James Capriotti sat in a meeting in 2015 and listened as former Mesa district basketball coaches told him he would never win at Skyline.
Capriotti, who had just been hired to take over the Coyotes’ basketball program, stayed silent, offering only a smile to the those doubting him and the program.
“I thought, ‘they don’t know me,’” Capriotti said. “I knew we could turn this program around. My first year was a rocky year but after that first year we built with young guys and got rolling.”
Today, Capriotti has transformed a Skyline program that hadn’t ever been to a postseason tournament before his arrival into a state title contender. The dramatic rise from doorstep to dominance came as a shock to many around the state. But not for Capriotti and his players.
The senior class knew how good they could be when they enrolled at Skyline as freshmen. Combine their talents with that of the juniors and sophomores on the varsity roster and it’s become a perfect mix.
“They all bought in to a defense first philosophy,” Capriotti said. “They also bought in to a team atmosphere in sharing the basketball. Even though Dayton (Harris) is our Division I player and averages 16 points per game, our next one averages 14, then 13 and then 12. They all share the ball well.”
Harris, Skyline’s senior point guard who will be heading to NAU next fall, has played a lead role in forming the chemistry the team shares today.
Harris and senior forward Tanner Poeschl have played together since elementary school, competing on the same AAU team and reuniting when Poeschl transferred to Skyline as a junior. The duo have a sense of where they will be on the court at all times.
It’s common to see Harris at 6-foot-2 slice and dice his way around defenders and into the lane using his ball-handling skills, only to find the 6-foot-6 Poeschl awaiting his pass for the easy basket near the rim.
It also goes the other way. A pass to Poeschl in the post often creates a path for Harris to cut to the basket or step back for an open jump shot. That has become one of the key reasons for each player to average over 12 points per game this season. Harris, specifically, leads the team averaging 16.6 points per game while Poeschl tacks on 7.1 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game to his stat line.
“Me and Dayton have been playing together for a long time, basically our whole life,” Poeschl said. “We are both smart and know how to distribute the ball when we need to. We can both kick it out or go up for a shot ourselves. I think it helps the rest of the team.”
Along with Harris and Poeschl, sophomore Dominic Capriotti and junior Patrick Herrera both average 12 or more points per game. Tyree Taylor, a senior forward, averages 9.1.
“I love getting my teammates going, getting them their shots,” said Harris, who averages a team-high 9.5 assists per game. “I love being able to bring a source of energy to the team.”
As close as each player from the Skyline program was entering the 2019-20 campaign, they’re bond has only grown stronger in light of recent events.
Early in the season on Nov. 30, Skyline faced a Cesar Chavez team also poised to make a run at the title this season. The game, which took place at Central High School during the Phoenix Union High School District Coyote Classic Championship Game, was exactly what spectators expected it to be, a fast-paced, heated matchup between two of the top teams in the state.
However, emotions seemed to get the best of both teams following Skyline’s win. As players went through the handshake line, a punch was thrown by a player from Cesar Chavez. The blow sparked a brawl that quickly moved to the stands nearby. Spectators got involved, some trying to separate the two teams and others getting in on the melee.
Eventually, the two teams were separated. But all players involved were suspended for a minimum of two games. Both Skyline and Cesar Chavez were also forced to forfeit the two teams next game.
“There was a lot of negative publicity on the incident and it’s unfortunate it happened,” Capriotti said. “It kind of strengthened us as a unit. We knew we were going to get through it and it would eventually die out.”
Despite suspensions to several starters, Skyline won both games they were forced to miss. Along with the forfeit, the Coyotes have lost just one game since.
“To be completely honest I feel like that whole incident was a blessing in disguise,” Harris said. “It really brought all of us together and we sort of rallied around that. We are better than ever now.”
Skyline entered the meat of its region schedule Jan. 7 with a win over Mesa, a team that has enough firepower to compete with the Coyotes for the East Valley title. Additional wins over region foes Red Mountain and Dobson has the Coyotes at 17-2 heading into Wednesday’s matchup with Cibola.
Even with one of the best records in the state, the Coyotes still found themselves at No. 9 in the Arizona Interscholastic Association rankings, which determines playoff seedings. But Skyline’s players aren’t letting a low ranking deter them from attempting to achieve their goal of winning a state title this season.
“At the end of the day, we know what we have and who we are and what we can do as a team,” Harris said. “Rank us wherever you want, we are going to come out as a team and compete every night.”