The Horizon Honors boys basketball team will be ready come tournament time.
At least they have been so far.
The Eagles made the finals of two in-season tournaments and coach Ernest Shand, in his second season, said that experience was vital in preparing the squad for whatever the postseason might bring.
"We need to make those tournament championships for the atmosphere. Playing in those types of big games is going to transition over," Shand said. "Even in the loss to (last week at) Gilbert Christian it was a big game atmosphere. From start to finish people are on their feet and making noise. We have to get accustomed to that and embrace that."
Horizon Honors appear to be on its way to qualifying for Division III, Section II eight-team sectional tournament (Feb. 8) and the 24-team Division III state tournament (Feb. 14) after entering this week 18-6 overall with two games against Maricopa and an important homecoming game Friday night against Northwest Christian.
"We have to finish strong and make sure we put ourselves in the best position possible," senior forward Taylor Hudzinski said. "If we are focused we are a different team."
The Eagles went 9-2 in tournament games and were 9-4 in power point games before the start of the week. The losses have come against quality programs like Gilbert Christian (twice), Valley Christian, Phoenix Country Day and Phoenix Christian.
Shand believes the team is more prepared now to face the adversity of the final minutes of a close game or playing in front of a large and boisterous crowd because of the experienced gained in the tournament finals.
"There hasn't been enough of a tradition built just yet where we expect that we are going to be in big game after big game," he said. "We have to embrace those moments. The key is to talk to them about being confident in their preparation before that moment happens. Do the preparation before it happens and embrace it. Within the game take a time out, settle down and play through it."
If Horizon Honors is going to make a strong showing in the postseason, the Eagles are going to have to knock off a program that is a title contender year in and year out at some point.
"We have to start beating the top teams," senior point guard Dominick Chavez said. "It was tough (losing to Gilbert Christian last Friday), but we have some time to get ready for the postseason."
Horizon Honors has played an up-tempo, pressing style since Shand took over last year. It has led to 31 wins over that time, but it can also wear a team down. He understands he has to balance the minutes as the season nears the playoff run.
"The rotation has been fairly tight until recently where we are trying to reward some of the kids who are working hard in practice," Shand said. "The quality, in terms of minutes on the basketball court, is an unrealistic expectation. They have to find the intrinsic reward. It is not worrying about who gets the credit. It's not about the minutes you play, but the impact you have in the minutes you have."
The Eagles like to put teams on the defensive by applying the press early and forcing teams to make mistakes and question what they are doing, but it is all for naught if Horizon Honors doesn't execute when they are on offense.
"We talk about not playing offense emotionally," Shand said. "On offense you have to be effective. Defensively, you can play with emotion and let the adrenaline ride you. Offensively, you have to be poised."
It helps having Hudzinski, who recently went over 1,000 career points, to count on to provide a dependable scoring option.
The 6-foot-4, 205-pounder is a strong inside presence, but he doesn't have to do it alone.
Chavez runs an efficient game at the point, sophomore guard Jake Connell hoists a 3-pointer with ease and accuracy, junior guard Zack Taylor might be the best defender, while 6-6, 217-pound center Tyler Popescu has a power game that can be difficult to match up with at the Division III level.
There isn't much let up when Shand goes to his bench, especially at the guard spot, to keep everyone fresh.
"We are trying to cultivate a culture of winning to go along with our high academic standards," Shand said. "We are going to continue to produce quality programs like we do in the classroom. This team can set that standard on the court."
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