San Tan Charter’s basketball team knew there were challenges with facing Heritage Academy-Maricopa in the Canyon Athletic Association Division 3 boys basketball championship.
Heritage came into the contest Tuesday night at Talking Stick Resort Arena as the second-ranked team in the division and was the third-highest scoring team in the nation. The Heroes were led by a pair of sophomore guards both averaging more than 20 points per game.
San Tan coach Derek Freeman prepared each one of his guards to shut down Heritage’s sharp-shooters, and they did just that.
Led by senior guard Kahan Shoulders’ 22 points, the Roadrunners quickly built up a large lead and went on to defeat Heritage 97-56 to capture the program’s third basketball state title.
“I just feel so good for the kids, man,” Freeman said. “The boys that felt that pain from losing last year, we felt like we got a piece of the puzzle back. It’s amazing.”
San Tan showed its ability to get out and run in transition from the opening tip, as the Roadrunners quickly built to a double-digit lead just four minutes into the opening quarter.
The Roadrunners’ speed on both ends of the floor caught the Heroes off guard, as they struggled with ball control and were unable to find uncontested shots. Turnovers swung all momentum in favor of the Roadrunners, who capitalized.
Senior guard Elias Vargas quickly got into a rhythm, slashing through defenders for easy baskets at the glass. He was often involved in fast-break opportunities, most of which resulted in points for the 6-foot-2 senior.
Vargas scored 17 of his 19 total points in the first half, which helped San Tan jump out to a commanding 28-point lead after two quarters.
“This was mine, Kahan and the seniors’ last game together,” Vargas said. “We wanted to win a championship for us and for our school. That’s what was most important.”
Shoulders made his presence known on defense in the first half, recording four of his six total steals and five rebounds. The senior found a shooting rhythm in the second half, which was capped off with a three-pointer near the end of the fourth quarter.
One of four captains on the team, Shoulders came into the championship game hoping to help his team seek redemption after last season’s title-game loss. He was an integral part of San Tan’s 27-3 overall record this season and was awarded the game’s Most Valuable Player Award for his 22 points, seven assists, six steals and six rebounds.
“I had to come out here and perform well for my team,” Shoulders said. “We came up short last year and that was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had. I wanted to make sure I did whatever I could to help my team win the championship.
“This feels great, and it’s well deserved.”
Shoulders and Vargas were two of eight total players to record points for San Tan in the championship game. Five of those players scored 10 or more points.
Junior guard Demetrus Johnson scored four points early on in the game, but his impact was felt in other ways.
The 5-foot-10 Johnson leads the team in assists and is No. 4 overall in the state. Along with his four rebounds, he recorded a team-high 8 assists in the Roadrunners’ win. Johnson shrugged off his low point total, explaining that to him, points don’t matter.
“My goal is to get everyone the ball before I even think about scoring myself,” Johnson said. “Just seeing everyone scoring like they were, it made my job easier to distribute the ball.”
Despite 26 points from sophomore guard Logan Porter, 12 points from sophomore guard Josh Deakyne and 11 points from sophomore forward Malik Charles, Heritage was unable to find its way back into the game.
It was a complete team performance for San Tan in its state-championship win. Something that Freeman says isn’t uncommon for his program. The players all share a special bond that has been molded thanks to the countless hours spent with one another both in and outside of the gym at the school’s Gilbert campus.
Freeman said he will enjoy the win then look for the next challenge, which involves helping get all of his seniors to the next level.
“For me it’s about what schools I can get these seniors to,” Freeman said. “There’s a lot of four years that would benefit from having some of these guys on their team. The game has done so much for me as far as networking, family, all of the benefactors of that I’m trying to use to help them.”
Despite the loss of several senior starters, including Shoulders and Vargas, Freeman believes this year’s team set a strong foundation for the program’s future. One that will benefit them going forward as they make the move to the Arizona Interscholastic Association next season to compete in the 2A Conference.
The move means more teams, a potential for tougher competition and a lot of travel. But it’s a challenge the Roadrunners believe they’re ready for, especially with three CAA championships under their belt.
“We are looking at the AIA like a pack of hungry wolves,” Freeman said. “We are ready to go. We are ready for new challenges, tournaments, hopefully 5A and 6A teams let us play them to test ourselves. We are ready for all of that.”