The success the Dobson High School girls basketball team endured this season has been in the making since Henry Bribiescas took over the team as head coach in 2016.
The Mustangs, who reached the semifinal round of the 6A Conference playoffs this season for the first time since 2015, did so in dramatic fashion. A potential game-tying shot from district-rival and No. 5 overall seed in this year’s tournament Westwood fell short of the basket in the quarterfinal round on Friday, March 12.
As the celebration ensued by fans and players of the fourth-ranked Dobson team, Bribiescas had to take a moment to catch his breath and reflect on the team’s special season up to that point.
“It has been a weird year, it’s been a short year,” Bribiescas said. “For me, it’s been a 10-year drought since I’ve been to semifinals and this is my third different school. I’m proud of my girls, this is all for them.”
Dobson moved on to the semifinals and faced top-ranked Hamilton Wednesday, March 17. The Mustangs ultimately fell to the Huskies, ending their season.
But the team, led by senior guards Rachel Early and Jaden Leslie, set a strong foundation moving forward for the younger girls. And they did so during a year in which they were nearly derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic throughout the offseason and were close to being kept off the court altogether.
“We went through COVID in December,” Bribiescas said. “It kept us off the court. We had five players at practice for a week or two and had to quarantine, it wasn’t fun. I was worried whether we would be able to get this team together and they’ve exceeded my expectations.”
Dobson struggled in the offseason to get its entire team together for workouts. Injuries followed by players having to quarantine due to contact tracing often left the team with just five girls in practice at a time.
In December, when they were close to being able to scrimmage against one another and simulate five-on-five action on the court, the team was forced into quarantine due to a positive case of COVID-19 in the program. Then came the back-and-forth from the Arizona Interscholastic Association, which delayed the winter sports season twice before voting to cancel the season altogether.
Four days later, though, the season was back on and Dobson — still limited in numbers for non-virus-related reasons — had just a couple of days to prepare for its season opener. As they did all throughout the fall semester, they battled through adversity and started the season on five-game winning streak that ultimately led to just two losses in the regular season — Westwood and Mesa.
“This year, for us, it was all about seeing how far we could push each other and how far we could go,” Early said. “Our sophomore year we had the play-in game and then last year we lost in the first round. So to get to this point as seniors, it means everything.”
Dobson’s success on the court can be directly linked to the team’s ability to shoot from anywhere on the floor.
Early, a shifty point guard, has the ability to dribble past any defender and create open shots for herself or her teammates. Leslie, who also runs point at times, is able to power her way into the lane and drive to the basket. Both girls also have the range to quickly shrink an opponent’s lead or help Dobson pull away from competition.
Facing an eight-point deficit in the second half against Westwood, Dobson found a rhythm on the offensive end of the floor and forced contested shots on defense. That allowed Leslie to catch fire from three-point range, which quickly helped Dobson get back into the contest and ultimately take the lead and win.
“I told myself that wasn’t going to be the last game of my high school career,” Leslie said. “I had a lot left in me. I got the confidence and the fire going. Even when we are down, we never quit. We all have trust in each other.”
Regardless of the outcome against Hamilton in the semifinals, both Early and Leslie realize they were able to accomplish something special with the rest of the seniors on the team.
Not only did they face adversity brought on by the pandemic head on, but they also created a strong foundation for the players coming through the program behind them. On varsity since they were sophomores, they aimed to take the program to a similar level as the 2015 class, which won a state title.
They also aimed to be in the conversation as one of the top teams in the state, something they accomplished this season. But most importantly, they wanted to create lasting relationships with one another and their teammates they can look back on and reflect about the time shared together, both good and bad.
“This team means everything to me,” Early said while fighting back tears. “This is all I ever wanted in basketball. Winning has always been so important but being with this team … everything we’ve endured the past three years and the last six months, it was worth it.”
Leslie embraced her teammate outside of the team locker room, fighting back her own tears.
“This team is something special,” Leslie said. “Looking right to left and knowing we each had each other’s backs, it makes me sad and happy at the same time.
“We’ve gone through so many adversities, it’s finally paid off. We’re one big family and we know we can count on every one of them.”