The Highland Hawks are currently in the midst of a breakout season.
After finishing 8-18 in head coach Todd Fazio’s first year at Highland, the Hawks are in the midst of a magical season as they have already beaten the likes of 6A contenders Skyline, Perry and last year’s 5A champion Gilbert and are currently 15-7 with three games left to play. Fazio acknowledged that while it may have been hard for those outside of the program to foresee this type turnaround, he had no doubt in his mind that this was coming.
“Last year everything was new. Those seniors that played last year they didn’t choose me as their coach. I thought they did a great job,” Fazio said. “Sometimes it just takes a year for them to get comfortable in what we do.”
Last year, the Hawks were senior heavy with seven on their roster. After graduating seven seniors most teams would take a step back. Not the Hawks.
In the second year under Fazio the team has gotten off to a hot start by embracing his teachings of defense and by contributing as much as they can, whenever they can.
“We have guys who are committed defensively and feel more comfortable with what we do,” Fazio said. “We’ve had several games where our bench, guys coming off the bench saved us. We’ve had several times where guys that came off the bench led us in scoring. I think that’s the strength of our team is we don’t rely on one, two or three guys. We have a lot of guys that are capable.”
Overall, the Hawks’ combination of senior leaders, up-and-coming underclassmen and role players that will do anything for the team is what makes them one of the most dangerous teams in the state.
Senior Tanner Crandall is one of those leaders that has fully committed to Fazio’s teachings. During the football season he tore his left labrum, fought through the injury and ultimately returned for his team after a couple of weeks. At the beginning of this basketball season he injured it even further, but he refuses to quit on his team.
“I just love the game. I played my whole life and I just feel like coming back if I didn’t do it, I would’ve regretted it,” Crandall said. “If I’m strong enough to play and strong enough to help out my team then I figured I might as well.”
This dedication to the team has not gone unnoticed by Fazio. He believes having a player set the tone like Crandall has inspired his team to play with a sense of grit.
“If you just talk to his dad, you’ll see where his toughness came from,” Fazio said. “He’s a tough kid and I think those other guys see that. They see that he’s playing with a torn labrum, he’s waiting to have surgery at the end of the season, he’s willing to do that in order to play.”
Crandall’s play has helped sharp-shooting sophomore AJ Riggs take his game to the next level. Fazio said that at the beginning of the year the transition from junior varsity to varsity was hard for Riggs, but with Crandall’s help and leadership he has settled down as the season has progressed.
“AJ can shoot the ball. At the beginning of the season his percentage was down a little bit,” Fazio said. “Being able to play to the expectations of what we expect him to do defensively and not take plays off and be able to come back on offense and shoot. Now he’s kind of getting used to the flow of the game, the speed of the game and its shown in his performance the last few weeks.”
Lastly, one of these bench players that is not only capable, but willing to step up at any time is junior Jake Stitcher. Stitcher, or ‘Stitch,’ is the glue to the team according to Fazio.
“Stitch is really the heart and soul of our team. Everyday he’s bringing the juice,” Fazio said. We rely on him a lot defensively and also to bring us energy. There’s been games where he hasn’t played and then like our last game, we couldn’t take him off the floor. He takes advantage of the time that he’s put in there and when he doesn’t play as much as he’d like you can’t see it reflect in his attitude. We’re lucky that he’s on our team.”
With only five games left in the regular season, the Hawks have put themselves in great position to receive one of the higher seeds in the tournament, but Fazio is not thinking about that quite just yet. He considers the 6A Central Region to be the best region in all of Arizona basketball and is concerned with finishing region play on a strong note.
“Our schedule is brutal,” Fazio said. “We have the toughest schedule in 6A right now. We know we have to come with it every night.”
“We like where we’re at right now, but we have a long way to go.”