Chandler senior point guard Carson Kelly knew entering the season he would be relied upon not only for his leadership but toughness on the court as well.
It took just two games of the pandemic-delayed season for him to showcase both of those attributes. Against Valley Vista on Wednesday, Jan. 19 in the Capital Classic at Saint Mary’s High School, Kelly was forced to leave the game after he went up to block a shot and ended up toppling over the back of the opposing player, somersaulting midair and hit the back of his head on the court. He was put through testing in the nearby tunnel and after about 15 minutes, was cleared to re-enter the game.
“Right when it happened, I was kind of dizzy and my head hurt a little bit,” Kelly said. “But I wanted to get back in there and play for my team.”
Kelly’s return helped the Wolves capture their first win of the season. The senior scored 25 points in the process.
The level of toughness Kelly showed against Valley Vista has become the norm over the course of his high school career. At 5-foo-10, Kelly has widely been one of the most under recruited player in the state due to his size. But on numerous occasions he has risen up to the level of highly recruited opponents and at times, came out on top.
It was his leadership that led Chandler to the 6A semifinals a year ago, and his lack of desire to transfer to a club program like some of his teammates did has boosted the Wolves’ chances of returning to the playoffs.
Though they admit they do not want to replicate the success of last year’s team. They plan to make this year their own.
“This is a new team,” Chandler coach Jonathan Rother said. “The guys who stayed are unbelievable captains and role models to our younger. Our juniors and sophomores, they look up to them.
“Their leadership has not only helped them mature but has helped the younger guys as well. That’s how successful programs are built.”
Chandler has already been put through a rigorous test to start the season. The Wolves played four games in four days, two of which against district rivals Basha — an up-and-coming program that appears primed to make a run toward the 6A title — and Perry, a perennial power.
Kelly was held out of the Wolves’ game against Perry on Jan. 26, which they subsequently lost. Kelly’s floor general attributes put the rest of the Chandler players at ease in dire situations. Against Valley Vista before his injury, he would consistently lead his team back from a deficit in the final two quarters of play.
Even after his spill, he returned and helped Chandler go on a run to secure the victory.
“My teammates, they knew I was hurt,” Kelly said. “But I had to get back in there and be there for my team and to lead by example. In practice, I try to be the first one in there and encourage everyone to play hard. But I really try to help the younger guys who don’t have a lot of varsity experience.
“I just teach them the little things I’ve learned in my four years that will help, for sure.”
Along with Kelly, Chandler is less by 6-foot-5 power forward Elijah Johnson, who had the game-winning bucket and foul shot over Valley Vista. Nicholas Riley, a 6-foot-9 forward, is only other senior on a roster filled with youth.
Despite several other players with varsity experience in lower grade levels, Rother still said he considers this year’s team to be inexperienced due to lack of playing time in past years. But they’re all quickly adjusting to the speed at the varsity level thanks in part to Kelly.
“He’s a four-year varsity player,” Rother said. “He’s the soul of our team and he’s waited a long time for that opportunity.”
Chandler is one of several programs that were caught off guard by the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s initial decision to cancel winter sports. Then, four days later, it was back on.
The Wolves continued to practice in the event of a reversal. That proved to be beneficial as they only had a short time to adjust to new guidelines set forth by the AIA for the season to continue, including wearing masks.
The game overall feels somewhat normal for players, as they get to compete at a high level in the sport they love. But there is still some adjusting that needs to be made with masks and an overall less thrilling environment with limited fans in attendance.
Those adjustments will be made over time as the season progresses. In the meantime, Chandler hopes to lean upon players like Kelly to lead it back to the 6A playoffs and make yet another deep run.
“Every game is a blessing,” Kelly said. “(The AIA) could have taken it away from us. Wearing this jersey, it’s special to me. I’m happy I get to keep doing it.”