Welcome to the big time, Gilbert Christian.
The state’s premier small-school boys basketball program has taken its lumps in the first two days of the VisitMesa.com Basketball Challenge. The four-day tournament consists of 16 high-quality teams, and the Knights fell to Division I contenders Pinnacle (81-66) and Corona del Sol (62-46) on Wednesday and Thursday for their first losses of the season.
But Gilbert Christian knew this was a possibility, and it’s still right in line with the program’s plan.
The Knights headed into this tournament 12-0 and are again the heavy favorite in Division III after winning the state title last year. But despite all the success at the lower levels, Gilbert Christian is ready for something new.
The program will move up to Division II next season and eventually would like to be competing at the state’s highest level. While some say winning never gets old, the players think it does sometimes.
“It’s fun winning games, but competition is what I live for,” junior forward Sam Jones said. “Three point games, buzzer beaters, that’s what basketball and competition is all about. It’s the best feeling in the world. I love winning state championships, but if losing some games comes with moving up a division, I’d still love to do it. It’s worth it.”
Gilbert Christian beefs up its schedule with as many tough opponents as possible in tournaments, but the power points opponents are often easy fodder. In many cases, the win is a certainty before the game starts.
“In Division III everyone kind of fears us,” Jones said.
Jones and fellow star junior Roberto Reyes lost in the title game as freshmen and won a championship last year. The odds are favorable for them to get more hardware this season.
However, the program knows it must continue to ascend in order to get talented players. Coach Jerome Joseph said the soft schedule has been a deterrent for potential newcomers, especially those with college ambitions.
“We’ve had kids come to us and take a tour of our school who love the program, love the academics, but the schedule is just not strong enough,” Joseph said. “We don’t want to lose kids like that. We don’t want that to be an issue in their decision-making.”
With Jones and Reyes leading the way, Gilbert Christian should still be a contender at the Division II level next season. However, as Pinnacle and Corona del Sol showed, the Knights’ depth could be a problem, as a school with only a couple hundred kids won’t have as much bench help.
Last year’s team used its five starters almost exclusively, and while Joseph is trying to cultivate his bench more, it’s still a work in progress. It likely doesn’t matter as much this season, as Jones and Reyes are probably the two most talented players in Division III, but winning another championship as seniors will be much tougher.
Despite that potential concern, Reyes isn’t worried about the possibility of a playoff exit as a senior.
At this point, the journey is more worthwhile.
“We’d rather lose a close game than win a game by 50,” Reyes said. “It’s that simple.”