters about playing in strange environments which are coming up toward the end of the tournament. So, too, was playing a schedule with Mesquite, Mountain Pointe, Highland, Marcos de Niza, and South Mountain. “It’s going to be more physical moving forward,” Liz said. “We push each other around during long practices to get better for this time.”
2013-2014 stats: 4.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.8 apg, 1.4 spg
Markus Howard, Perry, Guard: He’s been the cream of this freshman crop. It’s not simply his burgeoning talent, maturity, the early makings of a goatee, or willingness to make the big plays at crunch time that vaults the freshman guard to Player of the Year candidacy. To Markus, it’s also about being part of a family in which his older brother, senior Jordan Howard, scores nearly 10 points per game fewer than last season (25.6 to 16.4) and has deferred to his younger brother while taking on a different role. It’s worked, as the Howard brothers led the Pumas to the No. 4 seed and nearly knocked off No. 1 Corona del Sol in the Super Sectional final. Markus has won multiple games this season on last-second shots, but he also defers: “He’s pushed me since I was little, and he has a 4.5 GPA so there’s even competition to get better grades,” Markus said of Jordan. “His knowledge of the game and the way he approaches the seriousness of life. He lets me know what I do right and wrong. I’m my toughest critic but he does tell me a lot, and for the most part I hear them out.” While Barcello claimed to have heard opposing fans’ “freshman” chants once this season, Markus said he wouldn’t know because he doesn’t hear background noise, except the side effect after his older brother beats him 1-on-1.Well-spoken and polished, Markus’ NBA aspirations aren’t a secret, but he knows one person never makes a team. “I’m around a good group of guys who trust me and it’s been a great opportunity for me to be in,” Markus said. “I’m just getting started.”
2013-2014: 23.1 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.2 apg, 1.9 spg
Jennifer Wirth, Forward, Seton Catholic: Jennifer isn’t alone, not only among Seton freshmen but among Wirth freshmen. Twin sister, LeeAnne, has also seen playing time this season as she continues her return from a significant injury in eighth grade. The Wirth sisters aren’t alone, either, as two elite, record-setting Wirths came through Seton in the past decade (Theresa and Christina). Jennifer and LeeAnne came to their games as elementary school kids, and then 11-, 12- and 13-year-old kids, and they didn’t just run around the school or hide in the bleachers. Each of the older sisters started as freshmen, so the pattern continues. So, too, might the pattern of greatness those older sisters built. “We’d come to the games to watch our sisters and we paid attention,” Jennifer said. “I think it definitely helped a lot having siblings who’ve been part of this.” Still, summer and early fall weren’t always a smooth transition for the Wirth sisters as they tried to learn the varsity basketball expectations while fitting in with teammates, and while the older Wirths occasionally chimed in about expectations and suggestions for success. Sometimes the best resource was each other. “It was hard getting used to this especially in summer and early in fall, but we worked hard for these spots. They said it’s hard but it’ll be worth it.”
2013-2014: 6.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.5 spg
Bethany Wolph, Guard, Valley Christian: Similar to Seton Catholic, Valley Christian has been a perennial title contender for years. And, similar to Seton Catholic, the Trojans have relied on freshman contributions before. This, however, is new. Wolph (11.9 points per game) is second on the team in scoring behind sophomore Mara Kemmer, and has quickly become a product of hard work in morphing herself from a shooter into a scorer (she plays with some of the Seton girls in club ball), and her mother, a “basketball junkie” according to Timmer. Megan Timmer and Angie Andreas are also seeing significant minutes as freshmen for the No. 1-seeded team in Division III, but Wolph “was the biggest shock” in Timmer’s view between eighth grade and now. “Bethany was always a shooter but didn’t have a complete game, wasn’t real tall, her ball skills were solid, but now she can score — not just shoot — and she’s coming around defensively and rebounding,” he said. “She really had to get better and you could see the improvement right away in summer and fall.” The challenge moving forward will be playing in a series of larger, neutral site venues — more than Div. I or II —, and against some of the Northern Arizona schools’ several thousand opposing fans. That’s a lot to ask of a few freshman (there are no seniors on the roster) who play such pivotal roles in the Trojans’ attempt to win a third state title in Timmer’s long-standing tenure. “Those kids are pretty mature at every level and in games when it comes to pressure, 6,000 fans, the physical play they’re going to find, so we addressed it,” Timmer said. “I’m pretty confident this group will handle it as well as anyone. I’m not afraid we’ll be that nervous or tight we can’t perform.”
2013-2014: 11.9 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 1.2 apg, 2.2 spg