Mesa High School’s boys basketball team is on the verge of one of its best seasons in program history, as the Jackrabbits currently find themselves near the top of the 6A Conference standings.
Wrapping up the regular season last Thursday against district-rival Skyline, Mesa now enters the 6A tournament as the two-seed and is guaranteed at least three home playoff games if it is able to advance to the semifinal round. Should head coach Scott Stansberry’s team navigate through the tournament field and make it to the championship game – as the Jackrabbits have emerged as one of the favorites to do – it will be the program’s first trip to the title game since 2016, when current Northern Arizona University basketball coach Shane Burcar led the program to its last championship.
As it stands, the Jackrabbits are in position to finish with its best overall record for the first time since 1950.
“This team is special,” Stansberry said. “They’re fun to watch. I give them some freedom on offense, and they trust each other, and I trust them. That’s one of the biggest things with this team is the trust factor.
“We trust them as coaches, and they trust us as players. When you love the game like they do you have a lot of fun.”
Trusting in one another has been key to Mesa’s success this season.
Having taken over for Burcar in 2018, Stansberry inherited many players that had become accustomed to the way the program was ran under the former coach. While the Jackrabbits still had success, this year’s team is truly a product of Stansberry by itself. That alone has made what the team has accomplished this year rewarding in itself.
But when you factor in the adversity due to the ongoing pandemic, with few fans allowed most of the season, it has brought the team closer together.
“We have really good chemistry together,” Mesa senior guard Steven Cervantes said. “We are just well-bonded together and everything just kind of works. We had a lot of practices and not a lot of time off and we just hung out with each other.”
Mesa’s only loss this season came against 5A power Gilbert on Jan. 27 – the fourth game of the pandemic-delayed and shortened season. Since then, Mesa has gone on to dominate most of its competition.
The Jackrabbits narrowly escaped a tough Mountain View team before edging Hamilton. A missed buzzer-beater by Basha allowed the Jackrabbits to carry momentum from that win on to Sunnyslope, the top-ranked team in 6A.
An underdog through and through, Mesa forced overtime with the Vikings before walking off Sunnyslope’s floor with a two-point victory, solidifying itself as a championship contender with strong defensive play and a little bit of flare on offense.
“This team is different,” senior forward Tanner Crawford said. Cervantes chimed in with “dunk city over here,” which brought laughs from both seniors.
Similar to the way Florida Gulf Coast’s men’s basketball team took the NCAA Tournament by storm in 2013 and earned the moniker “dunk city” for its aerial assault on opponents, Mesa has done the same in the 6A Conference.
On nearly every fast-break opportunity one of Mesa’s ball handlers is looking for Crawford. Often times, he puts himself into position just behind and on the other side of the basket to one of his teammates, allowing for a perfect alley-oop opportunity. But the 6-foot-7 forward also knows how to run the floor and create space on the offensive end.
Against Shadow Ridge on Feb. 25, he found himself on the receiving end of passes inside the paint, which he muscled his way into an emphatic dunk that forced the small crowd of parents and some extended family to their feet.
Crawford takes pride in his ability on the offensive end to create mismatches and to have fun overall. But when needed, he is also able to guard some of the top big men in the state and limit production an opponent’s production on the defensive end of the court.
“I’ve played this game for a long time and the post has always been my thing,” Crawford said. “I take pride in it. I’ve always been the tallest in the group and you can’t train height so you might as well use it to your advantage.”
No matter how the playoffs transpire for Mesa, both Cervantes and Crawford admit their senior season has been one they will remember for a while. As they have all season, they plan to take things one day at a time in pursuit of the 6A championship.
“We need to take it one game at a time,” Stansberry said. “Me and my coaches, we feel we do a great job scouting our opponents and putting the boys in position to win. Once brackets are released and whatever seed we are, whoever we are playing, we’ll worry about that team.
“Hopefully at the end of everything we are preparing for one last game for that gold ball.”