Corona’s varsity basketball team, which went into competition late last month with a 30-game winning streak on the line, has written a new chapter in the record books of Arizona state basketball.
It also added another triumph to a long family history of coaching at Corona, achieved by a father and son—Sam Duane and Sam Duane Jr.
The team took home Corona’s fifth state championship this year after the finals at Jobing.com Arena, at the same time underscoring the fact that Sam Jr. brought with him a talent no less impressive than that of his legendary father, Sam Sr.
Corona’s gym, in fact, is named after Duane Sr., who helped Corona win four state championships (1980, 1981, 1989 and 1994) and, with more than 650 wins, is regarded as one of the most distinguished coaches in Arizona’s basketball history.
But this championship was not about comparisons for coach Duane Jr. It was about this year’s team and the other eight Aztec basketball teams Duane Jr. has coached since taking the head job at Coronain 2003.
“I am very proud of our guys this year and what they accomplished,” said Duane. “But like I told the team beforehand, this is for all the former Aztecs, too.”
The same feeling resonated with this year’s team, especially the seniors, who said they were motivated by seeing or hearing about the tears of seniors on previous teams who were knocked out prior state tournament without a championship trophy.
They were also reminded by Duane about what could have been with Corona’s 2006 team that lost in the finals to Mountain View.
“This year’s team learned a lot about all the little things championship teams have to do to win big games,” said Duane. “Losing in the quarterfinals in 2011 also provided this year’s team with a focus and motivation that started last summer and lasted all the way through to the final game.”
The Aztecs, 32-1, losing their only game early in the season, culminated an outstanding season, with 30 straight wins, defeating Laveen’s Cesar Chavez, 66-53, on Feb. 25, in the Division I state championship game.
“It was a total 14-man effort. We needed every one of them this year in one way or another,” said Duane. “It’s not easy to win 30 straight games, especially with a target on your back, but they never once felt pressure.”
Instrumental to the Aztecs’ remarkable success all season was the guard play of senior Calaen Robinson, sophomore Casey Benson and junior Bryan Siefker, along with the inside presence of two senior football recruits: power forward Avery Moss and center Andrus Peat. It was no different during the championship win.
ASU-bound Robinson brought solidarity to the team, with constant control and unbelievable agility, fearlessly attacking the rim against Chavez’s large athletic front-court players. On top of his great finishes, Robinson consistently set up his teammates with choice opportunities to score inside with dazzling behind-the-back and no-look passes that perplexed defenders and delighted the crowd.
“Calaen—what can I say except he makes big plays and is fearless,” said Duane. “He was extremely active and created so many opportunities for us offensively and defensively the entire game.”
Benson, who led the team with clutch plays, not only distributed the ball to his teammates but made big shots every quarter. There was not a moment in the game where he wasn’t hustling and taking advantage of every opportunity Chavez gave him to fill the basket. He punished the Champions by hitting 8 of 14 shots, including 3 treys, one on what has become his signature play—a three-pointer to end the half, boosting his team’s confidence and momentum heading into the locker room.
Siefker, as usual, played solid defense, taking yet again another charge which caused not only a Champion turnover but lost points when the referee waved off the basket. He helped handle Chavez’s press with his ball-handling skills and was big on defense, switching off when necessary to cover for one of his teammates.
Despite three guards with ball-handling and passing skills, amassing 12 assists with minimal turnovers against Chavez, the Aztecs would not have been as successful in this championship game or all season without their two backcourt studs, Moss and Peat, playing in probably their last competitive basketball game.
“Our goal from the beginning was to control the tempo. We didn’t want the game to turn into a track meet where we would lose our advantage inside,” said Duane. “We wanted to get our bigs involved, defend well and stop all penetration to the basket, which I think we did a great job.”
Moss, not hindered by foul trouble, was absolutely unstoppable inside, grabbing 21 boards, several coming on the offensive end, which were usually converted into put-back baskets or to create another Aztec shot attempt. The second quarter, in particular, belonged to Moss, during which he scored eight points. He had to think things were going Corona’s way when one of his shots hit the top of the backboard, fell down, and rolled around the basket before dropping in.
“Avery Moss is the best rebounder I have ever coached,” said Duane. “He dominated the paint from start to finish.”
Peat, with his 6-foot-8, 290-pound presence, intimidated the Champions with his size and agility, completely shutting down Chavez’s leading scorer, Pablo Revis, and limiting him to only six points in the fourth quarter in a runaway game by the Aztecs. His agility and quick feet helped him grab 10 rebounds.
Moss and Peat, both soon-to-be college football players, played in this championship game like basketball was their main sport.
“Playing in this final basketball game was very emotional for me,” said Moss. “I had it imprinted in my mind that we deserved to win, and I was going to do everything I could to make sure we did. This championship was something I wanted badly, and it felt so good to finally win it.”
The Aztecs would also not be champions without their bench and scout team, which not only helped create the chemistry needed for a successful championship team but contributed to the team’s overall success by working together to obtain a unified goal.
“I think the biggest thing about our team that helped us win the championship this year was that all the players bought into their individual roles and everyone was committed to the goal of winning a championship,” said Duane.
Several players expressed the same feeling about the specialness of this team.
“I will always remember the cohesiveness and closeness we had as a team,” said Benson. “It was awesome winning together. We had a blessed season and it couldn’t have ended any better.”
It was especially meaningful to some of the seniors who had played together since middle school.
“I am going to remember my whole team forever,” said Moss. “We were like a family and we always had each other’s back.”
Junior Braden Tennyson played a big role in helping the Aztecs get to that championship game with his three-point shooting and strong defensive presence, as did senior Elijah Hempstead who had a couple of big rebounds and a basket in the championship game.
The audience couldn’t help but smile when Cassius Peat entered the court, loosening up the team with his personality and energy off the court and his basketball skills on the court, while the student section chanted “freshman.”
Other players contributing on and off the court over the course of the season included seniors Matthew Lemke, Jesse McCain, Tyler Bolton and Austin Millyard and juniors Adam Gleave and Alex van Ryswyk.
Coach Duane may say that it’s all about the team, but the team definitely wanted to win Duane’s first state championship for him.
“Coach Duane is an amazing encourager and such a great person on and off the court,” said Benson. “It was a fantastic feeling to bring a championship trophy back to Corona. Coach Duane really deserved it.”
“Coach Duane had been reminiscing about his ’06 team for a while,” said Moss. “He has done so much for us that it felt good to give him more than a runner-up trophy this time.” said Moss.
This was a special season, not only for the players and coaches but the fans. These Aztec basketball players gave something back. I know, as a former member of Corona basketball program under coach Duane, that this year’s players shared that special quality that inspired not only Corona students but alumni and their friends and family to come watch their games, to support them and to enjoy the excitement of watching a truly talented and fun team.