Candice Gonzales relishes practice more than games these days.
Most coaches have similar sentiments because it’s when they get to work with the team, improve and tweak if need be between tip-offs.
But it is different for Gonzales and the Mesquite girls basketball team this season. The Wildcats were dropped down a classification by the AIA a year after making the championship game in the state’s biggest division. They have no opportunity to petition their way back to the 6A Conference.
It means that most days, practice is the true challenge rather than game days.
“This is when we push them and really unleash the beast,” she said at the end of a practice. “We put them in positions where they have to work and played hard the entire time. We have to do it here because we try to be respectful in games and keep it from getting out of hand.”
Mesquite (24-1) has been so dominating against 5A Conference opponents heading into the final three games of the regular season that one recent opponent considered forfeiting rather than making the trip to Mesquite. They played anyway after the athletic directors talked things out leading up to the second meeting.
“We know what we want to accomplish; play team basketball night in and night out,” Gonzales said. “Sometimes, we are limited in what we can do out of respect for the other team.
“I feel bad for our girls. It’s hard on them because they don’t get a chance to show what they can do. But we are getting accustomed to it.”
The Wildcats, whose only loss came against 4A power Seton Catholic, have won 19 straight entering this week’s action. They had an impressive showing at the Nike Tournament of Champions against out-of-state opponents, and with wins over 6A teams like Valley Vista and Xavier.
The dominance has come against Arizona teams, especially against San Tan Region foes, since the start of the year.
The average margin of victory—minus the loss to Seton and the four wins against out-of-state teams in the Nike tournament—has been 52.6 points through Tuesday. They’ve scored 99 points or more five times, with the largest margin of victory being 91 points—102-11 at Vista Grande.
“It’s been hard because we have had to play down to the competition level at times,” said junior guard Shaylee Gonzales, the coach’s daughter. “We can’t play at our best for the entire game most of the time out of respect.”
It means Coach Gonzales has to balance keeping the Wildcats game-ready while keeping in mind there could be backlash for hammering a team. There will come a time when Mesquite has to play an intense 32 minutes, but in the meantime a big win could cause of rift or embarrass another group of girls.
It’s long been a debate in sports all across the landscape—does the dominant coach or team have any responsibility when it comes to lopsided scores, or is that already taken care of by the running clock rule (the clock doesn’t stop if the lead reaches 30 points in the fourth quarter)? Or is up to the lesser team to compete as hard as it can and know that stepping on the court in a high school game means the opposition is going to do its best to win?
The Wildcats have done their best to balance it by not pressing, passing five times before trying to score and sitting the starting five at various points in the game.
“I manage their minutes, but it is hard because I feel we got where we are in the game because of them. It is only fair that they get minutes, too,” Gonzales said.
“I may play them for a minute and half in the fourth quarter, but they are definitely not playing the minutes they deserve to play.”
Even so, they are making the most of it. Gonzales averages 6.3 assists, 4.9 rebounds, and 5.8 steals, and fellow junior guard Lindsey Vanallen averages 3.3 assists and 3.3 steals, and they both lead the way in scoring at 19.0 and 16.3 points a game, respectively. Utah transfer Lauren Gustin has been a great addition, especially on the boards, as she averages 16.1 points and 12.8 rebounds.
Hailey Walker (8.4 points), LonNae Johnson (5.7 points), Maggie Herberger (5.0) and Zyan Smith (4.5 points) also play a big role as Mesquite ranks ninth nationally in scoring (78.7) and fourth in assists (22.3).
“Everyone has done a good job of accepting their roles,” the elder Gonzales said. “Our other starters (Walker and Smith) have really come on lately, and contributing every way they can.”
The Wildcats, who only have one senior on the roster, know there are some critics out there, but they are only focused on winning the school’s second team state title and first for a girls team of any kind.
They are even more driven after walking off the court about 11 months ago as state runners-up. Margin of victory at this point doesn’t matter as long as a victory is the outcome.
“You never know what’s going to happen step on the court,” Vanallen said. “We play as hard as we can as a team. We were so close last year, and it’s a feeling we don’t want to have again. Putting a banner up (in the gym) would be the best thing in the world. That’s why we practice so hard every day.”
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