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 a hundred 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 and beyond.
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.
Corona del Sol boys
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 second 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 (at least) for his career.
Desert Vista boys
2013-2014: 4.6 ppg, 1.7 rpg
The Thunder have brought this youngster along slowly, but as his minutes picked up so has his game. Since Dec. 28, Simmons has picked up the pace at 6.7 points a game, including his first two double digits games of 13 and 10 against Gahr (Calif.,) and Perry, respectively. He’s going to grow into those broad shoulders and become more of a physical presence on the block. For now, coach Dave Williams is loving what he is seeing from Simmons.
“He’s coming along well,” Williams said. “He is smart, athletic and a real good person. He is growing as a person, We were concerned with him coming up so quick, but he learned how it is about the character and integrity he brings as a teammate and not just scoring. He’s a team guy and he is getting it done.”
2013-2014: 23.1 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.2 apg, 1.9 spg
The cream of this 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.”
Seton Catholic girls
2013-2014: 6.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.5 spg
Jennifer isn’t alone, not only among Seton freshman but among Wirth freshman. 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 freshman, 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. It’s a lot of pressure but it also helps a lot.” Still, summer and early fall weren’t always the best times for the Wirth sisters as they tried to learn the ropes of varsity basketball and fitting in with older teammates, and while the older Wirths occasionally chimed in about expectations and suggestions for success, sometimes the best resource for Jennifer and LeeAnne 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.”
Valley Christian girls
2013-2014: 11.9 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 1.2 apg, 2.2 spg
This Ahwatukee resident grew up with a mom who coached at Valley Christian and an sister older sister in Desert Vista’s Emily who grew into a Division I scholarship player. In other words, it isn’t all that surprising that the younger Wolph has made an immediate impact.
“She has made so much progress since the seventh and eighth grade,” Trojans coach Scott Timmer said. “Bethany was always a shooter but didn’t have a complete game, but now here ball-handling solid and she can score (off the dribble) and mixes it up well. She’s really tried to add more to her game with club ball and it has really helped.”
The Trojans have three freshmen contributing and Timmer has no problem with it as top-seeded Valley Christian makes a push for a state title.
“We addressed that,” Timmer said. “Those kids are pretty mature at every level. We wanted to address what it is going to be like when it comes to pressure, playing in front of 6,000 fans and how physical the playoffs gets. 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.”
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