Reality hit the Gilbert Christian boys basketball team hard last season, and Dylan Bliss has the picture to prove it.
As expected, the Knights ran roughshod over their competition to advance to the 1A title game in Prescott Valley last February, where they assumed Orme would be their final victim on the way to a second consecutive state championship.
Orme had other ideas, starting quickly and going on to the 68-56 victory. It was Gilbert Christian’s first loss to a 1A opponent in more than two years.
"We went there arrogant, thinking we had it made," senior forward Connor Patterson said. "It came back to bite us in the butt.”
Point guard Logan Fougnies said the team was back at practice the following Monday, using the loss as motivation for this year. Bliss, a junior shooting guard, set a photo of Orme holding up the 1A trophy as the background picture on his laptop computer.
"Every time I looked I would see that, and I know I never want that feeling again," he said.
Gilbert Christian petitioned up to play in Division III this season, and even though it regularly faces teams with higher enrollment, the team is vocal in its desire to get back the state title.
The Knights are 25-4 on the season as they head into the state semifinals on Friday at Jobing.com Arena, where they will face Snowflake. Three of the losses came to Hamilton, Gilbert and Desert Edge in the Boulder Creek Tournament during winter break, and the other came to Red Lion, a team from Bear, Del., in the championship game of the Christian Cup at Gilbert Christian in early December.
The Knights went 21-0 in power point games and are the favorites to win it all again. Sophomore Sam Jones leads the team in scoring at 15.3 points per game, and Patterson adds 14.8 points and 7.2 rebounds. All five starters average in double figures.
"We have a talented group of guys," Gilbert Christian coach Jerome Joseph said. "They’re playing up, but they know they can compete."
This time, there’s more caution. Gilbert Christian regularly blows out inferior teams during the season, but it knows one postseason slip-up will leave a bitter taste in its mouth once again.
It’s an especially important time for Fougnies and Patterson, the team’s two senior starters who have a shot to go out on top after last year’s disappointment.
"It’s their second chance, and a lot of times you don’t get second chances in life," Joseph said.
The future at Gilbert Christian is bright. Bliss will be a senior next season, and sophomores Jones and Roberto Reyes are already two of the team’s best players.
The basketball tradition at the school is strong, and the first-class amenities should continue to attract top talent. At practice Wednesday, Bliss shot jumpers alone on a side basket, getting passes from an automatic ball return. The majority of small schools can’t compete with things like that, so the Knights should continue to rack up gaudy win-loss records for the foreseeable future.
But while regular season success is nice, the expectations from the players, parents and school are state championships.
It’s something the Knights think about often, and come Saturday night, they’ll know if the goal has been achieved.
"(Last year) was just heartbreaking," Fougnies said. "It’s been a year-long thing waiting to get to the dance floor, and we’ve finally made it back."