Campo Verde enjoying underdog role despite historic season

Jan. 24—There's something special brewing at Campo Verde High School inside the boys' basketball program.

Head coach Mark Martinez has his team playing an exciting brand of basketball, one that focuses on sharp shooting from the field and smothering defense on the other end.

His players play together, they play inspired and ultimately, they're playing to put Campo Verde on the map.

"This group is so close, they play for each other," Martinez said. "When they play for each other, it makes for a fun brand of basketball."

"It's nice to see Campo Verde up there in the rankings. It's a testament to these guys' hard work."

Just past the midway point of the basketball season is when the grind truly begins. Teams begin region play, with two — at minimum — games a week against region opponents. Many of which rivals.

Every game brings along a playoff-like atmosphere. This past Tuesday at Higley, both sides of the crowd made their presence felt during a close contest in the fourth quarter. They were loud, and at times rowdy.

But the Coyotes never cracked under pressure. They remained calm, stuck to the basics and ended up pulling away with free throws to beat the Knights.

"We've had a few close games so far and we'll talk about it," senior guard Isaiah Kai said. "We'll ask each other, 'Were you nervous at all?' And the answer is always no. We always feel we are going to win the game, even if we're down. We have so much confidence in ourselves, and I think that'll help us in region games and playoffs."

Kai's responsibility as a point guard is to keep his teammates calm, cool and collected in any situation. He has to do the same for himself, even when he's struggling.

Against Higley, Kai found himself on the wrong side of double teams. While he was able to dribble out of it at times, Higley forced turnovers. But he never panicked. He calmly got back on defense and set up for the next possession.

Like others on the team, Kai knows his role as a senior leader and starting point guard. He describes himself as a pass-first player, one that also averages a team-high 18.6 points per game. He trusts his teammates to find the bottom of the net.

But he's also not afraid to take open shots or drive to the rim.

"There will be games I've gotta to score," Kai said. "There're also games where I'm not hitting my shots so that's when I'll go try to get 10 assists per game. I just want to help my team win."

Along with Kai, three other Campo Verde starters average double digit points this season.

Justin Garcia is second on the team with 12.1 points per game, while Ty McDowell averages 11.7. Cohen Ferguson, a junior, averages 10.1 points per game.

Even when the stat line doesn't show it, Campo Verde also benefits from role players off the bench. Josh Campbell, a senior guard, provides a spark and is a threat from 3-point range. Camden Gundlach is a big-bodied forward that can wreak havoc in the paint, especially on defense.

Every player has a role, whether they're a veteran or fresh to the varsity roster. And there's no division. Their chemistry on the court extends off it, too.

"I think most of us have been together since elementary school or junior high," McDowell said. "We struggled a little bit our sophomore and junior years. But to see everything come full circle this year, it means a lot to us."

The win over Higley last Tuesday night was historic for Campo Verde. It was the Coyotes 16th of the season, which is the most in program history.

The program has won 15 games in a season twice before, once last year and another 2014-15. The players knew about the record. It was in the back of their minds while trying to climb out of a hole and hold off Higley.

Their ability to win a close game against a region rival, as well as blowout victories like they've had all season, shows what this team is capable of. It's also starting to reflect in the rankings, where the Coyotes have been among the top teams in the Open Division rankings all season.

They know more work has to be done before they celebrate the highest ranking in program history. They have to keep winning to stay there. But they admit the recognition feels good, even if they are still overlooked by bigger programs now chasing them.

"I love where we're at but I still don't think we have respect from everyone yet," McDowell said. "I feel like we're still under the radar. I like that underdog mentality."

Martinez is confident in his team's ability to finish strong this season. As long as they continue to play together as a cohesive unit, he believes they can compete with any team in the state.

It's a tall task to win out the rest of the way, but his players are ready for the challenge. They want to bring a title to Campo Verde, whether that be in the Open or 5A Conference.

"These guys have bought in to what we're trying to do," Martinez said. "We told them how good they were. I think they knew how good they were. But not I think other people are starting to recognize how well they play together."

Have an interesting story? Contact Zach Alvira at (480)898-5630 or zalvira@timespublications.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZachAlvira.