The Corona del Sol boys basketball team at practice
Brooke Coltelli/Cronkite News

From the bright orange banners hanging in Corona del Sol’s gymnasium, it’s easy to recognize the team’s long-term success. Last season, the Aztecs’ boys basketball team fell just short of the 6A Conference championship in a loss to Basha.

Corona del Sol has grown accustomed to playing for a state title and has a built a reputation for producing the top Division I prospects in the state. Last season, the Aztecs were led by Alex Barcello and Saben Lee, two heavily recruited athletes now playing Division I basketball at Arizona and Vanderbilt, respectively.

Returning just four varsity players, with Melek Alexander being the only returning starter, the team is eager to prove it can be a state title contender again this season.

Surrounded by a winning-tradition, the Aztecs are often motivated by past teams and their accomplishments, however coach Neil MacDonald believes this team’s motivation comes from within.

“The motivation is different I think. It’s not so much trying to repeat what we did last year,” MacDonald said. “I think it’s more of trying to establish their own identity. I think that’s what their more motivated to do than anything.”

To maintain a winning tradition, MacDonald takes the saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” quite literally, and works to maintain the legacy his predecessors left behind.

Over 40 years ago, coach Sam Duane Sr. established a rich basketball culture at Corona del Sol rooted in hard work and discipline. Throughout his career, lasting four decades, Duane Sr. took the team to nine state championship games and accumulated over 700 victories.

Most recently, following in his father’s footsteps, Sam Duane Jr. coached the Aztecs to four straight state titles from 2012-2015. The state tournament is a familiar setting for this team, as there have only been five seasons since 1978 in which Corona del Sol has not made an appearance.

“We stick to our formula. It’s nothing new, there’s no magic to it,” MacDonald said. “We focus on the process. We don’t talk a lot about outcome. We don’t talk a lot about wins and losses and championships. Every year when the season ends we start the process again. Spring basketball, summer basketball, fall basketball, we focus on individual skills, we do all the things that Coach Duane Sr. did 30, 40 years ago.”

Itching to show everybody that Corona del Sol is still one of the best teams in the state is sophomore Dalen Terry.

“Everybody keeps saying that we’re the worst team in the state, and I feel like we’re just underdogs,” Terry said.

Sophomore Eric Blackwell is well aware this team may now be an underdog no longer having two major D1 prospects on board. However, this offseason he and his team have made an effort to become stronger both physically and mentally.

Blackwell said that last season the Aztecs were a bit “undersized” and this is a reason many teams will underestimate them. Additionally, leadership is necessary for this team to be successful and Blackwell is mentally prepared to step into that role.

“I didn’t have as much confidence (last year),” Blackwell said. “Now going into this season, I feel like being one of the leaders on the team, I have to have that.”

Confidence is exactly what MacDonald hopes the leaders on this team possess. With a young roster, MacDonald said that the team is dependent on the seniors, but also leans heavily on a couple of sophomores, like Blackwell.

“That’s a challenge for them because they are younger,” MacDonald said. “But because the ball will be in their hands a lot, we expect leadership from them, and that’s something we’re working on developing right now.”

One of the more experienced leaders is senior Melek Alexander. He plans to be “vocal with his teammates” because he believes communication is a big reason why and how the Aztecs got to the state championship last year.

The team is impatiently awaiting the start of the season, and the players already have their sights set on one team: Desert Vista. Last year, Desert Vista captured the victory, beating Corona del Sol on its home court on senior night. Alexander remembers that loss as a “demoralizing” one.

Senior Daniel “Miles” Allen is also excited for an opportunity to get revenge.

“They say they’re going to blow everybody out, and I want to see how that goes. I can’t wait to play that team,” Allen said.

The players and MacDonald are looking forward to the start of the season, especially because of the new identity this team is creating.

“This group will be fun to coach,” MacDonald said. “I think we’ll be better defensively. I think we’ll probably be a little bit more athletic. I’m excited because we’re going to be different. It’s a new challenge, and we’re young, so it’ll be fun.”

The team will tip off their season on Nov. 20 in a non-conference game against Copper Canyon.

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