Desert Vista High School’s boys’ basketball program finished the 2019-20 season by capturing the 6A state championship and appeared to be in prime position to repeat the next year.
Then, however, the coronavirus pandemic struck. Despite having already finished the season, the Thunder found themselves facing an uphill battle as recently as November. Starting forward Osasere Ighodaro graduated and went on to play at Marquette University. Desert Vista’s other forward, John Soloman, moved back to Florida unexpectedly after the season while guard Andrew King transferred to play for Phoenix Prep.
When the Arizona Interscholastic Association announced in November the winter sports season would be delayed until Jan. 5, standout guard Dasean Lecque left the program to join Hillcrest Prep. Marcus Wady, the program’s other guard, moved to Texas. On Dec. 3, head coach Gino Crump, who had been terminated last season after he attempted to stop an altercation then was reinstated, resigned and took over the national team at Bella Vista Prep in Scottsdale.
In a matter of months, Desert Vista went from contender to bottom feeder in the eyes of many around the state. But in some ways, that’s what this year’s group prefers.
“We are trying to teach them they can only control what they can control,” St. Cyr said. “If we want to be successful, it will take a lot of hard work. With this group, it has to be a 14, 15-man effort. It has to be a combination of effort from all of these guys.
“But so far, they’ve showed they’re up for that challenge.”
St. Cyr, a Desert Vista alum, took over the program as interim co-head coach with Mountain Pointe alum Jordan Ballard. The two stepped up to fill the vacant head coaching position just one month before the start of the season.
An assistant coach with the varsity football program, St. Cyr has now experienced two regimen changes in just a few weeks. Longtime head football coach Dan Hinds announced his retirement in November after 19 years leading the Thunder program.
His ability to step into a head coaching role alongside Ballard came after he was one of the few coaches to remain with the program from Crump’s staff. St. Cyr’s knowledge of the players in the program and the game itself have blended well with Ballard’s expertise in basketball. It has created a positive environment so far for players who were thrust into a difficult situation.
“I was called on a Friday and had to be to work on Monday,” Ballard said of the timeline when he was hired. “I didn’t know any of the players and they didn’t know me, but they were all willing to learn and wanted to get better. I knew it would be a learning curve, but we are getting there faster than I expected.”
Desert Vista will be led by a small group of just three seniors this season. Despite their veteran status on the varsity roster, few had received considerable playing time in year’s past.
Caleb Harbertson is the most experienced senior on this year’s team. He found himself on the receiving end of playing time during Desert Vista’s championship season last year. But he was never leaned upon by other players or coaches to take on a leadership role within the program, especially with Ighodaro leading the way in that position as the only senior last season.
But this upcoming season, however, is different. Not only will the coaching staff lean upon him to be a leader on the court, but in the stat book as well. A 6-foot-2 guard, Harbertson has range and enough explosiveness to contend for rebounds on the glass. He knows he is stepping into an expanded role this season in a variety of different ways, and it’s a challenge he’s willing to face head on.
“(Ighodaro) was a good example for me coming up behind him through the program,” Harbertson said. “I’ve definitely seen myself have to step up. We’ve got a young team. But we are talented. It makes this season exciting.”
Along with Harbertson, St. Cyr and Ballard will lean upon junior forward Tayan Thompson and guard Daylyn Martin. As a sophomore, Thompson saw considerable playing time on last year’s team, often coming off the bench for Ighodaro or Soloman. The 6-foot-5 forward averaged 5.5 points and 2.4 rebounds per game last season.
Martin, meanwhile, also found himself coming off the bench last season. But he knows this year presents an opportunity for him to showcase his leadership ability and overall skill on the court. In many ways, he is aiming to use his lack of playing time last year as motivation.
Overall, he wants to become Desert Vista’s next floor general and help lead the Thunder to success. Even if many other teams are already overlooking them.
“A lot of us from last year will have to step up,” Martin said. “I just want to show people that I can be a leader. I can get my teammates going and bring their energy up.
“We want to shock some people.”